Review: Panasonic AG-HPX370 1/3" 3-MOS P2 HD Camcorder

The HPX370 offers 50/60Hz AVC-Intra and DV-format recording, and improves noise, sensitivity, and skew over the HPX300.
Adam Wilt
By Adam Wilt 07.29.10

Panasonic AG-HPX370

The Panasonic AG-HPX370 (US$11,700 list; $9,200 street price) is a 1/3" 3-MOS shoulder-mount HD camcorder with interchangeable lenses. It records everything from 480i to 1080p in 10-bit AVC-Intra 50/100 and 8-bit DV/DVCPRO50/DVCPROHD formats, with variable frame rates in 720p. Its MOS sensors capture a true 1920x1080 image with remarkably high sensitivity and low noise; and its "rolling shutter" skew is comparable to other affordable high-quality CMOS cameras like the PMW-EX series Sonys.



Introduction



Last year, Panasonic introduced the AG-HPX300, a shoulder-mount interchangeable-lens HD camcorder using three 1/3" sensors and recording AVC-Intra and DV formats to P2 cards. It was generally well received, but there were some grumbles about image noise and excessive skew (rolling-shutter or "jellocam" artifacts) in 1080/24p from its diminutive, 2.2 Megapixel (true 1920x1080) MOS sensors.

It's a year later, and we now have the AG-HPX370, an updated version of the 300 with U.L.T. ("Ultra Luminance Technology") MOS sensors. U.L.T. sensors claim F10 sensitivity (59.94i, 2000 lux) using new higher sensitivity photodiodes combined with lower noise pixel transistors. The camera adds P.A.P. (Progressive Adaptive Processing), 3D adaptive processing said to give progressive mode the same sensitivity and image quality as interlaced mode. The upshot is a camera with about a stop higher sensitivity, lower noise, and less skew than the 300 had, with a mere $100 increase in the list price (I cover the differences in a bit more detail in my 370 preview).

Actually, the 370 is one of a series of cameras: the HPX370P for the North American Market, and the HPX371E for Europe. The AG-HPX370 Series brochure also mentions a 372 and a 374 (no telling what happened to the 373). As far as I can tell, all have "WorldCam" 50Hz/60Hz standards interoperability, AVC-Intra and DV/DVCPRO50/DVCPROHD recording on P2 cards, 480/576/720/1080-line formats, and variable frame rates in 720p.

If you think of the HPX300/370 series cameras as the shoulder-mount, MOS-sensored, interchangeable-lens versions of the HPX170 you wouldn't be too far off base. But aside from the form factor differences, the 300 and 370 bring two major improvements to Panasonic's line of sub-$10,000 professional camcorders: true 1920x1080 resolution, and AVC-Intra recording.

The 370 traces its lineage back to two roots:

• About a decade ago, Panasonic offered a line of 1/3", 3-CCD shoulder-mount camcorders with interchangeable lenses. The AJ-D200/210/215 cameras recorded standard-definition video to DVCPRO25 tapes, and offered a Frame Movie Mode similar to that on the Canon XL1.

The HPX370 picks up where the D200 series left off: it's a full-sized ENG camera with 1/3" chips—updated for HD, variable frame rates, and AVC-Intra recording on P2 cards, of course, but it will also record standard-def DV if asked.

• In 2002, Panasonic introduced the AG-DVX100, the first affordable 24p camcorder. It was a 1/3" 3-CCD handheld unit shooting 60i DV to tape, using an advanced pulldown scheme to record 24p with minimal losses.

Those same 24p recording modes are available in the 370 (along with a whole bunch more), and the 370's menu system is a direct descendant of the DVX100's menus: anyone with a DVX100, HPX200, HPX500, or HPX170 will feel instantly at home with the HPX370.

Great news all around, then—unless you're a 300 owner; there is no upgrade path to retrofit the 370's improvements. No worries, though: the 300 is still a fine camera; perhaps 90% of this review is pertinent to the 300 as far as operational functionality is concerned, and as I write this, HPX300s can be had new for $7,300.

