HVX200 Unleashed!
by Jarred Land and Barry Green
The HVX200 is here, and it’s even better than we were hoping!

Panasonic has announced the AG-HVX200, and it’s obvious that they’re playing for keeps. They want to win it all. With this camera they’ve combined some of the most-sought-after features of the two most popular digital cinematography cameras, the $70,000 VariCam and the $100,000 CineAlta, kept all that was great about the DVX100, and packaged it into a $5,995 wunderkam that does it all!

To start, the HVX200 becomes only the second camera in Panasonic’s lineup to employ true variable frame rates! The “Vari” in VariCam comes from the fact that the VariCam can record at almost any frame rate from 4 to 60 fps, and the HVX is similar in that it provides a wide variety of frame rates to choose from. When shooting high-definition video at 720p, it can record at 24P, 30P, and 60P, but also at a wide variety of frame rates in-between. This means the camera is capable of recording superb frame-accurate film-style slow motion, better slow-mo than any other video camera on the market (excepting only the VariCam)!

In addition to the incredibly flexible 720p recording mode, the HVX200 becomes the first camera under $100,000 to record high-definition 1080/24p. Previously, if you wanted to record 1080/24p, you had to use Sony’s CineAlta, a $100,000 digital cinema camera used for theatrical feature films such as “Star Wars Episode II” and “Once Upon a Time in Mexico”. Panasonic has now lowered the bar of entry for 1080/24p from $100,000 down to under $6,000. And not only 24P, but also 30P and 60i, just like the CineAlta.

Offering 1080/24p, one could be forgiven for nicknaming this camera the “MiniAlta”, but that wouldn’t do justice to its variable frame rate capability (inherited from the VariCam). So I think I’ll nickname it the “VariAlta”.

Okay, frame rates and resolution aside, what is this camera like? It’s basically everything we’ve come to know and love about the DVX100, only “more”. It looks very much like the DVX100 but physically bigger, and it retains all the best features of the DVX100 (including CineGamma, CineMatrix, the Scene File Dial, the true manual zoom, the precise manual focus, the excellent stock wide-angle 4.5mm Leica lens, and the best audio subsystem on any prosumer camera). It even uses the same batteries. But to this great pedigree it adds more: a longer zoom range (13x, as opposed to 10x on the DVX, for a focal range of 4.5mm to 58.5mm, which will help provide for shallower depth of field); 16:9 CCDs for native 16:9 recording in either high-definition or standard-def; more recording formats (in addition to DV, there’s DVCPRO50 and DVCPRO-HD); more recording mediums (in addition to miniDV tape, it offers the revolutionary P2 solid-state memory cards, and may also record or transfer footage directly to optional external 1394 hard disks); more audio (it can record up to four tracks of audio at once); more remote control capability (in addition to the familiar remote zoom jack, the HVX provides for remote focus and -- get this -- remote iris control!), more feedback (in addition to the familiar distance scale for focusing, it now reads out the focus distance in feet & meters); and there are other bonuses in store as well.

So, how does it handle?
If you’re familiar with the DVX100 series of cameras, you’ll feel right at home. The HVX has all the same familiar manual controls and switches, and uses a familiar menu system. In short, this is an excellent-handling camera! It fits well in the hands, and you may not even notice just how big it is until you see it side-by-side with a DVX100 – it really is quite a bit larger, although it’s even more ergonomically designed. For example, the support pillar that attaches the handle to the body is now curved – it angles away from the body. This means that when you’re looking through the viewfinder with your right eye, your left eye is free to see the entire frame in front of you: it’s no longer blocked by the vertical pillar. Other changes are small but smack-yourself-in-the-forehead simple, such as the audio channel control switches. Panasonic’s combined the phantom power switch and the line/mic switch into one comprehensive switch, making the camera cleaner, leaner, yet providing all the same functionality.

