Review: Panasonic AG-HPX170P 1/3″, 3CCD P2 Camcorder

The P2-only HPX170 is a multitalented, smooth operator with improved picture quality.

The Japanese word “kaizen”, usually translated as “continuous improvement”, applies to Panasonic just as much as Toyota. Just as the HVX200 built on the success of the standard-definition DVX100, adding multiformat recording and multiple frame rates, the HPX170 takes the best features of the HVX200 and builds on them. The 170 makes a better picture. Added functionality, like HD-SDI, more frame rates, and Dynamic Range Stretch, makes it more versatile. Its lighter weight, refined ergonomics, and built-in waveform monitor make it an operator’s delight.

The HPX170 (US$5700 list, $5200 street price) can be considered a slimmed-down, tapeless, feature-enhanced brother to the HVX200. The camera records DV25, DVCPRO50, and DVCPROHD on P2 cards. The 170 drops the 200’s tape drive (which only records standard-def DV25), resulting in a 20% loss of weight and a thinner, better-balanced body that’s much more comfortable to operate handheld for long periods of time. While resolution, sensitivity, and basic scene-file “looks” are similar to those on the HVX200, the CCD block and DSP have been upgraded for cleaner,smoother, more naturalistic images with markedly reduced aliasing, and numerous operational improvements make the camera easier to control.

(The HVX200 remains in Panasonic’s lineup as the HVX200A, and shares the same CCD block and DSP with the 170, so those interested in the 200A should read on to see how the basic imaging of this new generation compares with the older 200. The AVCHD-recording, HD-only HMC150 also uses this same chip block and processor, so expect its fundamental imaging performance to track the HPX170’s.)

Panasonic sent me a preproduction HPX170 for several days, and I was able to put it beside my trusty HVX200 for detailed comparison.

Design & Handling

The HPX170 is conventional in design, not hugely different in overall dimensions from the HVX200; it is slightly longer, lower, and rather a bit thinner.


HPX170


HVX200


HPX170


HVX200

The design accents are more tapered and angular, too; while the chunky, rectilinear HVX200 reminded me of hardware from Forbidden Planet, the HPX170 calls nothing to mind so much as Astro Boy !

At 4.2 pounds (without battery , P2 cards, or accessories), the HPX170 isn’t much heavier than the 3.7 pound, DV-only DVX100. It’s lighter than the 4.7 pound HVR-Z1, the 5.3 pound HVR-Z7, and the 5.5 pound HVX200—never mind the heavier EX-series camcorders with their 1/2″ sensors. The camera’s light weight, combined with a centered, comfortably contoured handgrip, makes the HPX170 eminently handholdable for long periods, which is not something I say about many 3-chip HD camcorders.

The 13x Leica zoom sports 72mm filter threads and a squared-off bayonet-mount lens hood with a separate lens cap . A ridged, rubberized, free-spinning servo focus/iris ring offers multiple functions. In manual focus mode, it spins 300 degrees to traverse the full focusing range, affording fine control like a film lens. In MF Assist mode, it uses a shorter 150 degree throw for fast focusing; the camera’s autofocus then fine-tunes the result, limiting itself to small adjustments, so it won’t blow your focus in favor of something much nearer or farther away. The ring can also be switched to iris control using a slide switch on the right side of the baseplate (the HPX170 has the usual Panasonic iris thumbwheel on the baseplate, too, but sometimes the finer control offered by the large ring is preferable, and the hardwired, easy-to-feel selection switch lets you toggle between iris and focus modes on the fly. The HVX200 also offers focus/iris selection, but only through a user-programmable button.)


Lens and main body-mounted controls. The focus / iris selector is below the flip-out LCD.

A mechanical, cam-driven zoom ring with bright orange markings travels about 90 degrees to select focal length. It’s lightly and smoothly damped, so that smooth manual zooms are possible with a litle practice (the damping is a bit on the light side, so a delicate touch is called for). The zoom rocker motor is engaged using a manual / servo selector switch on the left side of the camera; on the HVX200 this slider is on the right side of the baseplate, below the lens, and can be hard to find in the heat of battle, so the 170’s switch location is a vast improvement. The relocation of this mechanical function undoubtedly complicated the design of the camera; Panasonic’s engineers are to be commended for putting ergonomics ahead of economy.

The power zoom ranges from 3-30 seconds, end to end. Within that range it’s nicely modulated, but the slow speed isn’t especially slow, so it can be hard to ease into or out of a power zoom without a bit of a bump. The fastest speed is also a bit pokey for doing a snap-zoom. Overall, it’s adequate for performing nicely modulated zooms of reasonable briskness, but doing slow creeps or fast crashes is best accomplished with the manual zoom ring.

