HPX 500 First Look
by Barry Green

I have in front of me a prototype of Panasonic’s new 2/3” HD camera, the AG-HPX500. Looking at this camcorder, I’m almost put in mind of Tim The Tool Man Taylor (comedian Tim Allen’s character on the show “Home Improvement.”) Tim was always modifying some machine to give it “More Power.” And that’s actually a pretty common theme with guys in general, and videographers in particular – we always want More. More more more.

This HPX500 has MORE. It’s like they took the popular HVX200 and gave it more recording time, more sensitivity, more dynamic range, more telephoto reach, more connection options (like HD-SDI), more resolution, more sharpness, more suitability for multicamera shoots (with Timecode In/Out and Genlock), more audio inputs, and more flexibility (offering interchangeable lenses).

The HPX500 is everything the HVX200 is, and a whole lot more. It’s like an HVX200 that’s taken more steroids than a WWE wrestler. It features bigger 2/3” chips (using the same spatial-offset technique from the HVX200 to give it high-definition resolution). The bigger chips give it more sensitivity and more dynamic range. It features an industry-standard 2/3” bayonet lens mount, so it can work with any professional HD or SD lens, as well as adapters like the P+S Technik Pro35. It’s got four P2 card slots, so it’s capable of twice the recording time as the HVX200 (and since most HPX500s will come packaged with four of the new 16GB cards, that means you can record over an hour of 1080i or 1080p, and almost three hours of 720/24pN, without ever needing to swap out cards!) It’s got four distinct audio channels that are all individually controllable, with four XLR ports, all settable to line or mic, all with phantom power capability, and automatic level control. It’s housed in a full-size professional camera body with a B&W CRT viewfinder, uncompressed HD-SDI output and TC IN/OUT and Genlock. It takes Anton Bauer-mount batteries. And it’s a true “world” camera, offering both NTSC and PAL, 50i and 60i, 50p and 60p, 24p and 25p and film-style variable frame rates.

Wow.

And it’s cheap (relatively speaking, of course). Fully kitted out with a 17x zoom lens, viewfinder, tripod plate and four 16GB P2 cards, the HPX500 is listed at some dealers for a street price of under $20,000. And if you already have your own lens and cards, you can buy just the body and VF for an MSRP of $14,000 and probably a street price of around $12,500. That’s for a 2/3” high-defnition variable-frame-rate camcorder, folks. That’s about half the price of a ½” XDCAM-HD F350 camera!

Wow wow. This HPX500 is simply put, the most amazing bargain in a full-sized camcorder, whether HD or SD.

Of course, every feature that made the HVX200 so popular is still there – all the same menus, image controls, and features like 1080/24p and variable frame rates in 720p, the DVCPRO-HD and DVCPRO50 recording modes for both high-def and standard-def, 16:9 and 4:3 recording, etc. If an HVX200 owner (or prospective owner) was looking to step up from a handheld camera to a shoulder-mount 2/3” camera, the HPX500 will be very familiar and easy to learn and operate. And having all the same menu settings and controls should make the HVX200 serve very well as a B-camera to an HPX500.

Performance is noticeably improved over the 1/3” camera, as you’d expect. The big beefy 2/3” chips give a substantial improvement in low-light performance. The HPX500 is about 1.5 stops faster than an HVX200; that means it can deliver comparable image brightness in 1/3 as much light, and it puts the ISO of the HPX500 at approximately 960. And dynamic range is equally improved; my preliminary tests put it at 10 stops, about 2 stops more than the HVX200. When you factor in that the gain is noticeably cleaner, the overall impact on low light performance is dramatically improved; the HPX500 can cleanly render a scene in low light conditions that the HVX200 struggles with at 12dB of gain. When you consider that the HVX200 is no low-light slouch (being one of the most sensitive of the 1/3” HD camcorders) the HPX500’s performance in this regard is simply remarkable.

The HPX500 also renders images more sharply than the HVX200 does. Both cameras use the large-pixel spatial offset technique, but the HPX500 is able to deliver better resolved images. This may be partially due to the lens, or the bigger chips, but either way the results are sharper HD images. The HPX500 uses a 620,000-pixel imager employing the same spatial offset technique as the HVX200 does; the larger HPX2000 uses a 1-million-pixel imager. At the NAB show in Las Vegas the HPX500 and HPX2000 were available side-by-side in the camera demo section on the show floor, connected to the same monitors. They produced nearly indistinguishable images as far as sharpness goes; image quality differences would be in that the HPX500 has an extra stop of dynamic range, and a tad more noise than the HPX2000. If someone gets hung up on counting the number of pixels in the sensor, they can always buy the higher-pixel-count HPX2000 (at twice the price, but with many features that are specific to news and broadcast purposes that do make it the preferable choice). But if you’re more concerned with looking at the results rather than counting the pixels, the HPX500 delivers solid true high-definition images that compare extremely well to the bigger/denser/more expensive HPX2000.