One of the nicest ergonomic changes they made was with the higher viewfinder. The viewfinder is placed higher on the body of the camera. It may look big, but it has a huge impact on user comfort. When handholding the camera, with your eye pressed to the viewfinder, you'll find that your elbow is nicely nestled in to your body, making for much more comfortable operation for longer periods of shooting.

And while they were at it, check out what they did with the flip-out LCD screen. The LCD is a 3.5” 4:3 LCD panel. Why 4:3? We asked ourselves that same question – 4:3 seems like an awfully silly choice to go with, on a native 16:9 camcorder, doesn’t it? And then you actually use it, and it all MAKES SENSE! The camera displays the full 16:9 image on the LCD, and uses the area above and below the image (the “letterbox” area) for all the stats, readouts, and displays. This means no cluttered image! No more trying to “guess” what’s hidden under the timecode display, or what’s being covered up by the aperture display, etc. Sheer genius – and greatly improves the usability of the camera. Now you can have full monitoring of all camera functions, and full picture display, simultaneously. Why didn’t anyone think of this before? Add to that full underscan (for viewing the entire frame edge to edge) and a Focus Assist function (for easy, precise, pixel-accurate focus even without an external high-def monitor, which is available during standby AND recording), and peaking and zebras available simultaneously, and you’ve got one incredible camera experience. And the 4:3 shape is perfect for displaying the thumbnail previews of all the clips when previewing P2 card content.

As for the shooting experience, Panasonic’s re-organized the buttons somewhat. The Mode Check button now lives outside the LCD panel, making it accessible even if the LCD’s closed (thanks!) And the Color Bars now have their own button, instead of taking up one of the User buttons. The User buttons have a very familiar set of choices, including Spotlight, Backlight, Black Fade, White Fade, and 18dB Gain, and some new choices including ATW Lock, Shot Mark, TC Stamp and Slot Sel. And where the DVX offered an “auto” button for putting the camera in fully-automatic mode, the HVX improves on that by turning the button into a hard sliding switch. No more accidental “auto”!

For workflow, there’s now a shot marker button that allows you to mark a take as “good” right in the field, so when you’re reviewing the P2 clips you’ll see at a glance which takes you thought were the best when shooting. The focus ring is huge now, and located right up by the front of the lens. And the LCD panel’s been given a wider range of travel, so it seems a lot sturdier and more rugged. Another nice integration is the slow shutter speeds – the camera the same shutter range as the DVX, from ¼ up to 1/2000 (depending on what mode you’re shooting in) but the convoluted path to access the slow shutter speeds on the DVX now yields to complete seamless integration in the HVX. Of course, the HVX also includes the excellent Syncro-Scan shutter speed system, giving you access to nearly any shutter speed from 1/24.0 to 1/250.0 in 24p, 1/30.1 to 1/250.0 in 30p, or 1/60.3 to 1/250.0 in 60i or 60p.

Panasonic is listening.
On DVXUser.com, we kept a comprehensive list of new features that we wanted to see in a revised camera – and boy, did they listen. Other than pie-in-the-sky requests, it looks like Panasonic is delivering almost every item we requested. We’re incredibly impressed that Panasonic is obviously listening to its users, and going out of its way to design a product that does exactly what we want. For example, now there's an SD memory card slot. Now you can save your scene file settings to a memory card, re-load them from card, or transfer your scene file settings to other cameras. Setting multiple cameras to match is now a much, much simpler process. Kudos to you, Panasonic!

P2 Recording:
Thousands of pages have been written on the merits and costs of recording to P2 media. Having worked with P2, all I can say is “you’re in for a treat.” P2 changes the way you work. Moving from tape-based linear acquisition to random-access nonlinear acquisition is as big a revolutionary change as moving from tape-based linear editing to disk-based non-linear editing. With the introduction of P2, and with Sony’s introduction of XDCAM, and with JVC implementing onboard hard disk recording, tape’s days are coming to a close. Once you’ve worked with random-access P2, it’s very, very difficult to go back to the limitations that tape imposes. It’s like the old saying “you can’t keep them down on the farm after they’ve seen Paris.”

