Editor's note: Though the AG-HVX200 remains an excellent pro HD camcorder, the changing competitive landscape has prompted us to retire its Editors' Choice designation.
With its introduction of the AG-DVX100 camcorder three years ago, Panasonic made itself the champion of the little guy. Previous affordable three-chip models were capable of great results, but their consumer-oriented controls and connections made them difficult to use professionally. The AG-DVX100 was the first prosumer camcorder to behave like a miniature pro camera rather than a souped-up home-movie machine. The Panasonic AG-HVX200 continues that trend, bringing the capabilities of the company's high-end Varicam HD camcorder much closer to the size and price of the DVX100.
What kind of features are we talking about? Multiple HD and SD recording formats, including 1080p DVCPro HD, a broad range of frame rates, and support for P2 solid-state media are just the beginning. But before you get too excited about P2, keep in mind that the cards are currently very expensive and relatively small; thus, they'll probably require frequent dumping to a hard drive in the field. For the time being, some users may prefer to circumvent the P2 system altogether and record over FireWire directly to a laptop computer or a soon-to-be-available hard disk recorder.
But no other camcorder in its class offers the cinematic possibilities of the HVX, and no camcorder in its class offers more potential in the hands of a skilled shooter. The Panasonic AG-HVX200 looks like a slightly bloated AG-DVX100B, and the similarities are more than cosmetic; the HVX200 is very clearly an evolution of its predecessor. Weighing more than six pounds, the solidly constructed HVX200 is about two pounds heavier than the DVX100, making it one of the heavier handicam-style (as opposed to shoulder-mounted) cameras. Despite the added heft, this reviewer still found the camera well balanced and easy to handle, though it may be a burden to operate on extended handheld shoots.
Although relatively small, the HVX200 offers a complete set of well-placed professional controls and connections. As should be the case with all professional gear, menu navigation is required only for setting up the camera's general operating parameters, not for the type of adjustments that must be made during run-and-gun shooting.
On the camera's back are the viewfinder eyepiece, the battery slot (for the same type of battery used in the DVX100), scene-file dial, audio-level controls, and a couple of significant new additions: a media switch, which selects whether the camera will record to DV tape or a P2 card, and a door under the viewfinder, which opens to reveal two slots for P2 cards.
The right side of the HVX200 is very similar to the DVX100, consisting primarily of a DV tape compartment under an adjustable wrist strap. A zoom rocker sits atop the tape compartment, with the power switch/record button at its back, where the user's thumb normally rests. All of the camera's ports/connections are also located on this side: a pair of mic/line-switchable XLR-balanced audio jacks; ports for composite video, S-Video, and HD/SD component video (via a D connector); and jacks for USB, FireWire, a wired remote, and headphones. Finally, Panasonic has incorporated an SD memory card slot for the storage and transfer of camera settings and shot metadata.
The HVX200's left side houses its flip-out LCD and most of the manual controls. These controls include an iris dial; switches for gain, white balance, ND filter, autofocus, and a fully auto mode; three user-definable buttons; and a button to toggle the display information. Flipping open the LCD reveals the less frequently adjusted manual controls, including buttons for shutter speed, color bars, zebra stripes, and the stabilizer; switches for audio-channel selection; and phantom power. The LCD itself seems to be the same 4:3-ratio 3.5-inch panel used in the DVX. This may seem odd given the camera's 16:9 native capabilities, but Panasonic uses the black letterbox bars for information display--smart.
A large 13X Leica Dicomar zoom lens, with a whopping 82mm filter diameter, dominates the front of the HVX200. The lens is protected by a removable lens shade and beefy lens cap, and it's encircled by nicely dampened zoom and focus rings.
A sturdy handle sits atop the camera, sporting a stereo mic at the front, independent record and zoom controls for low-angle shooting, and a shoe to hold accessories. Under the handle are a set of VTR control/menu navigation buttons; they're somewhat oddly oriented but much improved over the DVX's tiny joystick. Finally, a traditional consumer-oriented quarter-inch socket and locator-pin tripod connection adorn the HVX200's bottom. A camera this hefty would benefit from a more substantial tripod interface. Three interrelated features differentiate the Panasonic AG-HVX200 from every other camcorder in its price class: its trio of 16:9 one-megapixel CCDs for recording 1080p HD to SD and everything in between, variable frame-rate shooting from 12fps to 60fps in 720p mode, and its ability to record on P2 flash media as well as tape.
While this actually a relatively simple camera to use, the combination of format and frame-rate options (81!) can be overwhelming. Those familiar with the DVX100 will immediately grasp how the HVX200 handles 1080 and 480 line formats. Whether you record 60i, 30p, or 24p, it stores the video as 60i. So the camcorder stores a frame of 30p video split over two fields and translates a frame of 24p video to 60i via one of two pull-down patterns (called 24p or 24p advanced). It always stores 720p video as complete frames, which enables the 12fps-to-60fps variable frame-rate capability. You can play back in the various frame rates in real time as well.
There are two 720p recording modes: standard and native. The standard mode works like the Varicam, recording 60 progressive frames per second, regardless of the capture frame rate. This means that, depending on the capture frame rate, duplicate frames may be recorded; for instance, when shooting 30p, it records every frame twice. The extra frames are discarded in a compatible editing system, restoring the intended frame rate in postproduction. The 720p native format, on the other hand, records only the captured frames, with no duplication. So, when shooting 24p in 720 native format, only 24fps are stored. The latter, space-saving approach allows the HVX200 to record video directly to a hard disk or PC via FireWire's relatively limited bandwidth.
