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

The P2-only HPX170 is a multitalented, smooth operator with improved picture quality.
Adam Wilt
By Adam Wilt 09.22.08

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.





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 4x3 native; when showing 16x9 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

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