Panasonic’s making a major marketing push for P2, so we won’t spend much time in this article discussing it, other than to say that it’s absolutely a revolution. Furthermore, it’s the very nature of P2 that even allowed this camera to come into being, and to support the various frame rates, resolutions, and recording types that it does. A DVCPRO-HD tape deck costs over $25,000 by itself. By choosing to record to P2 instead of tape, Panasonic brings full-fledged DVCPRO-HD to a camera that costs less than $6,000. Brilliant. We recognize it’ll take some users a while to come around to the idea of recording to memory instead of physical tape, just like it surely took time for typewriter users to get used to the idea that their words lived “electronically” rather than on an actual physical piece of paper. But P2 is to tape as the word processor was to the typewriter: it’s out of the bag, and once you get a taste of it, there’s no going back.

Another great feature that's possible because of the P2 system is pre-record. The camera can be set to start recording *before* you press the record button! It automatically caches whatever the camera was looking at, so when you press the "record" button, it commits that buffered recording to memory, and continues recording from there -- very handy for times when you're whale-watching, for example, and the whale breaches, catching you unaware. While other shooters are scrambling to press their record button, the HVX will already have captured the shot! Pre-record buffering provides for 3 seconds in high-def mode, and 7 seconds in standard-def. Perhaps even more interesting is the "loop record" mode, which lets you pre-record for the entire duration of a P2 card. It's like pre-record buffering, but it allows you to buffer the entire contents of the card, less the duration of your actual recording. I know that sounds confusing, so let me explain by example: if you had an 8gb card installed, and were recording 720/24p, you'd have a total record time of 20 minutes possible. The loop record mode will record continuously, buffering up to the last 20 minutes. If you then press "record", it will start recording from that moment forward, and will continue to record over the pre-recorded buffer. If you record five minutes of "live" video, on the card you'll have the prior 15 minutes plus the current five. If you instead record for 18 minutes, the card will hold the current 18 minutes plus the two minutes prior to when you pressed "record".

The camera can also do real-time downconversion from the P2 card to DV tape. Buttons on the back of the camera let you control dubbing from the card to the tape, converting from the high-definition DVCPRO-HD image to standard-definition DV, even preserving timecode. And, get this – you can shoot in 720p at variable frame rates, and downconvert that to DV, so you can get the great slow-motion and fast-motion capability even in standard-def! It can also dub footage from the P2 card directly to an iPod, or to an external USB hard disk.

The Choices
What an embarrassment of riches. At this time last year, there was exactly one low-priced high-definition camera on the market, the much-berated JVC HD1/HD10. Last July the Canon XL2 was introduced. Now, just 9 months later, we have the Sony FX1, the Sony Z1, the JVC HD100, and now the Panasonic HVX200 to choose from. How do they stack up?

Any comparison is ultimately meaningless until we get the footage to compare. But that doesn’t mean people won’t spend months debating statistics, so we’ll throw in some info, (or, “fuel for the fire”):

Recording format:
The Sony FX1 and Z1 use HDV at 1080i. The JVC uses ProHD at 720p. ProHD is basically HDV, except with an extension to allow 24p recording. The Panasonic uses DVCPRO-HD. HDV is a brand new format, whereas DVCPRO-HD has been around for at least four years. ProHD is even newer than HDV.

There are numerous specifications and “number arguments” that people can get into. We prefer to ignore that, and instead focus on the actual ramifications involved with each camera. We’ll wait for a shipping camera to perform a three-camera review, side-by-side, so we can find out what “really matters,” i.e. the footage, versus arguing statistics and specifications.

Uncompressed Output:
All three cameras offer uncompressed high-definition output on the component video outputs. The Sony offers 1080i, the JVC offers 720/60p (which can also be cross-converted to 1080/60i), and the Panasonic offers native 1080/60i and 720/60p (as well as the ability to cross-convert 720/60p over to 1080/60i). For uncompressed output the Sony is the most limited, the Panasonic the most flexible, but recording uncompressed output is no trivial task: it requires the ability to capture and record approximately 166 megabytes per second, or about 70x as much data as gets stored on an HDV tape. For the vast majority of users, uncompressed output is likely to be completely irrelevant. For live studio switching it could be quite handy.