A side panel offers the usual three-position focus mode switch, a “push auto” momentary autofocus button, and a pushbutton for Focus Assist (described later). Another slide switch controls the three-level neutral density filter, allowing two, four, and six stops of attenuation. Many other cameras only offer two choices; for example the HVX200 provides three and six stops of ND. The finer control afforded by the HPX170 allows more consistent iris settings even as light level varies, so that (if you want) you can keep depth of field as shallow as the 170’s 1/3″ sensors allow.

Three user-programmable buttons and the slide switch for manual / servo zoom finish off the side panel. The user buttons have the usual options as seen on the HVX200, such as auto-tracking white balance, +18dB gain, and the like, and add several new ones, too:

  • Engage the digital zoom function.
  • Toggle the audio level meters between channels 1 & 2 and channels 3 & 4.
  • Delete the last clip.
  • Enable pre-recording.
  • change frame rates in variable frame rate modes.

The left side of the baseplate starts off with the front-mounted white balance pushbutton. In manual mode, a short press sets white balance; in preset mode it first shows the current setting (3200K or 5600K), then toggles it on a second push (no need to dive into the menus to change the preset, as on some other cameras). Pressing and holding the button triggers a black balance.

The camera has a large iris thumbwheel with a manual / auto toggle button; in auto mode, the thumbwheel acts as exposure compensation, changing the setpoint for the auto-iris to allow brighter or darker images. Three-position, programmable toggles control gain and white balance; slide switches control the zoom servo and whether the camera is in full-auto mode; a flat pushbutton toggles display overlays and (when held in) provides a comprehensive status-check display. Channel 1 & 2 audio levels finish off the baseplate behind a fixed, clear plastic guard that reduces inadvertent adjustment while still providing good visibility and easy control.

The whole control layout works very well. On my HVX200, the three user buttons and the mode check button form a single row along the baseplate, and it can be hard to tell them apart. The 170’s controls are just a little bit better separated, better organized, and more readily distinguished by position and feel. Control forces are nicely calibrated, too; buttons push and switches flip easily enough when actuated purposefully, yet are resistant to accidental activation. Having the audio pots on the side instead of the rear panel makes it much easier to tweak levels while rolling; having the zoom switch on the side instead of the front is a lifesaver.


Controls behind, below, and above the flip-out LCD

The flip-out LCD pops open to reveal pushbuttons for shutter control, color bars (with optional 1kHz tone), counter and timecode control, zebra display, optical image stabilization, EVF detail (single-level peaking control), and WFM display.

The audio controls let you define the inputs to channels 1 & 2; channels 3 & 4 (in every format other than 48 kHz DV25 recording) pick up whatever is left over, as the camera has a stereo mic and two XLR inputs. Phantom power can be chosen for either XLR input individually, and either input can be set to mic or line level using slide switches beside the connectors on the right side. Mic-level sensitivities as well as ALC (auto limiter control) settings are further adjustable in the menu system.

The HPX170 has two zebra settings, each one menu-selectable between 50% and 105% in 5% intervals. Pushing the Zebra button chooses between off, zebra 1, zebra 2, and a center marker readout. When a zebra is selected, its level is also briefly shown, so you don’t have to poke through the menus or your own overburdened memory to recall what the settings are.

Menu/playback controls reside on the side of the EVF, and will be instantly familiar to DVX100 users. A four-way joystick and four surrounding buttons control the menus, audio monitoring levels, and clip playback. Their vertical arrangement works very well regardless of whether one is viewing the EVF or the folded-in LCD, whereas the corresponding pushbuttons on the HVX200’s top panel always seem 90 degrees out of phase when using that camera’s EVF. While the joystick has a tendency to be slightly fiddly, I found it to be much faster to operate than the HVX200’s button panel.

The HPX170’s rear panel surrounds a center-mounted battery slot, beneath a flip-down cover for the two P2 card slots.


The connector end of the HPX170, with the plastic dust cover opened.

The left side has the six-position scene file (picture preset) selector dial, a dedicated slot select button (to switch which slot is being used for recording or playback), and a mode selector, to switch the camera between CAM (camera) and MCR (playback; memory card reader?) modes. Holding the mode button down puts the 170 into PC mode, where the cards appear as FireWire disks or USB disks, depending on the setup used and the cables and computers connected. A small window at the bottom hides the infrared remote control sensor, and surrounds the rear tally LED.

The right side puts most of the video and control connections behind a flip-down soft plastic cover: a full, 10-bit HD-SDI port with embedded audio and timecode; a six-pin FireWire port, complete with cutouts for locking 1394 connector tabs (thus forever disproving the vile canard that small cameras are too small for proper, six-pin connectors!); a new D-shell component video port, a headphone jack, and Panasonic’s two serial control ports.