The HPX500 has a number of unique features too. First and foremost is probably the new focus assist mechanism. Focusing on the small 1/3” high-def cameras has always been tricky; high-def gives you no leeway for missing focus. You have to get your focus right every time, so all the 1/3” cameras offer some type of focus assist device. The HVX200’s focus-assist system is quite useful, but the HPX500 does it a different way and, having played with it in many circumstances over the last week, I’m going to say it’s a better way. The HPX500 brings up a Fourier graph of the range of items that are in focus; it looks basically like a histogram. It’s incredibly easy to use: the wider you can make the graph, the more sharply your image is focused. It’s different than the way the HVX200 does it (by bringing up a magnified window) but the nice thing about the HPX500’s method is: you can leave the focus assist on at all times! It takes up only a tiny area of screen real estate, and even that’s not a problem because it’s translucent (so you can see the image behind it). Framing up a shot with active focus assist is a breeze, and overall the focus assist works very well. You also have fully-adjustable peaking on the monitor itself for additional focus assist. I left the focus assist on at all times, and got consistently sharp results; as a result I am quite confident in the camera’s focusing capabilities when using the combination of the CRT viewfinder, peaking, and the very useful Focus Assist graph.

The improvements to the audio controls are superb. It’s got four individually-controllable audio channels, exactly like you’d wish. Each can be set individually to LINE or MIC, each can individually assign phantom power, and each has individual audio level controls and you can engage or disengage the limiter for each channel. And, you can assign a wind cut filter to any of the channels as well. For a small crew situation, the ability to run three or four mics directly into the camera (without even needing to use an external mixer) can be a blessing indeed. And automatic audio level control is available for any of the channels! Such a small feature, but so handy when you simply don’t have time to ride the audio dials; having auto audio level control can be a blessing in ENG work.

And – get this – it even has the LCD flip for use with inexpensive 35mm lens adapters! It only works on the flip-out LCD, not on the viewfinder, but hey – at least it does it! Many users may find that they don’t even need to use a lens adapter, since 2/3” cameras deliver much shallower depth of field than 1/3” cameras do (due to the longer focal length of their lenses). However, if someone wanted to use a 35mm lens adapter, the HPX500 could make the experience much easier, due to a) being 1.5 stops more light-sensitive, and b) flipping the image to compensate for the upside-down image projected by the adapters. Note: the image will still be recorded upside-down, but it’s displayed on the LCD right-side-up.

The camera’s LCD panel is not much to write home about; it gets the job done but it’s not overly sharp or detailed or contrasty; it looks like it’s the same panel from the HVX200. It’s great for using the P2 thumbnail screen, or for spot-checking your color (something not so easily done on a B&W CRT viewfinder, of course!) but for overall monitoring, especially outdoors, I’d much rather use the viewfinder or the dynamite new 8” LCD monitor which was also introduced at NAB (and which can actually plug in as a viewfinder). The 8” monitor (BT-LH80W, $2700 retail) would be a perfect companion to an HPX500 for a number of reasons; first it can be powered directly from the HPX500 via the HPX500’s DC OUT jack (so no need for a second/heavy battery just for the monitor). Second, it provides a waveform monitor; third, it has pixel-for-pixel display of 480, 720, and 1080. Fourth, it has yet another focus assist method, the “Focus In Red” technique first seen on the JVC HD100 camera. I’ll be getting one of those for use with my HVX200 regardless, but the fact that it can be directly powered from the HPX500 and mounts easily on the camera would make it even more desirable for an HPX500 user.

HVX users will love the menu buttons on the HPX500; they’re easier to access, and always oriented the way you’d expect. It actually has two ways to access the menus, via the traditional 2/3” camera system of a menu button and scroll/push wheel or, under a flip-down panel in the back, the HVX-style diamond-pattern of push buttons.

The HPX500 has all the Digital Cinema features of the HVX200 (FILM CAM operation mode, 180-degree shutter, variable frame rates and cinelike gamma curves, etc.,) but it adds a number of features event/ENG/EFP shooters are going to love. The battery mount includes a power tap for a light, the four card slots enable much longer record times, and the system is designed so that while the camera’s sitting on the cameraman’s shoulder, the flip-out LCD can actually be open at the same time, so the audio engineer can be monitoring the picture and audio level meters and have easy access to all four audio level dials. Factor in the CRT viewfinder and the always-can-be-on Focus Assist, plus the stability and size of a full-size shoulder-mount camera and its much better low light performance, and the much longer telephoto reach of the available 16x and 17x lenses (plus the ability to use any 2/3” bayonet lens) and the HPX500 would be excellent as an all-in-one HD camera for the videographer and filmmaker.

