Panasonic’s “Professional” AG-HSC1U Camcorder
Panasonic sent me their AG-HSC1UP camcorder that shoots AVCHD to SD cards. It also records digital stills, and can shoot video and take stills a the same time- something many event videographers would love to have in their professional camcorder systems.
At highest quality and with a fresh charge on the internal battery (no way to use a bigger / longer battery) you’ll have to stop recording in about 40 minutes to change media, and you might as well change battery then because it won’t last much longer.
As you can see, there’s good and bad. I have positive and negative thoughts on this new baby camcorder from Panasonic. I wrote a review but magazines either weren’t interested in a review of this camcorder, or had already published a review of the nearly identical consumer version (HDC-SD1) and didn’t see enough of a difference to get a pro’s viewpoint.
So is the HSC1UP a Pro AVCHD camcorder? Click on to read the review… Opening up the diminutive boxes, I was unprepared for the even more diminutive camcorder. They may call this professional, but it’s smaller than many consumer camcorders. If you have large hands, you could just about completely conceal this camcorder in your hands.
It doesn’t use tape, it uses SD cards for video and stills. Even considering the efficiency of the latest compression schemes, this camcorder records HD which is several times the size of standard definition video. Even with the included 4g SD card, you are limited to 40 minutes of recording at the best quality. The camcorder offers three quality settings: HF, HN and HE. The second letter is the one that tells the story: Fine, Normal and Extended recording. The HF(ine) recording uses Constant Bit Rate (CBR) recording, while the other two use more efficient Variable Bit Rate (VBR) recording.
The key difference is that CBR always records at the maximum data rate. VBR lowers the data rate whenever the image is easier to compress- video of a talking head in front of a white wall is much easier to compress than several kids playing outside. Generally- all the professional-level and distribution video codecs use VBR to squeeze every ounce of video quality out of a finite amount of space on a disk.
No matter if it is a DVD, a Blu-ray disk, or HD-DVD using MPEG-2 or MPEG-4, these videos all use VBR compression. It is confusing, then, that this camcorder would use CBR to record in Fine mode. There is “single pass” VBR recording so it is not a limitation of the “real time” nature inside the camcorder.
It does do a good job, though, squeezing 40 minutes of HD footage and 5.1 audio (also compressed) onto a 4g SD card. In comparison, a 60 minute HDV tape holds about 13g of HD video and stereo audio.
My side by side comparisons with a Sony FX1 HDV camcorder show that the heavier AVCHD compression in when compared side-by-side to HDV. This is despite claims that AVCHD is twice as efficient as HDV. If that were the case, the 13 Mbps data rate of the Panasonic camcorder ought to look much better. Maybe the 5.1 audio is taking too much data from the image.
For professional use AVCHD needs a significantly higher data rate to allow the higher-efficiency codec to preserve the detail the lens captures. AVCHD allows for up to 24 Mbps but so far, no manufacturer has taken advantage of this. Given the storage space available on current flash media- maxing at 4g and 8g- doubling the data rate basically means chopping that 40 minute record time in half.
Professional users may not want 20 minute recording times, even if it means significantly higher quality video. But with the Panasonic HVX-200 and Sony’s forthcoming XDCAM EX are both hand-held solid-state recording camcorders under the $10,000 mark. Panasonic’s HVX-200 was early to the game and limited by 4g and 8g cards that recorded just as many minutes in 1080i60. Moreover the proprietary P2 cards were prohibitively expensive for everyone but those for whom instant turnaround of footage was essential.
Using SD media provides the user the cost efficiencies available through mass production of consumer SD cards, something both Panasonic’s P2 and Sony’s SxS cards lack.
But there are Pros who have adopted P2. What the AG-HSC1UP fails to differentiate from the identical consumer model is image quality over record time. P2 users have accepted shorter run times. There may be a similar set of prosumer users who would use the HSC1UP if it offered higher data rates than the consumer model- and the commensurate higher image quality that would be achieved.
I dig out the battery and pop it on the charger, which illuminates green. That means to me that it is charged. I pop the battery in the camcorder and 30 seconds later, it shuts down with a low battery warning.
Apparently green does not mean go.
Green means stop, don’t take the battery, because it’s dead.
This is a complete departure from other battery chargers which are yellow or red when charging, or blink when charging and then go Green, or the light goes out, when done.
Thankfully, though, the charger is separate from the camcorder so you can charge one battery while using a second battery. Unfortunately, the battery run time is fairly dismal. Though it does have a 9v DC input, the internal battery compartment means you can’t just use a bigger or longer running battery lie you can with most any other professional camcorder.
The design of this consumer camcorder to highlight ease of use and simplicity now hampers a professional’s need to record more than an hour or so on a single battery. Of course, you’re limited to 40 minutes on a card so you could conceivably change cards and batteries at the same time every forty minutes. Compared to the 60 or 80 minute tapes and multi-hour batteries that HDV camcorders use, this camcorder fails to provide any long-run capability. On the other hand, there are no “professional” HDV camcorders this small and light.
The only pro models that come close are from Sony and, like this one, minor updates to compact consumer models. However, the Sony HC1 does offer a dedicated zoom ring, a headphone jack and several other features that make it far more useful to professionals than this Panasonic ever could be. When you move up to the real “pro” three chip realm, you get camcorders many times the size and price, and with a host of features that make consumer camcorders look like the toys that they really are.
The HSC1UP does feature a stereo microphone input, component output, AV output, HDMI output and USB. You can use USB 2.0 to get your media off the SD card in the camcorder, or, if your computer features an integrated SD slot, you can forgo cables and just move the SD card from the camera to your computer.