A quick summary of the camera's features, in no particular order:

• Interchangeable lenses; Fujinon 17x 4.5-77mm f/1.6 zoom supplied.

• WorldCam flexibility: 50/60Hz formats and standards.

• DV, DVCPRO50, DVCPROHD, AVC-Intra 50, and AVC-Intra 100 recording on dual P2 cards.

• 480, 576, 720, and 1080-line recording formats, with 23.98p, 25p, 29.97p, 50i, 59.94i, 50p, and 59.94p frame rates as appropriate.

• Variable frame rates in 720p formats.

• 14-bit sampling and 20-bit internal processing.

• Flash Band Compensation to stitch together "split frames" when a camera flash is captured.

• DRS (Dynamic Range Stretch) for controlling contrast.

• HD-SDI outputs, genlock input, TC in and out.

• Full DV/DVCPRO50/DVCPROHD capability over IEEE 1394 (a.k.a. FireWire, i.LINK).

• Shutter speeds as low as 1/6 sec and as high as 1/7200 sec.

• Six customizable scene files. Four such files can be stored on an SD or SDHC card. Eight lens files and four shading files are also available.

• Four-position ND filter: clear, 1/4, 1/16, and 1/64 (for 2-, 4-, and 6-stop compensations).

• Three user-definable buttons on the camera, plus the user-re-definable RET VIDEO button on the lens.

• The camera can be remotely controlled using the optional AJ-RC10C and AJ-EC4G controls.

• Pre-record (3 seconds in HD, 7 seconds in SD).

• One-shot recording: anywhere from 1 frame to 1 second per button push.

• Interval (time-lapse) recording with intervals between 2 frames and 10 minutes.

• One-clip mode: instead of making each recording a separate clip, one-clip mode appends each new recording to a single clip.

• Proxy recording: if you install the optional AJ-YAX800G proxy card in slot 2, the camera will capture an MPEG-4 proxy either to the remaining P2 card (in parallel with the full-res DV/AVC-I recording) or to an SD/SDHC card.

• Shot Marker: you can set an OK/NG metadata flag on a clip either while shooting or in playback.

• Text Memo: you can reserve text-note metadata fields in each clip that can later be filled in using P2 Viewer software on a Mac or PC.

• Unislot: the camera can accept a 1- or 2-channel unislot wireless receiver, which can be used in place of, or in addition to, the camera's XLR inputs (the camera can record four channels of audio).


Design



The Panasonic AG-HPX370 is a shoulder-mount, interchangeable-lens camcorder of conventional design. Its operation and handling will be very familiar to anyone used to operating a 2/3" ENG camcorder. An EVF and a 17x Fujinon zoom lens are part of the standard kit, as is a shoulder belt, but no power supply, battery, tripod adapter, or microphone are supplied, as is normal with high-end cameras (Panasonic kindly supplied a tripod adapter as well as an Anton-Bauer "Tandem" AC adapter/charger, a Dionic90 battery pack, and an on-board microphone for this review).

The camera weighs 14 pounds with lens, EVF, microphone, 2 P2 cards, and a 90 Watt-hour Anton-Bauer Dionic90 battery good for four hours of shooting. It's 23" long, 10" wide, and 10" tall (stripped down, the body alone is 14" long, 5.5" wide, and 10" tall).

Panasonic AG-HPX370

Panasonic HPX370 compared to Sony PMW-EX1 and Panasonic DVX100.


It's big as far as 1/3" camcorders go, but the body is the normal size for a shoulder-mount ENG unit. If the camera looks larger than it should, consider that its lens is a bit smaller than the comparable lens on a 1/2" or 2/3" camera, so the body seems larger by comparison.

Panasonic AG-HPX370

Operator's side of HPX370 with LCD flipped open and folded back into the body.



Pictures show the camera with optional equipment: microphone, battery and/or AC adapter, tripod plate, and P2 card(s) not included with the camera.