The D-shell connector resembles the component connector on Sony’s HDV and EX camcorders, but it’s twice the size. On the other hand, it’s half the size of the locking D-shell connector used on the HVX200 and the Canon XL H1.

The control ports, like those on the DVX100B and the HVX200, allow both zoom / start / stop controllers and focus / iris controllers (from the likes of Varizoom and Bebob) to be attached. The remote ports on these cameras—unique to Panasonic—let these cameras be used on jib arms or full shoulder-mount rigs while retaining full focus, zoom, and iris control, something not normally possible without additional external motors and controllers.


The handheld side of the HPX170.

The camera’s handle has a 1/4″x20 mounting socket for accessories, a simple on/off type zoom rocker (with a slide switch to select low, medium, and high speeds, or off, depending on menu setup), a start/stop trigger with an on/off switch, an accessory shoe, and a stereo microphone at the front with a tally LED. There’s a small speaker mounted in the top plate of the camera, below the accessory socket.

The camera’s grip dominates the right side, which is cut away at the rear to get the thumb (and the rest of the supporting hand) as close to the camera’s centerline as possible. A variable-speed zoom rocker and a rec check (record review) button sit atop the grip, just above what seem to be ventilation slots (which are conveniently located to keep the camera’s inner workings cool in the summer, or your zoom fingers warm on chilly days, depending on your point of view [joke]). The grip is nicely contoured and, combined with its strap, and the camera’s low weight, affords a sure, certain, and stable grasp.


Behind and ahead of the HPX170’s grip.

The camera’s power switch and main trigger reside behind the grip. Their position and operation are familiar to any DVX/HVX user, but the rotating switch is recessed into the grip instead of riding on its surface, so it’s more protected from accidental activation and is more comfortable to rest one’s thumb across.

The camera’s USB 2.0 connector, used for hooking the camera up to a Windows PC or a USB hard disk for data transfer, sits above the trigger behind its own rubber cover.

Ahead of the grip are RCAs for composite video and stereo audio outputs, and dual XLRs for audio input. All have pop-off rubber dust covers (which are easily misplaced if you’re not careful). Sadly there is no Y/C (S-Video) output.

The 3.5″ LCD and the EVF appear to use the same panels as their counterparts on the HVX200. The LCD pivots forward 180 degrees, backwards 90 degrees, and can be folded flat against the camera with the LCD open or closed. The EVF flips up as much as 90 degrees. The EVF can be run in color or monochrome, and can be turned on all the time, or just when the LCD is closed. Neither the LCD nor the EVF win any awards for sharpness (the LCD barely resolves 200 TVl/ph, and the EVF even less), but the HPX170 offers four different focusing aids to work around the lack of detail. The image shown on the displays is very sensitive to vertical viewing angle, with contrast, black level and hue all subject to substantial changes. Both displays are 4×3 native; when showing 16×9 images, they allow the camera’s comprehensive data displays to reside mostly outside the active image area, so you can stay informed while at the same time seeing your composition mostly uncluttered.

The data displays are comprehensive and fully customizable. Among the selectable readouts are focal length, focal distance in meters or feet, f/stop, and two channels of audio metering, complete with markers at the -20dB, -12dB, and 0dBfs so you know how much further you can push things.


The HPX170 accepts two P2 cards in slots below the EVF.

Two P2 cards load in slots at the rear, below the EVF. A green light means the camera sees a card in that slot, but the card can be removed; a yellow light means the card is active; a flashing yellow light means the card is actively being read or written. Like other P2 cameras, the HPX170 lets you swap cards while recording; you can round-robin cards through the camera to record a continuous take as long as your power and your patience hold out. There’s also an SD / SDHC slot above the top P2 slot; SD or SDHC cards are used for storing setup files, scene files, and metadata files for transferring to other cameras or to a PC or Mac.

Next: Performance


Performance

Lens

The lens is a 13x, 3.9mm-51mm (compared to the HVX200’s 4.2-58mm) Leica Dicomar. That 0.3mm at the wide end makes a difference where it’s needed, without robbing the telephoto end of anything significant. By comparison, the HPX170 at 4.0mm has the same angle of view as an EX1/EX3 fully wide; even the 0.1mm difference between 3.9mm and 4.0mm on a 1/3″ camera is visible!).

The lens ramps continuously from f/1.6 fully wide to f/3.0 at full telephoto. There’s some barrel distortion fully wide, as is normal on the wide end of long zooms; as you zoom in, it turns almost immediately into gentle mustache distortion, which mostly flattens out by 5.0mm. Some residual, very minor distortion is visible on test charts through the rest of the zoom range, but it’s not noticeable under normal shooting circumstances; this lens is very comparable to the one on the HVX200—just a bit wider, with slightly more wide-end barreling.