Once you get the AVCHD footage to your computer, you move on to the next challenge. Few programs, as of this writing, natively handle AVCHD. Moreover, the highly integrated compression that makes AVCHD so efficient also makes it require a lot of processing power to edit.
Like MPEG-2, AVCHD is a compression scheme where each frame of video relies on frames before and after it– inter-frame compression. So to click your edit pointer at any one frame may require the computer to load data for numerous other frames and “build” it’s way back to the frame you clicked on. This makes dragging your way back and forth through the timeline a massively intense computational process.
If you don’t feel like constantly waiting for the computer to build frames, you should be prepared to have the most powerful system available. This task is not for computer systems feint of heart, or more than a year old. The latest multi-core, multi-processor systems, very speedy drive arrays, and gobs of RAM will make a big difference in how well your system handles this new codec.
To assist this, and to appease professionals who demand higher quality, Panasonic has already introduced AVCHD-intra, a version of the codec designed for with higher data rates and compression that lets each frame stand on its own. This makes it far easier to edit and those edits affect less frames of video.
This is what makes something professional.
For comparison, a simple cut of AVCHD can be much more than you imagine. If that cut comes one frame into a log Group of Frames (or Pictures- GOP) on one side, and at the end of a GOP on the other side, then as many as 30 frames must be loaded, rebuilt and recompressed to make one simple cut. This extensive recompression can eventually cause concatenation where you keep recompressing video every time you make a cut around it. And each time you compress video (especially at low AVCHD rates) you throw away data. Do it enough times and you seriously degrade the image.
5.1 surround sound is a selling point of this camcorder. But I really wonder about directionality and quality of surround sound audio from five microphones on top of the camcorder in a 15 millimeter square. I did not have the time or the ability to seriously test the directionality, spaciousness and thus the usefulness of the audio recording capability of this camcorder. It is important to note that you can plug in an audio source to the mic input jack, and set manual level controls, but, without headphones, you can’t be sure the audio you are recording isn’t distorted. So the usefulness of the mic input is certainly questionable.
In the box is the VW-PT2 SD Media Storage device with a 40g internal hard drive. It is bigger than Sony’s little hard drive recorder, but then, this also has an internal CGA-S303, 7.4v, 760 mAh battery, SD slot interface and more.
One interesting feature is a small pin that pokes out from the bottom that will prevent the drive from spinning up if the unit is not resting on a flat surface, like a table. This prevents damage from occurring to the disk by rough handling while the disk is rotating– trying to read or write data. It may be a bit of overkill since laptops use the same drives and do not have any such limitation. Panasonic also also lets you easily disable this feature with a HDD Safety defeat switch on the side of the unit.
This box is compact and nicely designed. However, the paucity of indicator LEDs that try and indicate operational status are woefully inadequate. Compare this to the Mustek PVR-H140 for $250 which has a SD card reader, similar 40g HD and a 3.6″ color view screen which gives you detailed menus and progress displays. It also plays back stills and video on the 3.6″ screen or through integrated AV outputs.
There are several other personal media players with SD slots that offer far more features at much lower prices than this Panasonic unit. Comparatively, the professional Panasonic has 8 individual little lights which do little to instill confidence that your precious media has indeed made it safely onto the internal hard drive.
Can you play it back? No. – Progress bar? No. – AV output? No. – Professional?
The Panasonic SD storage device is good in and of itself. I found copying speeds to be decent, battery life to be respectable and accessing the media via USB to be a breeze. But it is as if Panasonic is designing these products in a vacuum- completely unaware of other products already on the market that offer far more features and capability, in a smaller and cheaper package.
Overall, I can’t fault Panasonic for trying. The camcorder is okay, but, aside from color space, the Pro model offers nothing more than a higher price tag- currently about $1000 more than the consumer HDC-SD1, which retails in the $800’s now.
The current implementation of AVCHD on this camcorder is a far cry from anything else that tries to call itself professional, let alone actually is. Panasonic is serious about AVCHD, and offers it in the much higher end AJ-HPC2000 camcorder. But then, you’re over $30,000. There is rumor that there may be a new HVX model with the AVC juice, but no official word from Panasonic yet.
All that said, editing support for AVCHD anything is still in its infancy. Given the video quality I see, I wouldn’t choose it over any HDV camcorder. For a comparison in the standard definition realm, I’d say HDV is DVD, and AVCHD is VHS. Panasonic could have made a few tweaks to actually demonstrate a genuine attempt to make this camcorder professional.
- 1) Use the maximum AVCHD data rate. Thiswould clearly differentiate the professional (higher image and audio quality with less compression) from the consumer. I requires no manufacturing change, just some coding inside the camcorder.
- 2) A headphone jack and audio meters on the screen. If there’s no way to tell your input is distorting, then there’s no reason to use anything but the included mics.
- 3) More and easier menu control. I wasted too much time trying to access things that ought to be one click away (and are on most professional camcorders). I understand there’s a lack of space for buttons, but redesigning the on-screen menu for direct access of the exact feature you want is critical.
- 4) External battery. Two words mean a lot. Sony tried an internal battery on their very first DV camcorder- in 1995. Did they do it again? NO. The end user needs to be able to attach more battery power for situations when they can’t easily change the battery- like underwater video. They may not record the whole time, but they need the camera to stay on for more than a laughable, measily hour.
Overall, this camera is difficult to work with and, with all its limitations, is only applicable in very specialized situations. More than likely, we’ve already used some other camera to shoot those situations and we’ve done just fine. The SD storage device is nicely executed, but about 2 years behind today’s consumer technology. With no screen or playback capability, you really have to wonder what all the fuss is about.
As a complete “professional” package, I feel it misses the mark completely.