Review: Panasonic AG-AC160 and AG-HPX250 1/3" 3-MOS camcorders

Panasonic delivers full-res, full-function, feature-rich 3-chippers.
Adam Wilt
By Adam Wilt 01.23.12

While all the attention is focused on large-single-sensor cine-style camcorders, Panasonic has come out with a line of high-quality 1/3" 3-MOS handhelds that leave little to be desired. The HPX250 is a handheld version of the shoulder-mount HPX370, while the AC160 and its simplified sibling, the AC130, bring the same fundamentals to the AVCCAM (AVCHD) world. [Updates 2012.01.30: SDI out is 10-bit only on 250, not 160; 2012.02.24: typo page 2, should be "or any of the other misfortunes possible with location audio."]{C}

 

Introduction



At NAB 2011, Panasonic showed a trio of 1/3" 3-chip camcorders, the US$5995 AG-HPX250, the $4795 AG-AC160, and the $3895 AG-AC130. The cameras share a common chassis, the same lens, identical 1920x1080 sensors, but they vary in capability and recording format.


 

AG-HPX250 and AG-AC160.


The HPX250 records AVC-Intra, DVCPRO HD, DVCPRO50, DVCPRO25, and DV on P2 cards, along with four channels of uncompressed audio. It is 50Hz/60Hz switchable, has HD-SDI, and can overcrank and undercrank for slo-mo and sped-up shots. In essence, it's the shoulder-mount HPX370 repackaged as a handheld.

The AC160 records AVCHD on SDHC cards, along with SD DV25. Like the 250, it has "worldcam" switchability, uncompressed audio, and variable frame rates.

Both cameras shoot 1920x1080 natively, and they can record 720p, 480i, and 576i as well.

The AC130 is a budget version of the 160, giving up 50Hz/60Hz switchability, variable frame rates, SDI, and LPCM uncompressed audio, but costing $900 less than its full-featured sibling.

Despite their commonalities, the 250 and the 160/130 were developed by different groups at Panasonic. While their underpinnings are the same, details of their feature sets, their menu designs, and their video processing are different.

The HPX250 builds on a strong legacy of professional DV, DVCPRO, and P2 cameras dating all the way back to the DVX100, and its menus and operating philosophy will be instantly familiar to anyone versed in the operations of those cameras. The AC160's and 130's internal workings come from the AVCCAM group, and incorporate newfangled ideas like DSLR-style presettable color temperatures and automated face detection.

The 250 uses a 20-bit DSP engine to process its images, as used on the HPX370. The 160 and 130 use a different, 18-bit DSP, with correspondingly different results—subtle rather than blatant, but present nonetheless.

Panasonic sent me both an HPX250 and an AC160 so I could compare and contrast them. I expected to receive a pair of capable camcorders, and in this I was not disappointed: they both make excellent images. What I wasn't expecting was that these hefty handfuls—they're 17" long and weigh about six pounds—would be the most operator-friendly handheld camcorders I've used.
 

Design and Handling



These cameras are "handycams" of conventional design, if of Brobdingnagian scale. The lens and body form a cylindrical continuum, surmounted with a carrying handle, stereo mikes, and a flip-up EVF. The left side sports a flip-out LCD and most operating controls, while the right bulges out with a handgrip amidships and an oddly (but cleverly) offset battery compartment astern. The camcorders sit upon admirably large and flat bases, equipped with both 1/4" and 3/8" tripod sockets, allowing firm and stable attachment to any tripod or mount available.


 

AG-HPX250 left side view.




AG-AC160 left side view.




The 160's flat base and dual tripod sockets. The 250 has the same arrangement.


Lens

The 22x lens runs from 3.9-86mm, equivalent to a 28-616mm lens on a 35mm still camera. It sits behind a bayonet-mount hard lens shade, and accepts 72mm filters—the same size filter threads used on the original DVX100, 'way back in 2004.



The 160 with lens hood removed: matte outer ring is focus, shiny middle ring is the bayonet mount. Data plate proudly pronounces that the 22x zoom is an optical 22x. Inside all that is the lens proper with its 72mm filter threads.


A free-spinning servo focus ring with deep fins and a rubbery surface surrounds the front of the lens. It has low friction, no stiction to speak of, and is easily found and operated with a fingertip. It has a video-style short throw of perhaps 120 degrees, and it's not velocity-sensitive: if you keep it from spinning past its limits (as some hard-stopped follow-focus units allow), it's quite repeatable.

