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Panasonic HMC150. Still wrong.

February 21, 2008 Leave a comment Go to comments

Panasonic has announced a new addition to its “pro” AVCHD hmc150lead.jpgproduct line that continues to use the design of its popular DV-based AG-DVX100.

The new AG-HMC150 handheld is scheduled for shipment later this year. It joins the on-shoulder HMC70 as one of the two new versions of the same HSC1U AVCHD camcorder that Panasonic released last year. I reviewed the HSC1U camcorder in August of 2007. Does this new camcorder fix the most important limitation of Panasonic’s AVCHD camcorders? Lets find out…

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The HMC150 is designed to provide enhanced HD production capabilities for videographers who desire some professional features with the fast workflow offered by tapeless, solid-state recording.

hmc150v2.gifThe HMC150 features three native 16:9 progressive 1/3″ CCD imagers of unknown resolution with an optical image stabilization. It has a 28mm (35MM equivalent) Leica Dicomar wide-angle zoom lens. Oddly, the press release doesn’t say the zoom range. While it would nice to finally have choices other than Canon when it comes to long-lens prosumer HD, I’m going to guess that this is 10 or 12x, at the most.
The HMC150 handheld offers 1080i and 720p recording at 13Mbps. Panasonic says that this is comparable to current HDV compression formats with bit rates of 25Mbps but numerous independent end-user reviews have flatly disagreed with this. Since then, both Sony and Canon have upped the bit rate to give AVCHD better image quality. Although Panasonic mentions “an enhanced mode with a higher bit rate” planned for the future, it neither gives the date, the data rate or any specifics of this enhanced mode. That’s a shame. Like with DVCPRO, here’s an opportunity for Panasonic to stamp PRO after AVCHD and really mean it.

One very nice feature of the HMC50, unlike the other AVCHD camcorders, is that it is currently specified to support a full range of HD formats including 1080/60i, 1080/50i, 1080/30p, 1080/25p, 1080/24p native; 720/60p, 720/50p, 720/30p, 720/25p, 720/24p native; and it is 50Hz/60Hz switchable. Curiously, while Panasonic is finally integrating this capability, Sony’s latest HDV camcorders have dropped this 50/60 Hz switchability.

(NOTE: Panasonic’s press release touts 50Hz/59.94Hz switchability. We’ll take it to mean they are referring to the electrical standard in Europe/U.S.A. respectively. The US electrical standard is 60 Hz, not 59.94 Hz. The “.97” came about with NTSC broadcasting adding a color subcarrier to a B&W 30 fps frame rate. This created 29.97. It is not related to the electrical standard of the U.S.A.)

hmc70v2.gifThe new handheld will utilize the long GOP HD standard called AVCHD. Based on MPEG-4 AVC/H.264 high profile encoding, AVCHD provides a near doubling of bandwidth efficiency. This means that half of a 25 Mbps HDV signal would be 13, but that would only be nearly as good as HDV. Not equal. Not better. Even though Panasonic says it “offers considerably improved video performance over the older MPEG-2 compression used in HDV formats,” you need to understand that at the same data rate AVCHD would offer considerably improved video performance. When you cut the AVCHD data rate in half, HDV still wins.

Both the HMC150 and the on-shoulder HMC70 (shown here) offer HD on the flash media of a digital still camera: SD and SDHC memory cards, While they are readily available, they are still far more expensive per GB than MiniDV tape. You can get 13 GB, on a 60-minute cassette, for around $3. That’s 23¢ a GB.

Using the recently announced 32 GB SDHC memory card and the camcorder’s 6 Mbps recording mode, users can acquire up to 12 hours of HD video and audio on a single SD card. But be aware that these cards will not be available till much later in the year, and are expected to sell for $700. That’s a helluva lot of dough for media. That money would buy 13980 hours of HDV recording on immediately archivable tape.

Another thing to consider is that Panasonic touts that the new Class 6 SDHC cards offer maximum data transfer speeds up to 20 MBps. pan32gbsdhc.gifYou have to wonder, if the card is so capable, why are we only recording one data stream— instead of both SD and HD at the same time for different destinations, something other camcorders can do. Panasonic’s AVCHD is 13 Mbps (bits). That’s about 1.7 MBps (bytes). That’s 11% of the card’s capability. So I think we’ve reached the point where the cards are certainly capable of faster data rates, higher bit rates, more record time… the only think keeping the bitrate artificially low is the manufacturer. Even recording at the maximum AVCHD bitrate of 24 Mbps, that’s only about 3.5 MBps and about 2.3 hours of record time. So what’s the reason we can’t get a camcorder with the maximum bitrate?