Evenness of illumination is a bit worse than on the HVX200; wide open at wide angle, there’s a gentle falloff of more than half a stop at the edges of the image compared to the center, and even at telephoto the edges are a bit darker than the center. This sort of thing is only visible on the waveform monitor, though; visually it’s not at all apparent. Stopping down to f/4 or more flattens the illumination except at the very corners of the image.

(The review camera didn’t go through Panasonic’s final QC, so production cameras may be a bit better in these regards.)

As on the HVX200, chromatic aberration was negligible at most focal lengths, with only a tiny amount visible on extremely contrasty edges at full telephoto. Prism-induced vertical CA on out-of-focus subjects was likewise negligible.

Overall, I’d rate the optics on this camera as being very good for the money.

There was a slight variation in focal-length readout calibration between the sample HPX170 and my HVX200: framing up a resolution chart from the same position reads as 12.0mm on the 170, 11.6mm on the 200.

Sensors and Processing

Like the HVX200 before it, the HPX170 uses three 1/3″ CCDs with 960×540 active photosites. The green CCD is offset 1/2 the pixel pitch in both H & V axes from the blue and red CCDs; this pixel offset boosts overall sharpness while still allowing for large (thus: sensitive and low-noise) photosites. The resulting resolution is 540 TVl/ph horizontally, and 540 lines vertically.

Important note: There’s more to a camera than raw resolution numbers, as I discuss in How Important is Resolution? and Whither the HVX200?. I think this camera has real value; otherwise I wouldn’t be wasting my time and yours with this review.

There’s ample detail there for SD recording at either 25 or 50 Mbps, and the sensors are a good match for 720p DVCPROHD’s 960×720 sampling. Only when shooting 1080-line formats, or when using the full-raster HD-SDI output, will any lack of fine detail be detectable, and that only in a side-by-side comparison with more finely-detailed cameras.

As in the HVX200, the CCDs’ signals are combined in the DSP to form a 1920×1080 progressive image, from which all recorded and output formats are derived. In the HVX200, however, substantial aliasing occurred; fine scene detail had a tendency to cause moir©, often in green/magenta hues due to the pixel-offset method. Additionally the camera’s HD images, when viewed at high magnification, had something of the appearance of pictures shot through a window screen, or early-’80s computer graphics rendered without sufficient oversampling: there was a slight steppiness on diagonal edges, or “pixelization” of fine detail. (Mind you, these image artifacts are not obvious unless you’re shooting a test chart or certain other pathological images. Rather, they render the HVX200’s images slightly “gritty” or “CGI-like”, more a subliminal effect than anything immediately visible.)

The HPX170—and the HMC150 and the newer HVX200A—are entirely new cameras in this respect: even though they have the same raw photosite count, and the same limiting resolution, their images are immensely improved, with vastly reduced aliasing, no color moir© to speak of, and none of the gritty pixelization of the older HVX200. The new cameras’ images are smooth, naturalistic, and easy on the eyes. Whether it’s a higher fill factor on the CCDs, better optical low-pass filtering, or more sophisticated digital filtering and rescaling (or all of the above), Panasonic has managed to minimize the undesirable artifacts without degrading apparent sharpness—impressive.


DSC CamAlign MB, HPX170, 1080p DVCPROHD, Detail @ 0.


DSC CamAlign MB, HVX200, 1080p DVCPROHD, Detail @ 0.

Those 1080/24p grabs, taken from 1280×1080 DVCPROHD clips, capture all the true detail the cameras have to offer: they don’t differ substantially from the camera’s uncompressed, E-E image.

(All these images were resized horizontally, using Photoshop’s bicubic interpolation, but aside from that they are native, pixel-for pixel presentations with no additional processing.)

For comparison, I also present a 720p sample, captured from a 960×720 DVCPRO clip:


DSC CamAlign MB, HPX170, 720p DVCPROHD, Detail @ 0.

As you can see, the recording format is now the limiting factor in detail, not the raw resolution of the sensors; this is why I say that the HPX170’s (and HVX200’s) “sweet spot” is 720p DVCPROHD production. 1080-line recording definitely lets more detail through than 720-line recording does.

Mind you, the HPX170 is now the smallest, least expensive camcorder to offer full 4:2:2 DVCPRO50 standard-definition recording, too.

Compared to the HVX200, the HPX170 has reduced image noise (especially chroma noise) at all gain levels:


HPX170 and HVX200 compared at +12dB gain. The banding in the images is not due to the cameras, but rather to the Litepanels Mini LED arrays I was using to light my test charts.