There is an MF ASSIST mode available that lets the camera fine-focus once you release control; in this mode the sensitivity of the focus ring is doubled, requiring only half the travel for the same amount of focusing. Also, like other Panasonics, the focus ring is enabled during autofocus, so even if you're letting the camera drive, you can still override the camera to move focus from one point to another.


 

Lens rings and front controls on the AC160.


A smooth, mechanically-coupled zoom ring follows; it needs only a 90-degree throw to travel the range from full wide to full telephoto. It has a small, screw-in nubbin to act as a zoom lever / position indicator, which can be removed if unwanted. The zoom's feel is slightly heavier than the focus ring's, but it's still light and easily adjusted without perturbing the camera's position.

The aft end of the lens assembly consists of a narrow, smooth, free-spinning iris ring, which sets aperture in 1/6-stop increments in manual-iris mode, and controls exposure offset in auto-iris mode. It, too, has a very light touch; I initially felt it might be too easy to turn and thus subject to inadvertent actuation, but in practice its size, narrowness, position, and smooth damping worked extremely well to make it movable when necessary and out of the way otherwise.

The lens block itself appears to extend at least as far behind the iris ring as ahead of it (according to the image here), which helps explain the prodigious length of these cameras: over 17" from lens shade to eyecup.

Camera Section

Left side: behind the lens and before the LCD, five controls run down the side of the camera.


 

HPX250 left-side controls, LCD open.




AC160 left-side controls, LCD open.


At the top is a four-position rotary ND selector with a raised index line or pointer, providing 0, 2, 4, and 6 stops of attenuation. This simple control is by far the best ND selector I've ever used: you can instantly tell by touch what filter is selected, and it's easy to use without confusion or befuddlement.

With the usual rotary selector on broadcast cams, there's no physical index mark, and choosing a filter (with your eye to the finder) is usually a case of spinning the knob arbitrarily until, by chance, the right filter is selected. With up/down pushbuttons, there's no tactile indication of what filter is currently selected. With slide switches, as on the Sony EX1 or EX3, there's plenty of tactile feedback, but moving the stiff switch from one position to the next is fraught: more often than not, you'll wobble the camera from the force required, and there's a fair chance you'll overshoot the middle filter position when you're aiming for it.

This Panasonic selector avoids all those pitfalls, and is a delight to use—all the more important since filter-twidding is a frequent task: the lens must be kept at f/4 or wider for optimum sharpness, due to the unavoidable physics of small sensors with high resolutions.

Below the ND selector is a FOCUS ASSIST button. On the 160, this activates a focus-in-red "digital peaking" signal; on the 250 it magnifies the center of the image (but, alas, only when not recording).

In the middle, a three-position FOCUS switch has auto and manual settings, plus a momentary-action infinity focus setting. Below that is the momentary-action PUSH AUTO button.

At the bottom of the stack, a slide switch engages and disengages the zoom motor.

Above the LCD there's an OIS (Optical Image Stabilization) pushbutton, and three programmable user pushbuttons.

Hidden behind the LCD are buttons for colorbars, zebra setting, and LCD WFM/vectorscope overlays, and counter select/reset buttons. The 160 has two buttons the 250 lacks: EVF DTL, to add a fixed "peaking" or edge-enhancement signal to the LCD and EVF; and an LCD button to toggle LCD backlighting or flip the image in the LCD, depending on menu settings.

(Some of these functions can also be assigned to user buttons, so that they can be activated with the LCD folded against the body. Oddly, neither ZEBRA nor BARS can be so assigned.

The 250 has its EVF DTL-equivalent settings in its menus; the 250 allows 15 different levels of peaking as well as high or low peaking frequency settings. The 250 also allows LCD backlighting adjustment in its menus, but lacks the image-flipping settings.)

There are four slide switches for audio setup, allowing either of the two main channels to use auto or manual leveling, and to select between the internal mikes and the two XLR inputs (both channels can also share XLR input 2, so you can feed a single mike to both a high-gain and a low-gain channel). The AVCCAM 160 records two-channel audio while the P2-based 250 records four, with channels 3 and 4 falling back to whichever two inputs (of the two built-in mikes and the two XLRs) are not selected with these switches.

A row of controls below the LCD handle most of the operational setup functions. At the front, a pushbutton toggles between auto and manual iris modes. Two three-position toggles select between low/medium/high gains (all user-selectable as to gain level) and preset/A/B white balances. There's also a pushbutton on the front of the camera for white balance: in preset, it selects between 3200K and 5600K (and on the 160, a VARIABLE value, which you can set to any color temperature from 2400K to 9900K). In A or B modes, it's pushed to set the white balance, or pushed and held in for black balance. When white balance is set, the cameras briefly show the selected or measured value in the center of EVF and LCD displays.