Frame Rates:
The Sony FX1 and Z1 shoot 1080i only. That means interlaced-only video, or “the video look”. They have some in-camera modes to simulate progressive-scan for 25p or 30p at lower resolution, and a poor in-camera 24p simulation that results in unnatural motion rendition. The Sony interlaced footage can be processed in post to simulate 24p, and some very good programs exist to do that, but all require sacrificing resolution, and the end results will not match true 24hz progressive-scan.

The JVC HD100 shoots progressive only, at 24p or 30p. No provision is made for the “video look”, which would require 60p or 60i. It’s not clear why they didn’t provide for 60p recording, as 60p is supported by the HDV standard, but in our view it’s a huge mistake on their part not to include it. The HD100 can make filmlike footage at 24p, but won’t be able to shoot the “reality” look for reality TV, news, event coverage, etc. Very curious limitation. This means there will likely be many types of paying jobs that the JVC will not be able to be used on.

The HVX200 supports everything the other cameras do, and much more. It supports both 1080i and 720p, and also 1080p (utilizing 2:3 or 2:3:3:2 pulldown within the 1080i recording, similar to how the DVX and XL2 implement 24p and 30p). It supports many more frame rates, including 60p, as well as variable frame rates in the 720p mode. And using DVCPRO-HD instead of HDV means it can record twice as much color information, and doesn’t suffer from any MPEG motion artifacts, unlike the other two cameras. In addition, perhaps one of the most exciting and most underrated features is that the Panasonic also offers a low-compression (3.3:1) high-color-resolution standard-definition recording format, DVCPRO50. DVCPRO50 is approximately equivalent to Digital Betacam as a recording medium, and offers 4:2:2 color sampling and very mild compression, for exceptionally clean, rich standard-definition recording. (for more info on DVCPRO50, see pages 134-143 of the SMPTE/EBU paper at http://www.smpte.org/engineering_committees/pdf/tfrpt2w6.pdf). The HVX can record 24P and 30P in all modes, and 60i in all modes except high-def 720, where it instead records 60p.

The HDV format specifies that two tracks of audio (one stereo pair) are recorded in 16-bit 48Khz, and then compressed at a ratio of 4:1 using MPEG-1 Layer II audio compression. The Sony and the JVC both adhere to this specification, and as such, when shooting high-definition video, they can only offer compressed audio.

The Panasonic offers the ability to record four tracks of audio (or two stereo pairs) in 16-bit 48Khz quality, completely uncompressed. Considering the HVX’s predecessor (the DVX100) was consistently praised for its audio quality, it’s a fair bet to say that the HVX will match it, and providing two additional tracks puts the Panasonic squarely at the forefront. We’ll have to test the cameras to make sure they’re delivering “the goods”, but as far as specifications on paper go, the Panasonic is far ahead of the other cameras.

Lens/form factor:
The JVC HD100’s main claim to fame is that it sports an interchangeable lens, something neither the HVX nor the Sony cameras offer. The HD100’s lens choices are currently limited to two Fujinons, although a ½” bayonet mount adapter will be made available which will let you use ½” lenses. We wonder if JVC hasn’t totally stolen Canon’s thunder – what’s left for Canon to do with an “XL3”, now that JVC has made a (relatively) low-cost interchangeable-lens camera in the HDV format? Perhaps Canon will respond with a 1080i or 1080/24p version? That would be curious, seeing as HDV makes no provision for 24P, and JVC had to invent their own format (ProHD) to provide it. Maybe Canon will adopt ProHD?

Meanwhile, the Sony and Panasonic cameras all share a similar handheld form factor, as opposed to the JVC camera’s shoulder-mount form factor. The Sony sports a Carl Zeiss 12x lens, the Panasonic offers a Leica 13x lens. The Panasonic offers true mechanical manual zoom, whereas the Sony offers a servo-driven zoom with a simulated manual zoom ring.

