So, what do I want out of my next laptop and what must it include?
Panasonic AG-HVX-202 P2
Professional camcorder utilising solid-state storage media.
- Two video formats in one, excellent build quality, superb 1080i image quality, all the benefits of solid-state storage media, multiple recording modes and frame rates
- Slightly below average low-light performance, P2 media is prohibitively expensive
If you're a video professional looking to upgrade from Mini DV tape, the AG-HVX-200 P2 represents a bump-free transition.
Price$ 11,127.00 (AUD)
The AG-HVX202 (or AG-HVX202AEN HD/SD Handheld 3CCD P2 Camcorder, to give it its full name) is the latest award-winning addition to Panasonic’s professional P2 camcorder range. Featuring the company’s Professional Plug-in solid-state storage technology and a Mini DV compartment for standard-def recordings, it’s a versatile unit that effectively offers the best of both worlds. Falling somewhere between the JVC GY-HD201E and Sony PMW-EX1, it’s a good, reliable option for freelance professionals and production studios on a budget.
The AG-HVX202 is optimised for DVCPRO HD recording in either 1080i or 720p. As mentioned, it uses the P2 ("Professional Plug-In") recording format to capture high-definition video. This is a new form of solid-state storage media similar to SSD memory cards and a budding successor to HDV tape. All of Panasonic’s high-end broadcast-quality cameras now use this technology, with most major vendors following suit with equivalents of their own (a recent example being Sony’s SxS Pro). The benefits of P2 media over HDV are substantial, including the ability to hot-swap between cards while recording, a data transfer speed of up to 640Mbps, less power consumption (and thus longer battery life), superior 4-2-2 colour recording and instant data access via PCMCIA-equipped notebooks.
Another advantage of the P2 format is the user-friendly way in which data is stored, with each recording appearing on the card as a separate clip. This not only makes playback a simple matter of selecting the appropriate thumbnail but also ensures you don't accidentally record over your footage. You can also drag-and-drop files directly onto your edit suite, which is naturally a lot more convenient than real-time transfers. P2 memory cards come in a maximum capacity of 64GB, but here’s the rub: a single 64GB card will currently set you back a wallet-slaying $4500.
This is the main stumbling block faced by P2 camcorders: unless you have a truckload of money to spend on additional media, your recording time is going to be severely limited. For example, a 16GB card will only capture a measly 14 minutes of 1080i video. Despite the ability to hot-swap between cards, this can potentially lead to production nightmares where you run out of storage at the critical moment. (We learnt this to our sorrow while shooting the final bout in the ISKA International Karate World Championships, effectively ruining a whole documentary!)
On the plus side, the AG-HVX202 is also compatible with regular Mini DV tapes. This is obviously a much cheaper alternative to P2 media, although it’s important to note that it only records in standard-definition DV (PAL 576i/50i or 25p), rather than HDV. This unfortunately prevents you from mixing together footage from both formats, as the difference in resolution will be far too obvious. Nevertheless, it's a good option to have at your disposal — especially if you frequently work with tape and would prefer not to go cold turkey. (By contrast, the Sony PMW-EX1 sticks exclusively to solid-state media, resulting in a steeper learning curve.)
Another enticing feature is the ability to shoot 1080 video at 24 frames per second (25p) — something which few entry-level professional camcorders offer. There’s also a swathe of recording formats and variable frame rates to choose from (ranging from 12 to 50fps). This makes the AG-HVX202 a very versatile performer that can be adapted to suit a variety of jobs and/or clients. This is especially true of sports and action-orientated videos, where the ability to record in silky slow-motion is an absolute godsend.
For optics, the AG-HVX202 sports a Leica Dicomar 13x lens with a 35mm equivalent range of 32mm to 422mm. Like most entry-level professional camcorders, the lens is fixed, which means you’ll need to use adaptors if you want to extend the camcorder’s range (there are currently several add-ons available, including a 1.6 tele-adaptor, a 0.6 wide-angle adaptor and a fish eye lens equivalent).
The camcorder’s chipset comprises three 1.1-megapixel (Mp) 1/3in CCD sensors with a native aspect ratio of 16:9. While a 3CCD arrangement is obviously preferable to a single CCD, it still falls short of Sony’s PMW-EX1l, which offers a trio of larger 1/2in CMOS sensors, each with a gross pixel-count of 2.2MP. Consequently, professional users may find the AG-HVX202’s low-light performance to be slightly disappointing. Despite this (rather significant) caveat, the AG-HVX202's video output is just as spectacular as you’d expect. The level of detail in images is truly astonishing, with no obvious pixilation or ghosting during fast pans and zooms. This makes the AG-HVX202 an ideal companion for free-roaming cameramen who prefer to shoot from-the-hip.
Well, it does in theory, anyway. Despite including the word ‘handheld’ in its full model name, the AG-HVX202 is not really something you can casually stroll around with. Weighing in at a vaguely terrifying 2.5kg (excluding batteries and accessories) it will definitely require a shoulder brace for extensive shoots. Even then, you’ll need to be built like Arnold Schwarzenegger in his pre-Governator days — otherwise you’re going to get uncomfortable very quickly. In short: tripods are your friend.
On the plus side, all that extra real-estate means that the controls are nicely spaced apart. There’s no awkward fiddling about with overcrowded dials or (God forbid) menu screens: instead, everything is prominently placed and identifiable by touch. Shutter speed, Zebra mode, Neutral Density filters (1/8, 1/64), Iris Control, user shortcuts, white balance and audio input selections all receive dedicated switches or buttons, to name but a few. As befits a professional-level camcorder, the AG-HVX202 also comes with two servo rings for zoom and focus as well as an Iris roller button to ensure precise manual control.
The magnesium alloy chassis is suitably robust and professional-looking; rest assured, anyone who lugs this thing around is going to look the business. We were also impressed by the plus-sized 3.7in LCD display with 210k pixels — this is one area that professional models tend to skimp on, so it’s nice to see Panasonic putting in the effort. We were especially fond of the focus-assist function, which opens a zoomed-in window of the subject inside the LCD.
Naturally, the AG-HVX202 is equally proficient at capturing audio (one of the expected perks of a sub-$10,000 camera). When using P2 media, the AG-HVX202 records four channels of 16-bit audio sampled at 48KHz, which isn't too shabby. In addition to the shock-mounted stereo microphone, a pair of XLR inputs and a 3.5mm jack are also included.
All up, the AG-HVX202 is an excellent professional-level camcorder that’s worthy of the extravagant praise it has been receiving. Depending on your viewpoint, the inclusion of a tape deck is either a smart move or archaic blunder: but it does make the device more versatile than any of its competitors.
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