On the 250, the next control is USER MAIN, a user-assignable pushbutton, set by default to Y GET (a spot-meter reading of the center of the screen). On the 160, this position is occupied by a four-way FUNCTION joystick with a variety of purposes; by default it's used to select and position an area of the screen for autofocus and auto-iris operation (upon which I will expatiate later).

Next is a SHUTTER / FRAME RATE / SYNCHRO SCAN selector dial, and a DIAL SEL button to enable the control and select which function it operates. You select a parameter with DIAL SEL, adjust it with up and down spins of the dial, and push the dial in to keep the setting.

One of the DIAL SEL settings is "dial lock", which prevents inadvertent adjustments: handy perhaps, but the dial, if left alone for ten seconds, goes into lock mode automatically. I often found myself choosing a shutter speed, frame rate, or synchro scan speed, stepping back for a moment to observe its effect on a monitor, then trying to readjust it, only to have the danged camera ignore my input because I'd waited too long. I wound up cursing the timeout on that control; the DIAL SEL button already has "lock" as one of its options, so <rant>if I want the freakin' dial locked, I can jolly well do it myself—there's no need for the camera to get all clever on me, and save me from myself when I don't want to be saved!</rant>

Bringing up the rear of this row are the DISPLAY / MODE CHECK button, used to toggle onscreen displays and to check various parameters, and an AUTO /MANUAL slide switch that, in AUTO mode, puts selected controls into full-auto mode. It's not an all-or-nothing thing; you can choose which operating parameters—gain, iris, focus, white balance—the AUTO setting controls; furthermore you can limit auto gain to 6, 12, or 18dB of gain boost.

The aft end of the left side has a six-position scene file dial in the handle riser. The center of the panel has the four-way control/menu joystick first seen, lo these many years ago, on the DVX100: it's used to navigate, select, and adjust menu items, and to control clip playback, although the control settings differ between the 160 and the 250 (on the 160, pushing the stick up plays a clip, and pushing it in pauses playback, while on the 250 an upward push toggles between play and pause). It's not that one way is better than the other, it's just that, if you have both cameras in your arsenal, you'll have to mentally shift gears moving between 'em.

Additional buttons open/close the menus, execute functions, adjust monitor audio levels or page through thumbnails, and (on the 250) control variable-speed playback.

Top handle: a pod at the front of the handle contains stereo mikes, a tally lamp, and an ambient-light sensor used for white balancing in ATW (Auto-Tracking White) operation. An accessory shoe sits on top; the left side has line/mike/+48v switches for the dual XLRs on the right side.


 

The 160's top handle. The 250's is identical except for the shininess of the paint.


There's a start/stop trigger button with a rotary HOLD switch surrounding it. A single-speed zoom rocker sits beside it; a three-position switch selects one of three speeds for the rocker (it can be set to low/off/high, so that the center position serves as a lockout).

The top of the handle has three tapped accessory sockets: two 1/4" and one 3/8". All are deep and robust and should accommodate almost any reasonable load.

A flip-up EVF sits at the rear of the handle. Its design is largely unchanged from that of previous Panasonic handhelds; it's hinged at the top edge, so that applying any pressure to it, as when bracing the camera against your eye, tends to pivot it downwards. This is handy in keeping the eyepiece firmly locked down in the horizontal position, but more than a little disconcerting if you're trying to use it in any elevated position (I should really characterize if as a flip-down EVF, since that what it wants to do).


 

These cameras share a flip-up EVF hinged at the top.


Right side: A centrally-located and comfortably-formed handgrip sits at the center of mass of the camera. It's smooth on the 250, while it has a textured patch on the 160; I found little difference in comfort or security between them, but I tested these cameras in wintertime. I suspect that in warm weather, the texture of the 160's grip will offer better purchase for sweaty hands.



HPX250 right side view; XLR covers removed. RCA outputs above battery well.




AC160 right side view; XLR covers in place. RCA outputs above battery well.


A variable-speed zoom rocker sits above the handgrip, along with a REC CHECK pushbutton to review the last recording. A start/stop trigger with an on/off/mode switch around it sits on the back, with mode-indicating LEDs above it.


 

AC160 (left) in camera and playback modes; HPX250 (right) in camera and PC (USB transfer) modes.


