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The development of Camcorders seems to be progressing at a faster pace than most other consumer technology products. This has led to some confusion in the market place. Manufacturers flood the market with various competing formats such as mini-disk, DVD, tape, hard drive and flash memory. At the moment miniDV camcorders are the most popular format whereby movies are saved onto digital tapes of 60 or 90 minutes. These are far superior to MiniDVD camcorders that store films onto small DVDs. At present MiniDVs certainly offer the best value but their popularity may soon be replaced by the hard disk drive (HDD) camcorder. An HDD camcorder saves time by cutting out the necessity of swapping around tapes or DVDs and can record several hours of footage. It is also much easier to fast forward to the exact clip that you are looking for. One drawback however is once the drive is full you have to empty it before you can continue shooting.
The Panasonic HDC-DX1 uses High Definition but makes use of a memory-card slot for portable storage. rather than a hard disk. It is one of the first consumer high-definition camcorders to use a new Advanced Video Codec High Definition (AVCHD) recording format. It was jointly developed with Sony and is supposed to allow the camcorder to record 90 minutes of HD footage onto a compact SD (SDHC) card. This has now become a much more viable option as the cost of memory cards has plummeted and the latest camcorders like the DX1EG-S can now squeeze more footage onto even smaller files without impairing digital image quality. In practise I found that I could only squeeze about 1 hour of High Definition recording onto a 4GB SD card. There's a choice of AVCHD compression settings. The lowest "HE" mode (6Mbps, VBR) is followed by "HN" (9Mbps, VBR) and the highest quality setting is "HF" (13 Mbps, CBR).
In order to get an idea of the design, layout and ease of use, it is always best to try and get a hold of a camcorder before you actually buy it. This can be just as important as checking out the specification. With its innovative design in a chrome and aluminium body, the camcorder certainly looks stylish and its main controls seem to be conveniently placed. At 680 grams, the camcorder is quite weighty but I find that this actually makes it more pleasurable to hold and use, in addition to giving it better stability. All in all I found the HDC-DX1 very comfortable to operate.
~~ Zoom ~~
Be aware of the difference between optical and digital zoom specifications. The HDC-DX1 comes with a 12x optical zoom that should be sufficient for most needs. Optical zoom refers to the power of the lens to bring an image closer without any loss in overall quality. On this model you'll also find what I consider rather useless Digital Zoom ratios. These range from 30x up to about 700x. Digital zoom gives you close ups on a small area of the image but leads to a considerable loss in quality and produces the blocky pixelated effect as a result. It is important to note that long zoom lenses require some form of stabilisation feature built in to the camera otherwise you're going to get a shaky image when you're travelling over rough terrain for example. Optical stabilisers are preferable over digital ones. This camcorder uses Panasonic's OIS (Optical Image Stabilisation) system - better than that found on most competing products.
~~ Controls ~~
The HDC-DX1 has a comprehensive range of manual controls. There are manual controls for Iris (Aperture), white balance, audio recording level and focus. These are all conveniently accessed via a button inside the LCD recess. Most other settings however, are somewhat cumbersome to access by using a tiny menu button that's hidden away under the main power control dial at the rear. Further settings are accessed with the mini joystick navigator and selector control which is also at the rear of the camcorder.
~~ Connectivity ~~
The camcorder has a wide range of digital and analogue connections. There is a useful HDMI socket that allows you to make a connection to an HD-Ready TV. This is positioned behind a plastic door at the front right side of the body. Also situated by the HDMI socket is a USB 2.0 MiniB socket that transfers 1920 x 1080 resolution JPG stills from the SDHC card. Beneath the SD card door is another set of connectors: an AV (composite video and stereo audio plus headphones when using a special adaptor cable), a component digital connector (a cable is provided), and Mic input socket. There is also a DC connector terminal nearby. The video connections are output-only.
~~ LCD Screen ~~
The 3in LCD screen is bright and big enough. LCD pictures are well-defined, even in bright sunlight on account of a physical screen brightness switch and I found no problems when viewing the screen from different shooting positions. However, the screen frame lacks the basic start/stop and zoom controls for manual operation. Given that the LCD screen will often be supported by the user's left hand, it would have been nice to have these frame-mounted controls and possibly a menu button.
~~ The Lens ~~
The Camcorder comes with a quality Leica Dicomar lens. This has 13 lens elements in 10 groups, with 21 multi-coated surfaces, and uses low-dispersion optical glass to reduce chromatic aberration. This lens also minimizes harmful reflections and leaves images free from flare and ghosting effects. There is also a useful built-in lens shutter, which activates automatically when the camera is switched into recording mode, and which returns to protect the lens when switching off or into play mode. As seems to be increasingly common, there's no viewfinder on the HDC-DX1 , not something that I favour personally.
~~ Power Supply ~~
The supplied Lithium Ion battery slots into an internal compartment within the lower rear of the body. Batteries are charged off camera - on a combined AC adaptor and charger unit. This is useful as it allows for more than one battery to be used. You can charge one whilst keeping another one to power the camcorder. Through average use the battery should last for about three hours. I'm not sure how long the battery lasts - I used the camera for a about a week and whilst filling up the SD card during this time I did not have any issues with battery life.
~~ Image Quality ~~
Just as in digital still cameras, sensor size is an important thing to consider in a camcorder. Cheaper camcorders will tend to use tiny sensors that will struggle to produce quality noise free footage in low light whereas larger sensors will produce cleaner, crisper movies. This model has an impressive three sensor design that certainly out performs previous camcorders I have used. The results are quite stunning. Recorded movie clips are very good even when using manual exposure and in a wide range of shooting situations. Overall the play back is impressive via HDMI onto a LCD HD TV screen. When testing the playback on HD TV however, I did notice some quality issues. Some digital interference was noticeable during playback of hand-held scenes of close-up motion near the lens. This was especially apparent on the lower compression settings but also at the highest settings where some degradation was apparent when watching fast moving subjects during playback. But overall image quality was still more impressive than any other video camera I have used.
~~ Audio ~~
Audio is captured using Dolby Digital AC3 5-channel surround sound: a 5-element microphone system on the top of the camera body picks up sound from different directions. The sound system is impressive. When zooming in on a subject in the distance, for example, the microphones also zoom in and record the sounds specific to that subject. Movies can be played on a 5.1-channel home theater system and produce a clear, detailed sound that puts you in the middle of the action. A Manual Audio record level monitoring is displayed in the LCD screen and provides a graphical representation of the 5 channel sound performance.
~~ Editing ~~
Panasonic only supplies pretty basic 'HD Writer' editing software with the camcorder. It is only capable of basic operations such as scene preview, split, merge, and delete. Using this software you can backup your videos on a DVD-R disk, but you won't be able to play it back, unless you have one of the new Blu-ray disk players. Also you will only witness the full quality of the footage on your TV if it is HD ready. Better editing software for computer use is promised in the near future though.
~~ Conclusion ~~
There have been one or two minor issues with this camcorder. As already mentioned the mini joystick control is a bit to small and it's easy to accidentally hit the red record button by mistake due to the close approximation of both. The menu button is also hidden away too much and is also too small. And then there is also the lack of a decent editing suite. Despite these issues however, I would still highly recommend this camcorder for sheer convenience and performance alone. The SD card format is far better than using tape or DVD and there is excellent Video Quality and Auto White balance. Low light performance is also quite good. In 'easy shooting' mode it should be easy to use this camcorder even if you're a beginner and the outstanding range of manual controls, features and functions should keep more experienced users more than satisfied.
Price: now available at pixmania.co.uk for £475
© Zmugzy December 2007
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