Additional features of the HMC150 include professional XLR audio input connections and a wide range of data and signal interfaces including HDMI out, USB2.0, component out (D terminal), composite out and RCA audio out jacks, a 3.5-inch LCD monitor to display thumbnail images for quick viewing and playback, and a Time Code/User Bits menu. The camera also has remote jacks for focus iris and start/stop functions, a pre-record feature that allows the camera to capture footage occurring immediately before real-time recording begins, and a time/date stamp menu option for documentation purposes.

Panasonic continues to tout that recording onto flash media offers resistance to shock, vibration and extreme temperatures and weather. If it gets too cold, the fluid lubricating the zoom and focus mechanisms freezes so you’ll not be using those. If the vibration is too much, the optical mechanism that facilitates image stabilization won’t compensate for it, and may actually break. If you are looking for a camcorder made to be beaten, there are other camcorders specifically designed for this. Think “crash-cam.” Otherwise, you’ll be treating your camcorder with respect and tape would do you fine.

The HMC150 will be available this fall at a price to be announced, probably at NAB in April.

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  1. Editor
    February 21, 2008 at 10:25 pm

    Does any NLE edit AVCHD in its native format? Or does the media have to be transcoded in order to edit it?

  2. February 23, 2008 at 1:32 pm

    Yes, AVCHD must always transcoded before it can be edited, and that takes a lot of computer power to do so.

    Jack

  3. tom
    February 28, 2008 at 9:46 pm

    the quality of the encoding depends on the quality and parameters of the encoder. while h.264 *can* allow for the same perceived quality of mpeg2 at half the bandwidth, i do’nt think we’re anywhere near that in actual hardware encoder implementations.

    we cannot arbitrarily compare bitrates for different encoder implementations. somehow every article i ever read in video magazines and websites seems to miss this: there exists a very large number of encodings to represent the same frame using a particular codec. there are constraints that prevent real-time hardware encoders from producing optimal encodings, including lack of ability to see the entire stream in advance–as you can with multi-pass software encoders.

  4. February 29, 2008 at 8:10 pm

    Tom,
    Good point, but camcorders have the ability to take the stream and pre-cache it in buffered memory so they can see a good half-second to a second (as many as 30 frames, 60 fields) to allocate the variable bit rate within the log GOP sequence.

    Anthony

  5. March 7, 2008 at 8:46 pm

    And, irony of ironies, CancorderInfo has reviewed the smaller, cheaper and seemingly better SD9 which records at a much higher AVCHD data rate:

    The Panasonic HDC-SD9 is the company’s third generation AVCHD camcorder that records exclusively to SD/SDHC memory cards. The improvements over its ancestor, the HDC-SD1, are numerous. The SD9 records in full 1920 x 1080 with a new maximum bit rate of 17Mbps (up from 13Mbps). The optical image stabilization has been improved, and – for the time being – it’s the world’s smallest 1920 x 1080 camcorder. If it’s a winner, we’re hoping Panasonic grants it a longer life than the six-months-old-and-already-dead HDC-SD5. But the SD9 begs the question, how small is small enough? The reduction in size has clearly begun to hurt handling. Despite this, the SD9 shows advances in image quality long awaited in the AVCHD format. It’s not a perfect camcorder by any means, but the HDC-SD9 is among the best ultra-compacts we’ve seen yet.

  6. April 14, 2008 at 12:57 pm

    Before you pass judgment, check out this update from Panasonic on April 13, 2008:

  7. MOCCA
    May 6, 2008 at 12:49 am

    hi guys..
    i have a panny guy bring hmc70 to indo .we see the live feed from the AVCHD camera to 42″Panasonic LCD TV n compared it to sony HDV side by side!… n believe me we(me+20 production house owners)were amazed by this avchd 13mbps quality..even most of us love it better than the ‘ordinary’hdv format..
    it is not ‘a piece of junk’ like what other people’s reviewed… 17mbps? i wonder how good is it.
    cheers

  8. DSE
    June 8, 2008 at 11:30 pm

    AVCHD can be natively edited on most PC NLE systems excepting Adobe Premiere. Vegas, Liquid, Ulead, Canopus products do not require transcoding/conversion of AVCHD streams.
    In a semi-professional application, one of my clients edits 30-40 vids of 5 mins in length per day, delivered at skydiving dropzones within minutes of the completion of a parachute jump. AVCHD works perfectly for this, whether they’re delivering AVCHD for BD playback or SD dvd for standard use.

  9. Pablo
    June 9, 2008 at 8:35 am

    Designed to be used in a variety of budget conscious production applications, the HMC150 records stunning high definition in four recording modes – PH mode (average 21 Mbps/Max 24Mbps), HA mode (approx.17 Mbps), HG mode (approx.13 Mbps) and HE mode (approx. 6 Mbps). It captures full horizontal resolution 1920×1080 images at its PH, HA and HG recording modes. The camera can also be set to capture 1280×720 images at PH mode. At its 6 Mbps record mode, it captures 1440×1080 HD images for extended HD recording at its lowest bit rate. The HMC150 supports a range of HD formats, including 1080/24p, 1080/60i and 720/60p.