At the back, there's a fat battery compartment. Above it, a rubber flap covers three RCA jacks, for composite video and stereo audio outputs.

Back: card slots and I/O connectors fill the back of the camera. A flip-open door on the left side covers two SDHD/SDXC slots on the 160, and two P2 slots on the 250 (as well as an SD card slot, for saving camera setups). Beneath the slots, a pushbutton is dedicated to slot selection on the 160, and is user-assignable (with SLOT SEL as the default) on the 250.


 

AC160 and HPX250, rubber caps in place.




AC160's card slots and I/O ports.




HPX250's card slots and I/O ports.


Both cameras offer USB 2.0 (device-mode) jacks, a full-size HDMI output, a six-pin 1394 port accepting locking connectors, an SDI output, a 3.5mm headphone jack, and Panasonic's serial-control zoom / start / stop and focus / iris jacks. These jacks accept remotes from the likes of Varizoom and Bebob, giving fine-grained, repeatable control over lens parameters: with the Bebob Foxi, you can pull focus and iris like a pro.

The 250 adds a host-mode USB 2.0 port, letting the camera back up its P2 cards to USB hard drives without the need for a separate computer. It also has BNCs for genlock in and timecode in or out; the 250 plays well in multicam setups, and may be an interesting option for stereo 3D mirror rigs as a result.
 

Displays and Operation



The cameras are equipped with both a flip-out LCD and an EVF. The 3.5" LCD resolves roughly 500 lines vertically and 350 horizontally; the EVF shows about 500x400. These are decent numbers for SD, but a bit lacking for critical focusing in HD; fortunately both cameras offer focusing aids to assist the solo operator.

The LCD spins around a full 180 degrees to face forward, or 90 degrees in the other direction to face down. When aimed forwards, both the 160 and 250 let you choose between a "mirror" image (flipped left-to-right) as is common on camcorders, or a normal, unflipped image. The LCD is quite usable both indoors and outdoors, though in full sunlight it struggles a bit (it's no worse than the LCDs on other camcorders in this respect).

The EVF, while it has tolerable detail and resides in a formidable housing with a massive eyepiece, lacks sufficient magnification—a long-standing issue with Panasonic EVFs. Instead of an eye-filling picture, the EVF provides the experience of a film seen from the back row of a narrow multiplex theater. While such a presentation keeps the individual pixels of the EVF from being obvious, and lets the eye encompass the entire picture without a lot of looking around, it also leads to unnecessary straining to see fine detail. Watching the diminutive image for focus (even at the 500x400 line resolution of the EVF) is fatiguing after a few minutes; I found myself depending more on the flip-out LCD, even with its slightly coarser image, because I could get "closer" to its picture.


 

View through the AC160's EVF. The HPX250's image is the same size.


I'm harping on this because Panasonic got so much else right with these cameras' ergonomics that miserly EVF magnification stands out by comparison. It's not as if Panasonic lacks the ability to fill the eye with an EVF's display: the DMC-GH2 still camera's EVF (one of the best EVFs available in any still or video camera) displays an image just over 60% larger than the 160's or the 250's, striking (in my opinion) an excellent balance between having an image big enough to focus with, and one small enough to monitor for composition and content in a single glance.


 

View through a Panasonic DMC-GH2's EVF, shot with the same camera at the same zoom setting.


Enough whining: what about the content of the displays? Panasonic has done its usual, thorough job of supplying a wealth of useful info, though the two cameras offer different takes on the organization and layout of these data.


 

HPX250 LCD: Synchro scan on, lens data as numbers from 00-99.




AC160 LCD: No shutter set, so no shutter displayed; lens data as mm and feet. "Spark" is the current scene file's name.


Both cameras offer timecode (or counter value, or user bits) in the upper left; battery status in the upper right; card status and time remaining at the top of the screen; recording format and frame rate on the left; white balance, gain, and ND on the right; audio metering, shutter speed, aperture, zoom, and focus across the bottom. (Shutter speed is only shown when it's set to something other than the default; this is unfortunate, as you're left guessing as to what the default actually is in various modes. It's 1/60 in 60i, for example—the shutter is open for the duration of the field—but it's 1/48 in 24p, a duration of half the frame time.)

The 250 has the same clear, plain display typography found in other DVX/HVX/HPX cameras all the way back to the DVX100. The 160 has a more graphically evolved data overlay, with higher-resolution fonts and more color.

Both cameras' EVFs and LCDs show 100% of the image, by the way.

Focusing Aids

The 250 offers three focusing aids: variable-level EVF peaking, Panasonic's focus bar, and image magnification.

