Shock and Awe at Panasonic's Latest Offering
As a Panasonic AG-HVX200 owner, I'm quite familiar with their line of P2 cameras. In 2004, the company was the first to bring a broadcast-quality codec to the Prosumer market. Fast forward five years and they've done it again. This time in the form of the AG-HPX300, an impressive camera that blurs the lines between the professional and the Prosumer. At its price point, I can't really think of anything like it. Keep in mind, everything on the HPX300 is included; the lens is not an add-on. How cool is that? The most noticeable features are the ENG form factor and three 1080p resolution CMOS sensors. Most importantly the HPX300 incorporates Panasonic's new flagship full raster 10-bit 4:2:2 codec, AVC-Intra. If that sounds like a mouthful, don't worry, I'll explain.
The AG-HPX300 (left) looks strikingly similar in form factor to its 2/3" "big brother", the AG-HPX500 (right)
When I first picked up the new rig, the camera's build quality was instantly apparent. There isn't much difference between the 300 and its 2/3" big brother, the AG-HPX500. Everything about the camera feels professional. It's an ENG camcorder from top to bottom. How many cameras can say that for $8,500? All the buttons are in the right place and make the HPX300 very easy on the shoulder. Weight distribution seems near 50/50 from front to back and feels exceptionally stable. Additionally, features like HD-SDI, timecode, and genlock are all included, making it a great multicam option.
The included 17x Fujinon 1/3" bayonet mount lens will instantly be familiar to anyone who's handled the JVC's ProHD-series line of camcorders. The glass handled as any ENG operator would expect: solid as a rock with all its manual controls being easily accessible. I had no problems pulling focus and setting the iris while making precise zooms. The camera does take some getting used to for those accustomed to their fixed lens handhelds. All in all, it took me about 15 minutes to get used to it. After that, I was wishing my 200 had a manual iris. Very cool.
One of the most notable upgrade's to the HPX300 is its high definition LCD. I think I can speak for all Panasonic enthusiasts when I say "Woohooo". We've been hoping for one and now it's here. What can I say, it's a beautiful thing. Operators can now easily verify focus without using an external monitor. From my own uncontrolled tests, I never needed to use the focus assist function to achieve tack sharp images. It was nice, however, to know that the focus assist functions are all still included just in case any issues do arise. The LCD is positioned so it can be easily viewed while being shoulder operated. It doesn't stop there; the viewfinder is also high definition and performs at just about the same accuracy.
The high definition LCD makes focusing a breeze.
The sensor marks a new chapter in the P2HD line, as it's the first to use CMOS technology. The three 1/3" "3MOS" sensors are full 1920x1080 with no spatial-offset being implemented. The result is resolution that rivals the popular Sony EX series of SxS cameras. Combine this with Panasonic's color matrix or "Mojo" as it's sometimes referred to, and you have something truly special. I'm relieved to see that all my footage look vintage Panasonic. Let me be the first to say that it's still got the "Mojo" in spades. Just as a note, I should add that CMOS and CCD sensors do have differences and it's good to educate yourself about them. I did write an article last year about that exact subject which I recommend checking out if you get a chance. (shameless plug)
When taking a look at the HPX300, there's one piece of technology that trumps all the rest, and that's the inclusion of the AVC-Intra recording format. Not to dork out on everybody and get too technical, but AVC-Intra is a 10-bit 4:2:2 full raster codec. Since the technology is based on AVC, the quality level at any bit rate is twice that of the more established DVCPRO HD codec. Some might get AVC-Intra confused with AVCHD, but they are quite different.
The easiest way to describe the difference is to say that AVC-Intra records each and every frame as a separate image, improving motion handling. AVCHD's inter-frame codec compresses the images into groups of pictures with a series of I-frames distributed evenly throughout, usually 2-4 a second. In other words, only 2-4 frames of footage per second actually record the full image, the rest are "predicted" to a degree. The benefit of this technique is to save space, hence AVCHD's popularity in small handheld cameras. For power users, AVC-Intra is the way to go whenever possible.
Watch this video on the Panasonic AG-HVX300
The codec is incredibly robust for post work, while being far less taxing on a computer's system resources. System slowdown can be apparent when using inter-frame codecs natively, like XDCAM EX, especially after only a few filters have been added. Users have the option of recording at 100 or 50mbps, AVC-I 100 and AVC-I 50 respectively. The coolest part about AVC-I 50 is that it produces the same quality video as DVCPRO HD, but since it's using half the amount of disk space, it effectively doubles the P2 card's record time capability
Now, what does "full-raster" mean? Well, let's consider DVCPRO HD for a second. In 1080p, DVCPRO HD records a 1920x1080 stream to 1280x1080 pixels at a different aspect ratio. When the footage is transferred to your NLE, take for example Final Cut Pro, it's then decompressed again by stretching the image back to 1920x1080. HDV and AVCHD function similarly, but use 1440x1080 instead of 1280x1080. During this rasterizing process footage loses a certain amount of resolution.
AVC-Intra comes in two flavors: 50 and 100mbps
AVC-Intra, on the other hand, is "what-you-see-is-what-you-get". Each frame is recorded to the camera in 1920 and its output to the NLE is in 1920. For applications such as chroma keying, AVC-Intra can help considerably. At present Final Cut Pro cannot cut AVC-Intra natively so the system transcodes footage to ProRes 422, which works great. Keep in mind that the import process takes slightly more time than DVCPRO HD. For PC users, Canopus Edius does have native support. In a few months I suspect we'll see more companies get on board so I wouldn't worry.
The best part about Panasonic's line of P2HD cameras, is that they each hold onto their own intended purpose. I look at the HPX300 and I see a remarkably capable camera, which has the versatility to perform in a variety of settings and shooting environments. If I were looking to start a small production company and wasn't interested in taking out a small-business loan to purchase my equipment, this would be the camera. For interviews, broadcast documentaries, independent film and news gathering, the HPX300 is poised to change the landscape. While I might not trade in my HVX200 for certain things, after getting a taste of the 300 for a week it's certainly a tempting proposition.
To view a list of accessories for the Panasonic AG-HPX300, click here