Windows on the review camera's operator-side flip-down panels were covered with a protective film; the film has wrinkles in it that show up on some of the images. The underlying windows were smooth and defect-free; I just didn't feel I should peel off the tightly-attached protective films from a camera I didn't own.


The 370 takes advantage of a compact, dual-card P2 "transport" to consolidate everything a shooter needs to handle to the left side of the camera. Shooting controls occupy the front third of the left side; audio and recorder controls fill the rear third. The middle third contains both a flip-out LCD and the media slots: two P2 cards and one SD/SDHC card slide in sideways beneath the LCD's docked position.

Panasonic AG-HPX370

Two P2 cards and an SD card plug in horizontally beneath the LCD.


An operator needn't move away from the left side even to change recording media.

At the front of the camera is a 17x Fujinon 4.5-77mm f/1.6 zoom lens.

Panasonic AG-HPX370

The stock Fujinon 17x lens.


The lens is a fully manual ENG-style lens with internal focusing, a bayonet-mount rubber lens shade and 82mm filter threads. Both iris and zoom may be servo-driven or manually operated, and all lens controls are silky-smooth. The power zoom rocker drives the lens end-to-end as quickly as two seconds or as slowly as three or more minutes. The lens has both a flange-back (back-focus) adjustment and a macro ring with a positive-locking slide switch to prevent its inadvertent operation.

Panasonic AG-HPX370

Front view of HPX370 with lens removed.


The lens docks to the camera's standard 1/3" breech-lock mount, and its control cable connects to a port on the lower right side, below the mike connector.

Above the lens mount there's a four-position rotary selector for the camera's ND filters.

Four controls span the lower front of the camera: a REC toggle button with a rubber cover, a three-position SHUTTER switch behind a flip-up cover, an unprotected white/black balance switch, and a thumbwheel control for menu and frame rate selections (until I learned to leave the shutter switch's cover lowered to differentiate its feel from that of the balance switch, I frequently groped blindly for the shutter switch and wound up triggering black balances instead).


Panasonic AG-HPX370

Closeup through the lens mount: those are 1/3" MOS sensors way back in there.


While the lens mount seems small to those used to dealing with 2/3" cameras, it's positively gargantuan compared to the small sensors behind it.

Panasonic AG-HPX370

The HPX370's main operator controls.


Operator controls are well laid out, though I would have put additional user buttons to work had they been available.

At the top, + and - SYNCHRO SCAN buttons let you set fractional shutter speeds without having to dive into the menus; they can also be used to select the frame rate in variable frame rate (VFR) recording: you change frame rates by pressing in the thumbwheel and using the SYNCHRO SCAN buttons to choose a rate, saving you a trip into the menus.

I wasn't initially able to make that shortcut work; I had to select my rate in the SCENE FILE menu. But after a few format changes, the jog wheel started working as described and stayed working; I'm guessing something in the camera just needed to be reset.

The DISPLAY / MODE CHECK button toggles most VF data overlays on and off, and also lets you see current button assignments and battery levels. The SCENE FILE selector gives you six scene files (a.k.a. custom presets or picture presets) to change the look of the picture; these are as widely customizable as on other scene-file-wheel cameras from the DVX100 onwards.

The FRONT AUDIO LEVEL lets you vary the sound recording level without having to use the main controls at the back of the camera: very useful for single-operator run'n'gun work. The FOCUS ASSIST button lets you expand the VF display for closer focusing (but not while you're recording, alas), while the MONITOR dial varies the level of both camera alerts and audio monitoring though the side-mounted speaker or through headphones.

Three USER buttons (as well as the RETurn video button on the lens) let you trigger various functions:

• REC REVIEW plays back the tail end of the last clip recorded; normally assigned to the lens-mounted RET button, pressing it plays the last two seconds, while holding it down plays the last ten seconds, a nice feature that saves you a trip to the menu to assign a review duration.

• SPOTLIGHT or BACKLIGHT auto-exposure compensation.