Peaking accentuates high frequencies in the image, like a vigorous sharpening control. The sharpening affects both the LCD and the EVF. There are 15 different strength levels for peaking on the 250, as well as two frequency settings: high or low. With these controls you can set up peaking for just about any situation; unfortunately the controls are buried in the DISPLAY SETUP menu instead of being directly accessible via knobs or buttons.

The focus bar indicates sharpness of focus, growing to the right as focus improves (it measures the amount of high-frequency spatial detail in the image, which increases as focus improves). The focus bar spans half the width of the screen and has enough resolution to be a sensitive indicator. In practice, you get the focus reasonably close, then watch the growth of the focus bar for its halting (when focus is dead-on) or reversing (when you've gone past). It's actually quite useful for fine-tuning focus, more so that it might appear.

Pressing FOCUS ASSIST magnifies or expands the center of the image 3x in the EVF and LCD for critical focusing. It is not available when recording, so it's useless for tracking focus during a shot— peaking and the focus bar wind up being more useful as a result. Still, it's useful for setting marks, and the focus bar remains visible in expanded mode for precise tweaking.



 

FOCUS ASSIST on the 250: 3x magnification and focus bar.


The 160 also has three focusing aids: EVF DTL, focus-in-red, and a focus bar.

EVF DTL on the 160 is a single-level, on/off peaking, familiar to Panasonic camcorder uses since the days of the DVX100A.

Focus-in-red, activated by the FOCUS ASSIST button, is an additional level of peaking in which sharp details are rendered in red (and only in red, sorry; if you're red/green colorblind, or your subject happens to be red, focus-in-red won't be especially helpful. Choice of focus color would be a welcome improvement). Cleverly, the entire border of the screen turns red, so there's no doubt as to whether you've got it turned on or off.

Focus-in-red is applied "downstream" of EVF DTL, amplifying its effect, so with the combination of EVF DTL and focus-in-red you essentially has three levels of viewfinder sharpening in addition to "none". I found the combo, though coarser than the 250's fifteen-level peaking control, to be much more usable, as all four variations are quickly selectable using two dedicated buttons with no menu-diving required.


 

The 160's display without EVF DTL.




EVF DTL has just been switched on, so a status message appears briefly midscreen.




The 160's FOCUS ASSIST engaged atop EVF DTL. It's even detecting the texture in this tiny DSC Labs CDM chart.


The 160 also has a focus bar, which is both more and less helpful than the one on the 250. The 160's bar is a skinny little thing in the lower left corner, growing to perhaps a third the length of the focus bar on the 250, so it's both harder to monitor and less sensitive than the 250's. On the flip side, it pushes a square green "peak level indicator" ahead of it, clearly marking the maximum-focus point just as peak-hold indicators on audio meters mark the most recent loud sound—and it's out of the way, so it's less of a compositional distraction.

Exposure Aids

Both cameras have two zebra settings, each one adjustable from 50% to 105% in 5% increments, but they're used differently on each camera.

The 250 uses the two zebras in concert. You can set it up to show one zebra pattern between the two levels and the other above them (the lower pattern slants from upper left to lower right while the other slants in the opposite direction); to show only a single zebra pattern above a given level, or to show a zebra pattern only between the two levels.

The 160 cycles between zebra off, zebra 1, and zebra 2, with the active zebra pattern appearing on brightnesses within about 5% of the zebra's level setting. The current level selection is displayed for about two seconds, then the indication disappears; I usually wind up setting both zebras to the same value on Panasonics that behave this way, so I won't get confused as to which zebra I currently have selected.

Both cameras also offer a "spot meter" option, Y GET, which reports the brightness level of a box in the center of the screen as a numerical percentage.

The cameras also let you superimpose a waveform monitor or a vectorscope image on the LCD (but not in the EVF; I found it useful to leave the WFM displayed on the opened LCD while watching the picture in the EVF at the same time). The 250 displays monochrome, semitransparent 'scopes on the right side of the LCD, while the 160 uses opaque 'scopes with a brown graticule. The 160's WFM fills the center of the screen, while the vectorscope sits on the right like its counterpart on the 250.

The 250's 'scopes are a bit harder to read, but they block less of the picture; the 160's 'scopes are clearer, but obscure important info. These cameras display momentary status messages in the center of the screen: zebra selection, shutter dial selection, shutter dial mode, and the like. On the 250, you can change shutter speed or zebras with a 'scope displayed, and the status messages appear in front of the 'scope image. On the 160, all such messages appear behind the 'scopes—their second half obscured by the vectorscope, and the entire message hidden behind the WFM.