Recording Medium:
The Sony offers recording to tape, and only to tape. The JVC offers recording to tape, and also an optional onboard hard disk recorder. Both cameras can also be fitted with an external FireStore HDV-compatible hard disk recorder, but that FireStore is not the type of device you would hand over to a client at the end of a shoot, it’s more for personal use and in-house recording.

The Panasonic offers miniDV tape for recording, and P2 memory cards for high-def (and standard-def DVCPRO25 and DVCPRO50) recording. It can also transfer files from the P2 card directly to an off-the-shelf USB 2.0 external hard disk, or to a potentially-forthcoming FireStore type of device.

Which to buy?
That’s the eternal question. As for answers, it’s hard to give one until we know what the footage looks like from each camera. To even continue this discussion, we have to presume that the footage from the cameras will at least be competitive with each other. Without making that assumption, no amount of conjecture makes sense.

However, one thing seems clear to us: with only a $49 difference in price, it becomes much more difficult to understand why someone would consider the Sony Z1 over the HVX200, unless you absolutely positively have to record some type of high-definition footage on tape, or you absolutely cannot wait for the Panasonic to come on the market (sometime in the fourth quarter 2005). When compared head-to-head with the Sony, the Panasonic also offers 1080i recording (but with twice the color sampling and no MPEG artifacts or dropouts). Additionally it offers genuine 24p and 30p recording, and 720p recording in variable frame rates. In standard-definition the Sony offers regular DV, and so does the Panasonic – but the Panasonic also offers 4:2:2 DVCPRO50 recording (which should make for superb DVDs). The HVX200 has a longer lens, true manual control of the lens instead of Sony’s “simulated” manual zoom, records true uncompressed audio (and twice as many tracks, at that) and costs virtually the same. If you’ve absolutely got to have high-definition recorded to a miniDV tape, and it’s got to be 1080i interlaced video, and you don’t mind the lower color sampling, then the Sony still makes sense for that purpose. And the Sony FX1, at a roughly $3,200 street price, is clearly the value leader. But otherwise, the Panasonic does everything the Sonys do, and an unbelievable amount more. For 24P or 30P users, filmmakers, commercial producers, etc., there’s no question, the Panasonic has the Sony beat all around (on paper).

Against the JVC, the question is more open. The JVC offers features the Panasonic doesn’t, primarily a shoulder-mount form factor and an interchangeable lens system. And the Panasonic offers things the JVC doesn’t, most primarily the higher-definition 1080 recording mode, and the ability to shoot “reality”-looking footage at 60i and 60p, something the JVC cannot do. So the question becomes: do you absolutely have to have an interchangeable lens and/or a shoulder-mount form factor, regardless of all other considerations? If so, the JVC may be the camera for you. It certainly is a “looker”, and its form factor will definitely be appealing to some customers. But if the fixed lens and form factor of the Panasonic are enough for you, you’ll get twice the color resolution, “reality”-looking video at 60p, variable frame rates, plus the ability to record 1080i and 1080p, and no MPEG artifacts, all for about the same price. Why would someone settle for a camera that can only record 720/24p and 720/30p at 4:2:0 color sampling with compressed audio, when they could instead get one that does 24p and 30p at 4:2:2 color sampling, in both 720 and 1080 resolution, and also offers 60p and 60i and variable frame rates and uncompressed audio with twice as many tracks? Finally, pricing is as yet unknown; we don’t know what the JVC’s price is so we don’t know how the two cameras compare on a value basis.

All that’s left is to view the footage. On that aspect, the ball is squarely in Panasonic’s court. If the footage is not competitive, it doesn’t matter what the features are. But if the images keep the promises that the rest of the camera is making, well… obviously the consumer is the one who will determine the winner, but based on the features we’ve seen on paper, the consumer may very well say “The camcorder wars are over. Sony, JVC, Canon, thank you for playing.”

The photos
click to enlarge