HVX-200A: A First Look
by Barry Green

People have been looking for an updated HVX for several months, and many people had a long wishlist of wanted changes/updates. In a somewhat unexpected set of announcements, Panasonic has both updated the HVX, and introduced a new model, the HPX170. The HPX170 appears to incorporate several changes, whereas with the HVX200A Panasonic has only updated the chipset. It seems like the camera that most were expecting to be the HVX200A is, instead, the HPX170. The HVX200A is largely unchanged from the original, except for the new CCD block.

So -- what does this new 1/3" CCD chipset do? The claimed benefits are threefold: increased sensitivity, reduced noise, and improved resistance to smear. While this isn't a major makeover of the camera as many were expecting (again, look to the HPX170 for more substantial changes), the new chipset does address the two things HVX owners seem to want most: better low light performance and reduced noise.

I got a chance to put an HVX200A up against my original HVX200 to compare the two. As far as functionality and features, they are the same product, so I focused my attention on the relative performance of the chipsets.

First test was for sensitivity: what type of improved sensitivity does the new chipset provide? And how does it compare to the reigning class leader, the Sony EX1? I previously tested the EX1 against an HVX200 side by side, and found that at identical gamma and identical exposure levels, in 1080P mode, the EX1 was exactly ½ stop faster than the HVX200. I was curious to find out if the HVX200A closes that performance gap.

Closes it, it does. Closes completely, in fact &em; the HVX200A is exactly ½ stop faster than the HVX200. Sweet! A half-stop isn't night and day, but it's enough to take the 320-ISO HVX200 and turn it into a 500-ISO HVX200A (when using HD NORM gamma).

Okay, second criteria to compare is in noise. All the 1/3" HD camcorders are noisy little beasts (excepting the Sony models, which seem to have much cleaner noise performance.) In our prior shootouts we found that the HVX, XHA1, and HD100 all had roughly comparable noise levels, with the HVX having more chroma noise and the others having more luma noise, but in general they were all basically similar. The Sony EX1, on the other hand, is very clean, quite noiseless in many circumstances. I found that a Sony EX1 could be pushed to 6dB of gain before appearing to have a similar noise level as the HVX200; 9dB of gain made it a little noisier, so the real-world difference was probably about 7.5dB cleaner than the HVX200. So, improving the noise performance of the HVX200A would certainly be a good thing. They said they did. So, how does it look?

Judge for yourself. I've posted a video of the comparative noise performance of these two cameras (HVX200 vs. HVX200A). Now, to preface what you're about to see, please understand how I tested this: I cranked each of these cameras to be as nastily noisy as I can get them. I pushed them as hard as possible to make as much noise as I could get. I maxxed out the detail level and the v-detail levels to +7, I dropped the coring to -2, and I put the gamma into cinelike-D (the noisiest of the gamma curves). You'll never find noisier images from an HVX camera than what I'm about to show you. I then pointed the two cameras at a grayscale chart, so we could see the noise at various IRE levels. Finally, I split-screened the results, and I then magnified the images by a factor of 20x. So when you see these images, please recognize that they are far noisier than you'll ever see in any real-world situation. But I did this in this way because I wanted to isolate the noise and exaggerate it and magnify it in order to be able to compare it at the extreme levels. Okay, so now you know what you're looking for... here's the video:

HVX200A vs. HVX200 Noise Performance

Suffice to say, I was shocked at how incredibly clean the HVX200A looked in comparison to my beloved HVX200. We always knew the HVX200 had some noise, but it was all part of the texture of the image. The HVX200A, however, looks practically noiseless in the upper range, with greatly reduced noise in the darker areas too. This is substantial improvement. Huge improvement. Is it on par with the EX1? Maybe, I'd have to test them side-by-side to know for sure, but it's certainly much closer, and is way cleaner than the other cameras from the other manufacturers. Combining better sensitivity with reduced noise results in much cleaner and better low-light performance.

One thing I did notice is that the color accuracy on the HVX200A seems more accurate than the color rendition on the HVX200. Those charts were shot at the identical same time, under the identical same lighting, using the 5600K preset white balance setting. They should have looked identical, but the 200A shot looks more accurate and overall just more pleasing. Either the white balance preset is more finely tuned, or the glass is improved, or the chipset just delivers a more accurate image; I don't know exactly, but I like it. The HVX200A is definitely delivering a more accurate picture.

One final distinction between the two is in the field of view of the lenses. The focal length of the lenses remains the same (4.2mm to 55mm) but on the HVX200A, everything's a little bit wider-angle. The only way this could happen that I could think of, is that the HVX200A's new chipset must be using slightly bigger chips. The larger the chips, the larger the field of view, and that's what we're seeing here. (Also, the larger the chips the better the sensitivity and the noise performance, all other things being equal, so perhaps this all goes hand-in-hand.)

I didn't notice any improved sharpness difference, so I think the main differences can be attributed to noise performance, field of view, sensitivity, and smear. I didn't test the smear differences (should have, but just didn't get to it).

Overall, a nice improvement. Would I trade my HVX200 in for an HVX200A? In a heartbeat. Does this update position the HVX200A as a more direct competitor to the EX1? Well, frankly, it certainly improves its position &em; it now matches the EX1 for 1080P sensitivity, it probably comes very close to matching the EX1 for noise, and it's a whole lot less expensive. There are still many differences between those two cameras, but if you wanted an HVX but were tempted by the EX1's low light performance and low-noise imagery, the HVX200A is now much more competitive on those fronts (still not as sharp, but then again the HVX200A doesn't have any of the rolling-shutter issues or build quality issues that affect the EX1, and it's $1400 cheaper).

Overall the HVX200A represents a small update to the HVX line, but the things that it updates are some of the most important things for imagemakers: they all improve the image you can get.

Summary of HVX200A changes from HVX200:

1. Improved low light performance, from 320 ISO to 500 ISO

2. Significantly reduced noise

3. Better color rendition, at least from the 5600 preset

4. Wider field of view (30.5mm equivalent, instead of 32.5mm equivalent)

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