Panasonic has announced a new addition to its “pro” AVCHD product 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…
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.
The 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.)
The 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. You 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.