 

HPX250's WFM. 'Scopes on the 250 don't block status messages.




HPX250's vectorscope display.




AC160 WFM. Note how it's layered atop all other display elements.




AC160 vectorscope display.


It's frustrating, especially while trying to set synchro-scan speeds to avoid flicker: flicker is most easily seen on the WFM, yet with the WFM displayed, you can't see what mode you've set for the shutter dial (and you have to select a mode, because—remember?—the dial auto-locks after ten seconds and has to be re-enabled). As a result, doing anything involving 'scopes on the 160 that also means changing a setting with a status message requires a frantic scramble to toggle the 'scope off, change a setting, and toggle the 'scope on again... and again and again and again, until you're done. If you're torn between these two cameras and you use the 'scopes a lot, this factor alone may push you towards the 250.

The 160 has one more trick up its sleeve, something the 250 lacks: a still-camera-style bar-graph exposure meter, called "iris meter". It's lurking at the right side of the bottom of the screen: a small vertical bar indicating what the camera thinks is "proper" exposure, with shorter bars appearing to the left as the image is underexposed, and to the right as it's overexposed. Each short bar indicates a sixth of a stop, with an intervening space appearing for each stop over or under.


 

Iris meter at bottom right, just outside safe-action area. Here it indicates 1.5 stops underexposure.


In auto-iris AE adjustment mode, where turning the iris varies the level the camera considers to be proper, a small green tick mark drifts away from the "normal" bar to indicate the override.

Iris meter doesn't replace zebras or 'scopes, but it's a very handy reminder when you don't have those other aids displayed, and it's always unobtrusively there.

Audio Monitoring

The cameras both offer bar-graph audio meters in the lower left quadrant of the display. Tick marks show the -12dB level on the 160, and both the -20dB and -12dB levels on the 250, but you're left guessing where the 0dBfs level is until you hit it—a long-standing annoyance with Panasonic's metering.

The 250 offers an additional, pop-up meter spanning the lower third of the display. This meter shows decibel levels by number, just like a real level meter (grin), so it's immediately obvious what your headroom is and how close you are to exceeding it.


 

HPX250's enhanced audio level meters, just after hitting clipping on Ch. 1, and getting darned close on Ch. 2.


(Perhaps I protest too much: both cameras appear to have excellent peak-end limiters. I pegged the meters on several occasions, but the resulting tracks play back cleanly and pleasantly, with no audible evidence of abuse. Hitting the ceiling occasionally with these cameras isn't the disaster it can be on lesser devices.)

The cameras have very nice headphone outputs, too, with plenty of volume and low noise. With Sony MDR-7506 cans plugged in, I happily monitored audio with the 'phones level at about the 2/3 point.

Compositional Aids

The cameras default to showing a center marker and a 90% safe action area, as I show in my screenshots. Both can be turned off, and the safety marker can also be set for 4x3, 14:9, 1.85:1, 2:1, 2.35:1, or 2.39:1 in HD recording. In SD, the choices are 90%, or 4x3 (when shooting widescreen, of course).

The 250 also allows 13:9 and 14:9 SD widescreen markers, while the 160 adds a nine-line grid overlay in HD.

A single press of the DISP / MODE CHK button removes most of the data display from the picture, leaving only the timecode readout, the run/pause indication, and the safety zone.


 

The 160's display, decluttered.


Lens Data

The cameras show iris setting with a resolution of 1/6 stop. They also let you display zoom and focus settings as arbitrary scales from 00 to 99, or as mm and feet (focal length and focal distance respectively), or as mm and meters, thus satisfying the metric and the imperial crowds as well as the old-school 00-99 folks. Panasonic warns that distance readouts are "not entirely accurate"; I didn't tape 'em out, but my review cameras seemed to be very close, judging by eye.

Other Stuff

The 250 shows a four-segment battery-level indicator, but no battery-life estimate. The 160 has the same four-segment display, but it reports estimated battery life in hours and minutes remaining (probably because the 160's conversation with its battery is more modern; the 250 and 160/130 use incompatible battery types. Indeed, I was able to power the 250 with the AC supply and adapter plate from my venerable DVX100, which predated the modern trend towards "talkative" battery connections).

The 250's menus will be instantly familiar to anyone using a DVX, HVX, or HPX-series Panasonic: columns of white text, green highlights for the current selection, and pop-up lists of settable parameters. For the most part, you can twiddle with the 250's menus while seeing the effect of the settings on the underlying picture, a helpful feature when shooting in the field without a separate monitor.