The P2 card system's random access and high-speed interface makes such versatility possible; tape is simply too linear and too slow. It also enables several novel shooting features, such as time-lapse Interval Recording, single-frame One Shot capture, 7-second Pre-Record, and Loop Record, which continuously records over the oldest video in memory. The HVX also supports a variety of tape formats in HD (DVCPro HD) and SD (DVCPro 50 and DV) flavors. Furthermore, the camcorder can also record DV downconverted from HD video recorded previously on P2 card, plus simultaneously shoot HD while downconverting and sending SD over its video outputs.
As in the DVX100, well-placed manual controls are available for all essential camera systems: iris, shutter (now controlled with separate up and down buttons), ND filters, white balance, and audio levels. Three user buttons may be set according to operator preference. As pioneered in the DVX100B, the dual set of wired remote jacks allows remote control of focus and iris, as well as the customary record and zoom. The extensive image controls--syncro scan, detail, coring, chroma level, phase, color temperature, master pedestal, gamma (including a new news gamma), knee, matrix, and skin detail--may all be set and stored in six independent scene files, allowing for six different easily switched in-camera looks. New to the HVX200, these scene files can now be stored and transferred from one camcorder to another via an SD card.
Other record-time tools include Peaking, which artificially sharpens the viewfinder image, and Focus Assist, which magnifies the center of the frame; they're essential aids for focusing the HD image. Two Zebra Stripes settings (each adjustable between 50 and 105 IRE) and a spot-metering marker help set exposure. The HVX200 viewfinder displays the full image in proper proportion and without underscan. Guidelines are available for 4:3 framing and safety zone, though I'd love to see adjustable guidelines, as in Canon's XL-H1.
The HVX200 has full time-code support, including drop, nondrop, record, and free run. As with the DVX100B, the HVX200 can sync its time code to any FireWire source, facilitating multicamera shoots.
The HVX200 offers the usual assortment of automation, including autoexposure, auto white balance, autofocus, and a new fully auto mode, activated by a single switch. These features all work reasonably well but will no doubt be avoided by any serious user. As with the DVX100, there is no automatic audio-level control, just an optional limiter.
Externally, the audio section of this camera is almost indistinguishable from the DVX100's. Panasonic subtly improved the audio meters by adding marks for -20dB. As with the DVX100B, you can switch the HVX's headphone-monitoring circuit to either live (no delay) or tape (echoing sound when shooting progressive). When shooting DVCPro 50 or HD, four channels of uncompressed 16-bit digital audio are recorded. Unfortunately, there are only two external inputs, so two of these four channels are always devoted to the camera mic--and it's not obvious how the audio levels for channels three and four are set. The Leica Dicomar 13X zoom lens is superb: sharp, contrasty, and capable of going slightly wider than the DVX100's notably wide zoom, while adding some new telephoto reach--useful for event work and nature photography. Other manufacturers offer longer zooms but always at the expense of the generally more useful wide end. The lens's only noticeable weakness is some barrel distortion at the wide end. The optical image stabilizer is noticeably improved over the DVX's, and its focus and zoom controls are the best of any nonmechanical lens: repeatable, precisely quantified via the onscreen focus and zoom information, and remote controllable via the dual wired remote ports. You can precisely manipulate the zoom either through the smoothly damped zoom ring or the servo control, which offers smooth starts and stops and a full spectrum of speeds, down to a barely perceptible crawl. The focus ring, while technically a servo control, behaves more like a mechanical control in its accuracy and feel, which enables precise focus racking.
Unfortunately--as is the case with just about every current HD camera--the viewfinder and flip-out LCD are simply too coarse to do justice to the HD image. Panasonic's well-implemented focus assist helps soften the impact of this weakness, but a camera with 1-megapixel imaging capability deserves a viewfinder with more than 0.2-megapixel resolution.
The Panasonic AG-HVX200 is extremely responsive to inputs from the manual controls. Those used to videotape will be blown away by the speed of the P2 system. There is literally no discernable delay between pressing record and capturing video.
In informal testing, the HVX200's audio quality appears to be superb. As mentioned above, although the DVCPro HD format includes four high-quality uncompressed 16-bit audio tracks, there is no way to connect four outside sources to the camcorder; two of the four tracks will always be camera mic. And like all such mics, the HVX200's built-in camera mic is not adequate for critical sound applications.
Finally, the HVX200's battery life appears to be similar to the DVX100's. While not a strong point of these models, the high-capacity battery that Panasonic now includes keeps them running for two to three hours. In color accuracy and subtlety, latitude (ability to handle contrast), and low-light performance, the Panasonic AG-HVX200 is the leader among the current crop of prosumer HD cameras, in part due to the aggressive compression required by its HDV competition. As is the case with all prosumer HD cameras, the HVX200 can get noisy in low light, particularly if gain is used--an unfortunate by-product of dividing a small CCD into the tiny pixels necessary to achieve HD resolution. Those familiar with the DVX will find fairly similar low-light performance here. In real-world situations, the HVX200's image always appeared extremely sharp and detailed, with no visible compression artifacts.