Vertical smear is dramatically reduced compared to the HVX200. Shooting straight into a halogen light, I got the same smear at F8 on the 170 that I saw at f2.4 on the 200: that’s 3.5 stops better performance. And shooting into a beautiful, coppery setting sun (the California wildfires were upwind at the time), I couldn’t see any smear at all on the 170:


HPX170: “properly” exposed for the sunset, and opened all the way.

Those improvements aside, the HPX170’s image rendering tracks the HVX200’s almost identically.

It shows the same 8-9.3 stops of dynamic range, depending on gamma and knee setting and how far you’re willing to push it in post. This is pretty much the norm for 1/3″ cameras following Rec709 gamma encoding standards. Sensitivity tracks the HVX200 within the limits of measurement; I rate it at ISO 320.

The HPX170’s five standard gammas (SD Norm, HD Norm, Black Press, High, and Low) and two cine gammas (Cine-like D and Cine-like V) all render the tonal scale exactly as they do on the earlier camera. The four color matrices (Norm1, Norm2, Fluo, and Cine-like) also behave as before, though the HVX200’s “enhanced” matrix is now called “norm2”: it’s the same matrix, only renamed, as it’s designed to slightly desaturate “brighter” colors rather than “enhance” duller ones.


HPX170 color matrix variations.

In standard gammas, High knee cuts in at about 100%; mid around 92%, and Low around 83%. The knees reduce the slope of the tonal curve by about half. Auto knee appears to vary the knee point, based on picture content, between high and med. In the cine gammas, knee is forced to OFF in the menus, but a knee is still applied to the images. In Cine-like D gamma, knee appears to kick in around 101%, while in cinelike V it compresses tones about 104%, and flatten the tonal curve considerably. These, again, track the response of an HVX200 to the same settings.

This adherence to tradition is a Good Thing: the HVX200’s reputation is built on its tonal scale and color rendition as much as on its variable frame rates, with Cine-like V gamma especially notable for its gorgeous handling of highlights on skin tones (see Exploring the HVX).

Since the camera uses CCD sensors, there is no rolling shutter nor any chance of “Jellocam” images.

Next: Formats & Outputs; Features & Functions


Formats and Outputs

The HPX170 shoots and outputs a variety of formats:

  • 480/24p (recorded as 60i using 3:2 pulldown)
  • 480/24pa (“advanced”, 2:3:3:2 pulldown)
  • 480/30p (recorded as 60i using 2:2 pulldown)
  • 480/60i
  • 720/24p (recorded as 60p with repeated frames)
  • 720/24pn (“native”, no repeated frames)
  • 720/30p (recorded as 60p with repeated frames)
  • 720/30pn (“native”, no repeated frames)
  • 720/60p
  • 1080/24p (recorded as 60i using 3:2 pulldown)
  • 1080/24pa (“advanced”, 2:3:3:2 pulldown)
  • 1080/30p (recorded as 60i using 2:2 pulldown)
  • 1080/60i

Panasonic can also upgrade the camera to shoot 50Hz formats, making it a true worldwide camera for those that need this added capability.

All these formats are derived from the 1920×1080 internal frame format, and Panasonic’s resizing and progressive-to-interlace conversion are very good.

Either SDI or analog component outputs may be used, but not both simultaneously; enabling SDI disables component. The composite analog output is always available. The component and SDI outputs will track the camera’s format setting, or they can be set to downconvert HD output to 480i. Downconversion can be squeezed (anamorphic), letterboxed, or cropped at the sides for a center-cut, full-height 4×3 image. Additionally, 720p may be output natively, or cross-converted to 1080i.

The 1394 connector provides AV/C-compatible DV streams in all but the “native” recording modes. These can be recorded to other DV/DVCPRO50/DVCPROHD decks (including other HPX and HVX camcorders), to portable disk recorders like the FireStore, or to FireWire-equipped Macs and PCs.

The HPX170 offers both 1394 (Mac) and USB 2.0 (PC) connections for hookup as a data device, letting the connected computer access clips as if it were talking to a disk drive. While popping a P2 card out of the camera and into a computer’s PC Card slot (or a DuelAdapter on ExpressCard-equipped laptops) gives faster transfer rates and avoids tying up the camcorder, the wired connection is handy for systems that lack either kind of slot.

The 1394 port can also be configured in HOST mode, which allows the camera to transfer clips to a FireWire disk drive without the aid of a separate computer (the HPX170 reformats the drive with up to fifteen separate partitions, and copies the contents of each P2 card to its own partition; note that the drive must supply its own power: it cannot be powered from the camera’s 1394 port).