Scene file menu on the HPX250. DRS "OFF" is blue because DRS isn't available in this mode.




Choosing a record format in the 250's System Setup menu.


The 160's menus feature large, pretty boxes with gradient backgrounds, which unfortunately obscure the underlying image, so that seeing the effect of a menu setting requires a separate monitor, or repeated menu exit and re-entry. This odd design choice makes sense when you consider that these same menus are used on other AVCCAM camcorders, including touchscreen cams like the AG-HMC40, where the large boxes serve as touch targets. While the 160 lacks the corresponding touchscreen, the common menu design and layout across AVCCAM models makes it a lot easier to switch between 'em and find what you're looking for.


 

Scene File menu (page 5 of 6) on the AC160.




Selecting gamma in the AC160's Scene File menu.


It's interesting to note what happens when you hit the record button while a menu is displayed. The 250 drops the menu and goes right into record mode; it assumes that you hit record for a reason, and hastens to comply. The 160 ignores the button; it waits for you to purposefully exit the menu before it will allow anything as rash as recording! Neither philosophy of operation is necessarily better than the other, and each will have its adherents.

 

Recording



The HPX250 records AVC-Intra 100, AVC-Intra 50, DVCPRO, DVCPRO50, and DVCPRO HD on P2 cards. The AC160 writes AVCCAM (Panasonic's moniker for AVCHD) and DV to SDHC cards.


 

P2 cards, or SDHC cards? Pick your medium, pick your camcorder... or vice-versa.


A Panasonic 16 GB, Class 10, 25 MB/sec SDHC card costs $55 at B&H, while a Panasonic 16 GB, E-Series, 1.2Gbit/sec P2 card costs $400. However, AVC-Intra 100 takes roughly five times the space of best-quality AVCCAM, so you really need the $630 64 GB P2 card instead. On a dollar-per-minute basis, it's more than ten times the cost to shoot AVC-Intra as to shoot AVCCAM... right?

Wrong: this frequently-made cost comparison is only valid if you don't reuse your media. In my own operations I treat solid-state media as a capital cost, similar to a camera purchase, not as an operational cost like a tape cassette. When I buy a solid-state camera I also budget for media, typically a card for each slot, with perhaps a spare as well. Once purchased, the cards typically last as long as the cameras do, and cards can migrate from one camera to another as they go obsolete less quickly than cameras do. (News shooters and other intensive users may have a different calculus; they may wear out cards faster than cameras through heavy daily use, but even so, cards aren't consumed the same way tape is.)
 


Nitpick: Panasonic says the 64 GB card will hold 64 minutes of 100 Mbps AVC-Intra 100, while it only takes a 12 GB SDHC card to hold 65 minutes of 21 Mbps PH-mode AVCCAM footage, not a 16 GB card. However, Panasonic doesn't make 12 GB SDHC cards, and their 8 GB card costs the same as the 16 GB card at the time I'm writing this, so I'm using 16 GB cards as baselines for comparison.

I'm using B&H's January 2012 prices as my reference simply because B&H carry both products and they have an easily-searchable website. This is not a sly attempt to promote B&H; I'm not getting any kickbacks for doing so, and my only material connection to 'em is as a satisfied customer.


Let's leave aside the somewhat-spurious cost issues and discuss the differences in the codecs and their image qualities.

The HXP250's highest-quality recording is AVC-Intra 100: a 100 Mbps, 10-bit, 4:2:2, full-raster intraframe codec using MPEG-4 AVC compression. It is arguably the cleanest, most artifact-free, least lossy in-camera recording available, short of HDCAM-SR and the higher-bitrate DNxHD and ProRes422 variants. Certainly in the handheld-camcorder market, there's nothing better. If you pixel-peep AVC-Intra 100 pictures, you will occasionally see mild compression artifacts, like minor mosquito noise around sharp edges in a busy scene; but in general AVC-Intra 100 is a robust acquisition format suitable for aggressive color grading, greenscreen, VFX, point-based motion tracking, and all manner of heavy manipulations. In addition, it's fully accepted as an origination codec by most major broadcasters / program distributors.

The 250 also captures in lesser formats: AVC-Intra 50 for DVCPRO HD quality at half the data rate; DVCPRO HD for FireWire transfer and backwards compatibility; DVCPRO25 and DVCPRO50 for SD workflows.