  10. June 9, 2008 at 10:05 am

    I’ve always stated that the data rate was Panasonic’s weakness with AVCHD. It was my number one issue with their first “pro” AVCHD camcorder. If they do indeed offer the full AVCHD data rate with a max of 24 Mbps, then the images will likely far surpass the quality attainable by HDV.

    As I have spoken with Panasonic reps at length about this. They felt the HC1’s image was better than HDV. I (and others) disagreed. But, with the near doubling of data rate, I look forward to being proven right about AVCHD- that it really needed more data to become a viable tool.

  11. j4000
    October 28, 2008 at 9:21 am

    I know this is an old preview/review, but some things need to be cleared up. The apples-to-oranges bitrate comparison has already been addressed. Beyond that:
    1. Regardless of how it looks when new storage capacities are released, they drop in price very quickly. Right now, 32GB SDHC cards are available for about $125 ($3.90/GB), and 16GB cards are available for about $40 ($1.25/GB).

    2. Low cost isn’t everything. You’re paying for the ability to instantly edit your footage and then re-use the card. (You need to add in more money for storage, but you need to do that with tape, too – except for home movies). Why not run your event videography business on VHS? It’s WAY cheaper!

    3. The maximum optical zoom is 13X. Not a game-changer, but higher than I expected.

    4. For the still-young AVCHD format, this looks like the first major breakthrough. Products that use older formats are going to be more refined. That’s just the nature of the beast, but AVCHD appears to be the long-term winner.

  12. PA
    November 25, 2008 at 2:53 am

    This review is badly outdated, and the reviewer gets several things wrong, or were referencing poor numbers when the camera was announced. Here are some facts, now that the camera is out:

    • The zoom is 13x, not 10x

    • The camera will shoot actual 1080p at 24fps, not just 1080i, under full 1920×1080 chips. Not just 1440×1080 like most cameras.

    • SD cards are way, way cheaper than listed here. The reviewer before me (J4000) pointed this out that 32gb were down to $125. Now you can get them for about $89. A far cry from the $700 listed in the review. They may be down to $50 by the time some of you read this.

    • The camera will record in AVCHD at 23mbps in it’s highest mode, not just 13mbps. DV magagine did a comparison and found this to be higher quality than HDV. Various independent tests have show it to be very, very similar to footage shot on the higher up HVX170 and 200a cameras that shoot to P2 cards.

    • More and more devices can play SD cards direct. There are some TV’s, BluRay players, and even the Playstation 3 that allow the card to be plugged in, and footage shot on this camera played back directly. SD cards are here to stay.

    • Computers and software are more adapt than ever at editing AVCHD, or easily converting it. Plus, with the camera’s HDMI out, a $230 Blackmagic card will allow full ingest with no conversion needed.

    • The reviewer makes no mention of the built in waveform monitor and vector scope features. These are amazing add-ons to such an inexpensive camera that with a little practice, can help you make every shot great.

    • The camera incorporates a new Dynamic Range Stretch feature, which is taken from the ($50,000+) Varicam line of cameras, giving the camera the ability to have greater exposure latitude in high contrast areas, without completely flattening the image, imitating shooting on film.

    • The camera has superb low-light capability. About a stop lower than the HVX200. And great noise control. A very welcome surprise.

    • Though not recommended for all shooting, the on-camera microphone is surprisingly usable, due to the camera having very low noise output.

    • The camera can be purchased from reputable dealers for about $3,400, a great price for a camera that does so much.

  13. November 26, 2008 at 12:49 pm

    I appreciate the updating of prices- some 9 months after the original article was published.
    Please understand that the article has a publish date on it. Anyone smart enough to use the camcorder should be able to realize that significant time has passed since the article has published. Flash memory prices have come down, computer power has increased and features were actually added to the camera since the initial announcement.

    Please don’t go through the rest of this blog and tell me that other articles are “dated” because the camcorders, or other gear, is no longer available on retail shelves. It’s well understood (at least I would hope so) that once an article is fixed and published, time will pass and the environment around that article will change.

    So, again, thanks for the update.

  14. John
    March 21, 2009 at 6:16 pm

    Some people will arrive from this blog post from Googling and having the update in the comments does actually help. That’s why comments are there: so others can help your articles stay up to date and point out possible factual errors.

    Your article is informative and has historical value, but it is nice to know how things have changed or if some facts weren’t correct. Not sure why you’d ask people not to do this … No need to get defensive.

    PA, I appreciate you updating.

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