On-board recording uses the DV[CPRO[50|HD]] family of codecs: 4:1:1 DV25 or 4:2:2 DV50 (DVCPRO50) for SD, both at 720×480 luma samples; 4:2:2 960×720 DVCPROHD for 720p; and 4:2:2 1280×1080 DVCPROHD for 1080i/p. The “native” 720p modes, 24pn and 30pn, record only unique frames, so they drop the data rate from 100Mbps to 40Mpbs and 50 Mbps respectively, offering increased recording capacity and faster transfer times, since there’s less data per second of recorded material. All recording is 8-bits, with four channels of 48kHz, 16-bit audio (except for DV25: 2 channels of 48 kHz 16-bit audio, or 4 channels of 32 kHz, 12-bit peak-compressed audio).

The camera doesn’t offer AVC-Intra recording (not that AVC-I is expected in a camera of this class, but if I don’t mention it, I just know I’m going to get asked the question!).

The camera accepts 4GB, 8GB, 16GB, and 32 GB P2 cards. A single 16GB P2 card holds the following amount of material:

  • DV25: 64 minutes.
  • DVCPRO50: 32 minutes.
  • 720/24PN: 40 minutes.
  • 720/30PN: 32 minutes.
  • All other DVCPROHD, both 720p and 1080i/p: 16 minutes.

Individual files are limited to 4 GB, so clips that exceed that size are seamlessly split across multiple files.

Audio performance in my limited testing appeared to be as good as on the DVX100 and HVX200—which is to say, very good indeed.

Features and Functions

If you need a complete rundown on all the features and functions, why not download the ops manual and brochure directly from Panasonic? I’ll simply cover the highlights.

The menu system of the camera offers a high degree of control over the camera’s configuration and image rendering. Most parameters are controllable over small numerical ranges, such as -7 to +7, but these parameters cover fairly wide adjustments, and are much quicker to dial in than the -100 to +100 ranges of some other cameras.

For the most part, the menus are comparable between the HPX170 and the HVX200, though the HPX will sneak in things like a couple of additional shutter speeds or a few more adjustment steps on certain parameters. The level of control afforded by the menu system sits midway between the limited choices in most consumer and prosumer camcorders, and the overwhelming flexibility of the SDX900 or Varicam; practically speaking there’s enough tweakability for most people.

Like the DVX and HVX cameras, the HPX170 offers six scene files on a rotating dial. Each one can be set up with its own color, matrix, gamma, knee, frame rate, detail, and black level settings (among others), and switched to as needed.

Sets of scene files can be saved to an SD / SDHC card, as can the overall camera setup, making it easy to change configuration or share setups and scene files between HPX170s. (Scene files are not interchangeable between the HPX and the HVX, though the HVX200A and HVX200 can use each other’s files.)

The camera offers two modes in the scene files, “video cam” and “film cam”. In video cam mode, shutter speeds are given as fractions of a second, and most of the special playback modes (pre-rec, loop, single-frame) are accessible, but variable frame rates are not. In film cam mode, shutter speeds are expressed as shutter angles (e.g., at 24fps, a 1/48 shutter is shown as 180 degrees), and variable frame rates are usable—but other special recording functions are not.

Variable Frame Rates

In 720p when the camera is set to “film cam” mode, the HPX170 lets you choose from 20 different frame rates, from 12fps to 60fps. If your playback frame rate is 24fps, these correspond to anywhere from a 2x speedup (shooting at 12fps) to a 2.5x slo-mo (shooting at 60 fps).

VFR is available in either the full-up 60p recording modes, or in the “native” 24pn and 30pn modes.

Audio is muted in VFR unless the frame rate matches the playback rate: shooting at 24fps in 24p modes will capture audio, but shooting at 22 fps does not.

I don’t know if Barry Green’s frame-rate hack works on the HPX170.

Special Recording Modes

The special recording modes require the camera to be in “video cam” mode, and in 60i, 60p, or 30p frame rates; they don’t work at 24p, nor with “native” PN recording modes.

Pre-record buffers video while the camera is in standby, so when you press the record button you also get the video for a few seconds before you pressed it: great for catching unpredictable events in nature photography or sports work. The pre-record buffer is about 7 seconds long for DV25, 6 seconds for DVCPRO50, and 3 seconds for any of the HD modes.

Loop recording ping-pongs between two P2 cards, recording constantly until the cards are filled, and the recording over the oldest material until the recording is stopped. Both P2 cards need at least a minute of free space for loop record to work, and loop record will always keep about a minute of “free buffer” available. Loop record is ideal for “crash data recorder” applications, capturing the most recent N minutes up until an event occurs, where N is the amount of free space available on your two P2 cards, minus qa minute or two.