• ATW triggers auto-tracking white balance (which can also be assigned to the B position of the WHITE BAL switch).

• ATW LOCK holds the current ATW setting.

• 24 dB GAIN, which is the only way you can get the gain to +24dB.

• Y GET displays the brightness level of the center of the image; a small square appears in the display when Y GET is active, along with the brightness from 0% to 100%+.

• DRS toggles dynamic range stretch on and off.

• TEXT MEMO adds a text-memo metadata "slot" in the current clip, letting you create a text memo afterwards.

• SLOT SEL switches the P2 card slot selected for recording or playback (the 370 does not have a dedicated SLOT SEL button).

• SHOT MARK adds "shot mark" metadata to a clip.

• MAG A. LEVEL magnifies the audio meters to fill the width of the display.

• PRE REC turns the pre-record function on and off.

• PC MODE switches the mode of the USB port; a very useful menu-bypassing shortcut when connecting the camera as a USB drive.

• WFM lets you toggle a waveform monitor, a vectorscope, or both sequentially on the LCD display.

• FBC toggles flash band compensation on and off.

That's a lot of really useful functionality to spread across a mere three buttons; I usually found that I wanted to have quick access to two or three more functions than I had buttons to assign them to. I wound up setting the main button to Y GET and USER 1 to WFM with both WFM and vectorscope enabled (what can I say, I'm a bit of an exposure freak), and reset USER 2 for whatever else I most wanted on a moment-by-moment basis.

Four silver flip switches sit on an angled panel. ZEBRA toggles zebras in the EVF and LCD; GAIN is a three-position gain selector (each position may be set to -3, 0, +3 +6, or +12 dB); OUTPUT chooses between colorbars and video with either manual or automatic knee, and WHITE BAL is a PRST (preset)/A/B white balance switch.

As with many Panasonics, toggling the AUTO W/B BAL button on the front while WHITE BAL is in its PRST position flips the preset color temperature between 3200K and 5600K.

The WHITE BAL B position can optionally be set to engage ATW (auto-tracking white balance). Additionally, the OUTPUT's auto knee ON position can be programmed to trigger DRS instead of the auto knee.

Below the four-switch panel, a MENU pushbutton works in concert with the front-mounted thumbwheel to control the menus, and a POWER switch switches the camera on or off. The camera comes up gratifyingly quickly; you can be recording within two seconds of flipping the switch.

Panasonic AG-HPX370

Rear left-side controls with cover panels flipped down.


The monitor speaker is behind a slim slot just above the LCD. The LCD itself can face out (as shown) or in (for protection), or can flip out from the camera, rotating 90 degrees down or 180 up and forwards for mirror-mode shooting. No controls reside behind the LCD, so there's no need to keep pulling it out from the body, as is often necessary on smaller cameras.

Media slots below the the LCD each have a status LED (don't pull a card with a yellow lamp, or you'll be sorry!). The SD/SDHC slot is a push-to-latch, push-to-release slot, while the P2 slots have flip-out eject levers. A magnetically-secured door covers the slots when access isn't required.

The rear third of the camera has two LEDs, a green one indicating a USB connection and a red one for warnings (media full, battery low, etc.). Three pushbuttons handle timecode setting, and two thumbwheels control audio levels for channels 1 and 2. These wheels are stiff and well recessed to avoid accidental operation, yet have knobbly bumps so you can spin them when you want to, even with gloves on.

Slide switches choose which audio channels you're monitoring and toggle channels 1 and 2 between automatic and manual gain control.

A flip-down panel covers transport controls, the menu controls used in playback, audio input routing switches, timecode free-run/set/rec-run selection, and a handy switch that toggles data and menu displays on the SDI outputs. All the mode switches with day-glo orange backgrounds are visible with the cover door closed, so you can instantly see how the camera is configured.

Panasonic AG-HPX370

Rear view of HPX370 with all port covers removed or opened.