The AC160 captures in AVCHD: a long-GOP MPEG-4 AVC codec with 8 bits, 4:2:0 color sampling, and varying data rates and sampling rasters; the highest quality averages 21 Mbps (24 Mbps max) at 1920x1080 (1280x720 for 720p), with lesser quality modes at average bit rates of 17, 13, 8, and 6 Mbps (the latter recording a 1440x1080 raster). The 160 also records SD using the DV codec at 25 Mbps.

<rant>
It appears to be a requirement of the AVCHD consortium that each mode be given an arbitrary two-letter code; Panasonic uses PH, PM, HA, HG, and HE, while Sony calls their variants FX, FH, PS, HQ, and LP. It's impossible to puzzle these out by any sort of rational process; you must keep the manual handy, learn the codes by rote memorization... or simply remember that on a Panasonic, the good one is PH, and ignore all the rest!
</rant>

The high-quality mode (PH, remember?) is considerably better-looking than HDV, and almost on a par with XDCAM EX HQ. As a long-GOP codec, it's stressed not only by the complexity of a single frame, but by the differences between succeeding frames. On static shots, even the low-quality modes look quite good, but they rapidly fall to pieces once complex motion appears in a scene. The PH mode holds up very well under most conditions, though difficult images like dense foliage blowing in the wind can lead to some loss of fine detail and subtle gradations, and may cause some blocking to appear.

In general, images from the AC160 in PH mode look very good in normal playback, with compression artifacts only noticeable in complex scenes during freeze-frames or slo-mo. Even then, while pixel-peepers may see things to whinge about (typically a grainy noise-like degradation during fast motion, or subtle posterization and blocking in gentle gradients), most viewers won't notice any impairments. I would happily use the AC160's compressed images in applications that don't require extreme grading, high-end compositing, or point-based motion tracking. For those more demanding applications, of course, AVCHD—even at 21 Mbps—shows its limits. Yes, it can still be used, but expect to spend more time in post cleaning up or working around the limits of 8-bit, 4:2:0 images with heavy compression.

For what it's worth, many high-end distributors specify that the bulk of footage in submitted programs be captured at a minimum of 50 Mbps for long-GOP codecs, or 100 Mbps for intraframe codecs. The HPX250 can meet this requirement; the AC160 cannot, not without an external recorder (there are often other requirements, too, like a minimum sensor size of 1/2" or 2/3", but that's a topic for another time). Fortunately, both cameras offer a 4:2:2 signal on their HD-SDI ports (10-bit on the HPX250), so capturing high-quality material externally is easy.

Both cameras offer all the bells and whistles you'd expect from a dual-slot solid-state camera: pre-record, to capture material starting a few seconds before the record button is pressed; interval (time lapse) recording; variable frame rate recording; and relay recording to bounce between cards as they fill up, up to a total time of 12 hours (hot-swapping cards on the HPX250 as needed, or using two 64 GB cards on the AC160 and not physically swapping them out while recording; AVCCAM cameras don't support hot-swapping the way P2 cameras do).

The 250 also allow loop recording (once a card fills up, recording will loop around and record over the oldest material, continuing until manually stopped); one-shot (single frame) recording; and one-clip recording (multiple clips can be recorded in a single file, instead of each clip being its own file).

The 160 provides a simultaneous recording mode, letting you record to two cards in parallel—you can hand one card to the producer for review, while you keep the other one for post, or as a safety copy (producers have been known to lose, damage, or accidentally reformat cards; shocking, I know, but true).

The 160 limits interval recording to AVCHD mode only; you can't use it in DV modes (this is oddly backwards: DV is an intraframe codec, so it's naturally capable of recording individual frames, while AVCHD is long-GOP, requiring 12 or 15 frames to be captured before the entire Group Of Pictures is compressed and recorded as a single unit). When you shoot an interval clip that isn't a multiple of the GOP length, the camera will finish off the clip by repeating the final frame as needed to fill out the GOP; for example, if you grab eleven single frames in 1080p30, the final frame will be repeated four more times to give the codec fifteen frames to compress. The "extra" repeated frames can of course be trimmed off in post; it's just something to be aware of.

Both cameras include menu options to "repair" or "restore" clips damaged by power failures while recording or other such operational glitches. Having only ever had one such failure, three years ago on a single clip on an HVX200, I haven't had the need to put these functions to the test—and it didn't occur to me to eject a card or yank out the battery while recording, just for the pleasure of exploring clip restoring.

Next: Performance; In Use; Conclusions.

 

 


Prev Next »