Interval recording is used for time-lapse applications, shooting a single frame at intervals from once every 2 frames (e.g., a 2x speedup) to once every 10 minutes.

One-shot recording grabs a burst ranging from 1 frame to 1 second every time the start/stop button is pushed.

Focusing Aids

Though the LCD and EVF of the HPX170 are rather coarse, Panasonic has provided four focusing aids to compensate for them:

EVF DTL turns on a fixed peaking signal, which enhances in-focus detailed with a white outlining. EVF DTL has its own dedicated buttion and can be toggled at any time.

Expanded Focus Assist magnifies the center of the image (in HD modes only, alas) to allow easier focus finding.


A test chart without and with expanded focus assist.

Focus assist can be selected at any time (unless digital zoom is enabled), whether or not recording is in progress. An odd side effect is that the background image is stretched horizontally a slight bit, so that it’s cropped to the safe area instead of showing the entire image.

Graphed Focus Assist is a detail frequency histogram, which graphs spatial scene frequencies. As more of the scene comes into focus, the right side of the graph shows more data; maximizing the data to the right—both the higher frequencies and the overall amplitude—maximizes focus.

Both Graph and Expand are selected using the side-mounted Focus Assist button; it can be set to show one, the other, or both at the same time.

Focus Bar shows a growing horizontal bar in the display; when the bar is as long as possible, focus is as sharp as possible. The focus bar is enabled in the display setup menus and is independent of the Focus Assist button.


Expanded and graphed Focus assist, plus the focus bar.

While I would still prefer a big, sharp display with a fully variable peaking control, I found I had no problem obtaining and maintaining sharp focus with this selection of aids. In particular I found that the graph and bar helped me without distracting me from the composition of my picture; I wound up leaving the focus bar enabled (I could still declutter the display with the DISP MODE button) and toggling the graph on and off as I saw fit. Even when my focusing target was a small area of the screen, with the rest of the image unfocused, both the bar and graph displays indicated a “local maximum” when my target was sharply focused.

None of these displays affect the cameras outputs, only the built in LCD and EVF.

Waveform Monitor and Vectorscope

There’s a dedicated WFM button on the camera’s side. It can be set to display a waveform monitor, a vectorscope, or both, one after the other:


The HPX170’s built-in engineering displays.

The WFM is highly detailed, like the one on the BT-LH1760 monitor. Both displays show up on the LCD only, not the EVF, so it’s quite possible to operate with the right eye to the uncluttered EVF while the left eye sees the WFM: full-time, fully detailed exposure monitoring while still being able to see the picture.

It is simply too cool for words.

Dynamic Range Stretch

DRS, whch replaces the HVX200’s news gamma, works only in 60p/60i modes. It’s a localized levels/contrast optimizer, much like the highlights and shadows controls in Aperture or Photoshop. It has three strength levels, and used judiciously, it can pull a lot of detail out of the shadows and the highlights. Overuse it, though, and you’ll notice the same sort of halation and shadowing effects as you’d get with the same tools overused in the image-editing programs, only in motion: the resulting effect is either artistic, or reminiscent of image orthicon black levels, depending on your viewpoint!


The effect of DRS: off, 1, 2, and 3.


A hummingbird with DRS off, and with DRS 3. Note the black shadowing in DRS 3.

Digital Zoom

When in 60i/60p modes, you can engage a digital zoom, enlarging the central part of the image by 2x, 5x, or 10x, regardless of the optical zoom setting. It’s a fun effect, though it won’t win any quality awards. Engaging digital zoom disables enlarged focus assist, but really: when the whole image is magnified this way, it is focus assist!

Data Management and Clip Playback

The HPX170 switches between camera mode and MCR (playback) mode in under two seconds at the push of a button. That button is nicely separated from the power switch, too; there’s no chance of inadvertently switching modes when you really meant to turn the camera off.

The LCD, EVF, and composite outputs provide a handy thumbnail view:


LCD displays: thumbnail view, and menus.

A red clip number in the upper left corner means the clip’s format (shown for the selected clip in the gray bar below the thumbnails, along with the clip’s duration) isn’t playable at the current format setting. However the HPX170 lets you push the joystick down for a second, and the playback format will switch to that of the selected clip—no more trips into the format menus, as was the case on the HVX200.

You can play clips in forwards or reverse at 1/5x, 1x, 2x, 4x, 12x, and 24x, and single-step them in either direction.

You can also delete clips, repair them if they’ve suffered data glitches, or examine and modify a long list of properties.


Main property page; “device” property.

Clip metadata like the text memo many be edited in a PC and loaded from an SD or SDHC card, ready to be appended to a clip automatically or at the press of a button. Or, as shown here, text can be edited after a clip has been recorded.