The backside of the camera has an Anton-Bauer gold mount battery plate with DC tap, but you can swap it out for a V-mount plate, and Panasonic even offers an NP-type adapter that slots into the V-mount plate for those with a stock of the older batteries. There's also a 4-pin DC power input; a small tally lamp beside it; a 12V accessory power output; dual XLRs for channels 1 and 2, switchable between line and mic levels, as well as 48v phantom power; an SDI output; a proper, robust six-pin IEEE1394 port for DV-format streaming, and a remote port for connecting a paintbox or CCU. All ports have rubber weather covers, with the 1394 port's cover tied to the camera while the others are linked to each other.


Panasonic AG-HPX370

Right side of HPX370.


Older cameras put a tape transport (or the five-slot P2 bays used on other Panasonic shoulder-mounts) on the right side because they had to, but since the 370 uses only two P2 cards, there was no need to stay with tradition and make the operator reach over or walk around the camera just to change media. As a result, the right side of the camera is a blank expanse aside from I/O spigots. It's not only a matter of convenience: a right-side card bay is less secure, especially in crowds.

Panasonic AG-HPX370

Rear right-side ports with covers opened or removed.


Both USA type A and USB type B port reside behind a tethered plastic cover: the camera can act either as a USB drive (device) or as a USB controller (host), so it can either connect as a drive for a Mac or PC, or offload its clips to a USB-connected disk drive.

BNCs provide a second SDI output (both outputs are identical); a genlock input; and timecode in and out. Dual RCAs supply audio for monitoring. All are sealed with tethered rubber covers, all interconnected and normally attached to the screw beside the TC IN port.

Note that the camera lacks Y/C, analog component, and HDMI outputs, and it has no "pool feed" video input (unless you get your pool feeds in DV/DVCPRO50/DVCPROHD via the IEEE 1394 port).

Panasonic AG-HPX370

Top view of HPX370, with P2 card for reference.


A carrying handle runs the length of the camera. At its front is the EVF, which is adjustable side to side but is otherwise permanently attached. Behind it there's an accessory foot with 1/4"x20 tapped hole, a REC start/stop button with a side-mounted lock switch, and 1/4"x20 and 3/8"x16 threaded sockets towards the back. At the rear there's another tally lamp with its own switch (which also controls the tally lamp at the base of the camera). Aft of the handle there's a covered slot for a "unislot" plug-in wireless audio receiver; the slot accepts both single- and dual-channel receivers.

The base of the camera has fittings for a standard tripod plate adapter and a non-adjustable shoulder pad. It's not the cushiest shoulder pad around, but the camera is light enough that it doesn't matter; it's comfortable as it is.

Panasonic AG-HPX370

The EVF eyepiece can be removed; the LCD opens past 90 degrees.


The 3.2" LCD has about 921 kilopixels, and it's quite sharp, resolving about 400 TVl/ph or better both horizontally and vertically. It has very good color reproduction and a wide (if not hemispheric) viewing angle; Panasonic's on-camera LCDs have improved quite a bit in the past couple of years.

The EVF is fixed to the camera and has only a tally lamp switch on its front side; zebras are controlled with the side-panel switch and other settings—brightness, contrast, color, and peaking—are set through the menus.

The EVF adjusts laterally by about two inches, enough to accommodate almost any right-eyed operator but insufficient for left-eyeball types. The eyepiece can rotate up or down as required, or it can be removed entirely, though the tiny 0.45" LCOS panel behind it is too small to be usefully viewable without the eyepiece's substantial magnification. With the eyepiece attached, the apparent image size is like watching a 40" TV from about 8 feet away. It's adequate, if not stellar; it's a very slightly less magnification than the Sony PMW-EX1's EVF provides, while EVFs on Sony's EX3, 320, and 350 project an image that's about 20% larger.

The EVF panel is sequentially illuminated by red, green and blue LEDs, so rapid eye movement results in color fringing, but the display is crisp and clear, with about 1.2 million pixels—it's definitely a focus-capable display, with about 500 TVl/ph resolution.


Next: Displays and menus; playback; operations and handling...


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