Operationally, it’s about exactly what you’d expect from a shoulder-mounted HVX200’s “big brother.” All the switches and dials are exactly where you’d expect them to be and function exactly like you’d expect them to. The camera’s beefy, but still quite a bit lighter than the HPX2000, and the stability and professionalism of a shoulder-mounted full-size camera are huge advantages in many shooting circumstances. And the ability to shoot PAL or NTSC, and 1080 HD @ 50i or 60i, or 720p HD at 50p or 60p, means you can get hired anywhere in the world, for any client, and be able to deliver footage suitable for any use. In Las Vegas I once shot on an infomercial for a client from China; the producer had to hunt down the only three PAL DigiBeta camcorders on the west coast in order to do that job. With an HPX500 it’s ready to handle any job anywhere in the world.

HD-SDI and TC in/out and Genlock make the HPX500 suitable for use in multicamera scenarios as well. Studio shoots, live events, concerts, an HD truck, anywhere where you need directly synchronized timecode and synchronized picture. The HVX200 offers a limited timecode sync capability, but it’s nothing like what the HPX500 can do.

The lens I got to use is the Canon 16x7.7 with 2x doubler and Chromatic Aberration Correction. The Canon lens features the new CAC (Chromatic Aberration Correction) circuitry. Canon and Fujinon are both producing CAC-enabled lenses. The idea behind it is simple: all low-cost HD lenses feature some degree of chromatic aberration (usually seen as magenta/green fringing around high-contrast scenes, occasionally red/green separation). It’s simply a fact of life with lower-cost lenses; keep in mind that a high-def lens can easily cost $60,000 or more (and yes, that’s just for the lens). So with the affordable price point of the $6,000 to $10,000 HD lenses, the reality is that there’s going to be chromatic aberration. However, the lens companies worked with Panasonic to identify the exact properties of how their lenses exhibit this chromatic aberration, and Panasonic engineers have programmed the processors in the camera to compensate. The result is that if you use a CAC-enabled lens, you should get noticeably cleaner/crisper images than if you use a non-CAC lens. I found the lens clear and sharp, with fantastic reach when using the optical doubler, and very nice for the price, but with noticeable breathing which most certainly is due to its low-cost origins. This lens is one of many that is available in a bundled package with the camera body and four 16GB P2 cards (at least in the USA), but you can of course use any HD lens with the HPX500.

As far as the footage, it’s gorgeous. It intercuts very nicely with the HVX200 and can deliver a very similar tone, while at the same time it’s sharper, clearer, crisper, with more sensitivity, more dynamic range, and much shallower depth of field. Which means that in pretty much every way, it’s better. It’s not night-and-day different; like I said, they will intercut well. But it’s definitely a step up from the beloved HVX200 (as it should be, at 2x to 3x the price). It delivers on the promise; it’s what you’d expect from a bigger/better camera. It’s not 100% noise-free, but it is cleaner than an HVX200, especially in gain. I found that you could go to about 6dB of gain (maybe 9dB) in an HPX500 and be about matching an HVX200’s noise texture; when combined with the 1.5 stops’ better raw sensitivity that translates into about 3 stops more brightness (at equivalent noise) over the HVX. That means you can deliver a picture with equivalent noise and brightness in about 1/8 as much light! The step up to 2/3” chips delivers rich dividends: two more stops of dynamic range and much better sensitivity, and a somewhat cleaner noise signature.

Perhaps price is the biggest feature here; no major manufacturer has offered so much camera for so few dollars. When coupled with the surprisingly low price for 16GB P2 cards, the HPX500 should prove extremely attractive to shooters who may previously have thought that they couldn’t make P2 work for their needs. Wedding shooters, event shooters, convention coverage, ENG, EFP, sports… anywhere where a 2/3” camera’s size and presence would be an advantage, and where long recording times are vital. The knock on P2 has been “short record times;” well, the combination of the 4-slot HPX500 and the larger P2 cards kind of stand that idea on its head. Now you get much-longer-than-tape record times without ever swapping cards… and that’s just with the cards that are included in the package (all the Panasonic USA-bundled camera & lens packages include a full pack of four 16GB cards, which deliver nearly three hours of continuous recording of 720/24pN footage or over an hour of 1080 high-def!) When 32GB cards come out in November 2007 the potential recording time doubles (and doubles again next year when the 64GB cards come out, and double again when the 128GB cards come out). A couple of years from now, when 128GB cards are out (maybe Dec. 2009) you should be able to get eight and a half hours of 1080p or 1080i from one load of cards. Or over 21 hours of 720/24pN, all in one continuous take – with no swapping of cards, ever!

Anyone in the market for a professional camera owes it to themselves to take a serious look at this new HPX500.

Discuss this in the Forum