Some properties, such as “memo”, are editable with a cursor-driven on-screen keyboard. The cursor wraps around the edges, so it’s surprisingly fast to use.

If you then use Panasonic’s P2 Contents Management System, or media management tools available from the likes of Imagine Products, Pictron or Focus Enhancements, all this clip-level metadata becomes searchable, sortable, and editable in post-production.

Finally: Conclusion & Links


Conclusion

The AG-HPX170 is a tapeless, P2-only brother to the HVX200; by losing the DV tape drive, it becomes one of the lightest, best balanced 3-chip HD camcorders available.

The HPX170 has the same resolution as the older HVX200, but improvements in its sensors and image processing yield a smoother, cleaner, more pleasing image closer to that of the far more expensive, 2/3″ HPX500. It inherits the 200’s LCD and EVF, yet improved focusing aids and a built-in WFM (unique among camcorders) make focusing and exposing the 170 much more certain.

The HPX170 retains all the P2-based flexibility of the older camera: 480, 720, and 1080-line formats, variable frame rates in 720p, and special recording modes like pre-record, loop record, single frame, and interval recording. It also retains the scene files, gamma settings, and matrices of the older camera, providing a wealth of looks and plenty of tweakability.

Its DV, DVCPRO50, and DVCPROHD recording gives consistent, predictable results regardless of scene motion, and its intraframe-coded files play well and render quickly in nonlinear editors.

If you need a comfortable, usable camcorder that you can operate handheld for long periods, with well-thought-out and well-positioned controls, then you should give the HPX170 a look. If you do a lot of run’n’gun, and need to focus and expose on the fly, it’ll give you the tools you need to succeed. If you already have a DVCPROHD-based production ecosystem, the HPX170 fits right in. If you work with standard definition video and/or 720P DVCPROHD, the HPX170 won’t disappoint you.

If you require the highest possible HD resolution, then you may want to keep looking—the HPX170’s HD images are very good, but a bit softer than the competition’s.

Pros

  • Arguably the most operator-friendly handheld HD camcorder available.
  • Shoots 480i, 480p, 720p, 1080i, and 1080p.
  • P2 solid-state recording.
  • Pre-record, loop, interval, and single-frame recording
  • Variable frame rate recording.
  • 24p recording, including advanced pulldown in 480i, 1080i formats and native recording in 720p.
  • Low weight, well balanced.
  • Panasonic cine gammas.
  • Good zoom lens with good wide angle coverage.
  • Cleaner, smoother, better picture than HVX200.
  • 10-bit HD-SDI output with audio and timecode.
  • Excellent in-camera downconversion.
  • Post-friendly DV/DVCPRO50/DVCPROHD formats.
  • Good focusing aids.
  • Excellent data displays including exclusive waveform monitor, vectorscope.
  • Full remote focus/iris/zoom control.
  • Unprecedented five-year warranty, if you register the camera with Panasonic.

Cons

  • Lower resolution than some other HD camcorders.
  • Comparatively low-res LCD, EVF.
  • LCD image rendering is very angle-dependent.
  • No Y/C output.

Cautions

  • Most special functions (DRS, pre-rec, loop, digital zoom, etc.) work only in 60i and/or 60p modes.
  • Expanded focus assist not available in standard-definition modes.
  • Variable frame rates only in 720p modes.
  • No live 1394 data stream for 720pn modes (but the FireStore can remove redundant frames from the non-PN 1394 stream, giving you much the same result).

Operating manual, spec sheet, and other data here: http://catalog2.panasonic.com/webapp/wcs/stores/servlet/ModelDetail?displayTab=O&storeId=11201&catalogId=13051&itemId=280234&catGroupId=34401&surfModel=AG-HPX170

Firmware updates, P2 drivers for Mac & PC, P2 Viewer, and P2 Contents Management Software: P2 HD Support

Background HVX200 articles:
HVX200 review on dv.com
Exploring the HVX on dv.com
Whither the HVX200? on PVC


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Adam Wilt

Adam Wilt

Adam Wilt has been working off and on in film and video for the past thirty years, while paying the bills writing software for animation, automation, broadcast graphics, and real-time control for companies including Abekas, Pinnacle, Omneon, CBS, and ABC. Since 1997 his website, adamwilt.com, has been a popular reference for information on the DV formats. He reviewed cameras for DV Magazine and started its “Technical Difficulties” column, and taught classes and led panels at NAB, IBC, and DV Expo. He co-authored the book, “Optimizing Your Final Cut Pro System”, part of the Apple Pro Training series. He currently writes for ProVideoCoalition.com and DVInfo.net, and creates iPhone apps like Cine Meter II and Wi-Fi WFM.