Smallest Pro in Town
Smallest Pro in Town
If you are looking for a small, and we mean really small, 3-chip high-def AVCHD camcorder with professional features, then you really have only one choice: the new AG-HSC1 from Panasonic. As it has features like three 1/4" native 16:9 CCDs and manual adjustment of iris, focus, shutter, white balance and mic input levels, we found ourselves forced to reconsider what really defines a "professional" or "consumer" camcorder.
The AG-HSC1 records a 1080i AVCHD signal to SD memory cards and the new higher-capacity SDHC cards. The camcorder kit comes standard with a 4GB card and a 40GB external HDD for storage and transfer to a computer.
The camcorder fits in the palm of your hand and has very few external controls and no viewfinder. The only controls on top of the body are a still capture button and a rocker switch for zoom that doubles for volume control in playback mode. Yet, despite the small rocker, it takes only a little practice to control the zoom on the 12X Leica Dicomar lens and develop very smooth zooms. On the back, there is a multi-selection dial with record button in the center, a micro-joystick and buttons for menu and trashcan access. A selector switch for full auto and auto/manual focus and an LCD brightness button are beneath the LCD panel.
The camcorder tends to twist counter-clockwise in your palm, because it is so small. To solve this problem, Panasonic engineered something we could best describe as a "dorsal grip." It's a small rubber ridge at the top of the camcorder body that gives your fingers a natural leverage point. It works surprisingly well.
A small internal fan, designed to keep camcorder components cool, vents near the rear of the body. This does produce a very small amount of noise, but it is still less than the whir of camcorder tape transports and even some HDDs we've tested.
The AG-HSC1 includes several features usually reserved for professional camcorders, such as manual adjustment of focus, white balance, iris, shutter and mic input levels. Of course, you'll need to access these functions through menus, but they are all quick, and most are easy to navigate using the mini-joystick. We were also glad to see an external mic jack, lens filter threads, optical image stabilization, color bars and zebra indicators in such a compact camcorder.
The AG-HSC1 has three recording modes, from low- to high-quality: HE, HN and HF. HE and HN modes both record with variable bit rates, while HF uses constant bit rate of 13Mbps. Recording times on a 4GB SDHC card vary from 40 minutes to an hour and a half, as you move from high- to low-quality modes. To achieve these long recording times, the AVCHD format, even more so than HDV, is highly compressed, which means there are (currently) unavoidable trade-offs. During our tests, the most notable were the temporal artifacts that show up as stuttering movement in pans and tilts at moderate and fast speeds. This really is no more apparent on the AG-HSC1 than on other camcorders in this class, but you need to keep it in mind when assessing any new camcorder.
The Big Picture
The overall image quality is quite good. We used the AG-HSC1 under several lighting and environmental conditions to test its dynamic range and contrast, inherent noise and artifacts, auto/manual focus and auto/manual white balance.
Under controlled lighting in our studio, we shot several color and contrast charts and found the resulting images had good, balanced saturation and contrast. Panasonic claims they have optimized this color space to resemble that of their more expensive professional camcorders. The extreme lights and darks, however, appear somewhat compressed, which is not a bad thing if you are trying to keep subject detail in these areas. Noise and artifacts were practically unnoticeable under these conditions, even in areas of extreme contrast -- an area where we have seen problems with other AVCHD-format camcorders. With its relatively fast f/1.8 lens, low-light sensitivity is good but not excellent. As auto gain kicks in, noise becomes noticeable in darker areas and is visible in the overall image, but the camcorder still produces a very usable image.
To test the responsiveness of the auto focus, we positioned two test charts eight feet apart, bringing the one closer to the camcorder quickly into full-frame view and timing the focus lag. On average, this took just less than two seconds, and there was little to no "hunting." We then pressed the manual focus switch and were controlling focus via the mini-joystick. With focus-assist selected, the AG-HSC1 gives you a zoomed window that certainly helps; however, it was still challenging to get tack-sharp images quickly using the mini-joystick. We often went past or stopped short of the point of focus and had to nudge our way a click at a time into critical focus.
We acquired images with well-balanced color using the auto white balance with hues that revealed no appreciable color bias. Manual white balance is just two clicks of the mini-joystick away, and the results are indistinguishable from the auto mode.
The optical image stabilization system works well for smoothing out the normal small jitters, especially when hand-held on medium to extreme zooms. Due to the somewhat "floaty" effect it created, we found we liked the look of camera movement better with it off when the camera was on a good tripod.
Also due to the compact design, the AG-HSC1 lacks a viewfinder, forcing you to rely on the LCD alone. The three-inch-wide screen provides enough area to monitor most subjects, and you can increase the brightness for outdoor use. In this mode, however, images will appear overexposed when they are not, so you'll need to use caution not to overcorrect.
Five independent microphones sit atop the lens barrel, providing 5.1-channel Dolby Digital Surround Sound. This configuration is designed to simulate directional audio, and it is enough to distinguish some left/right front/rear aural "movement" from subjects moving across the screen. Of course, with the mics so close together, the spatial separation is limited. The quality of the audio is exceptionally good for narrating while you are shooting. But, as with all on-camera mics, the fidelity drops off rapidly for subjects further than several feet away from the camcorder. Audio quality is very good when you are using an external mic.
Finally, getting clips to your PC or viewing on an HD television is easy. For your computer, one way is to simply transfer via USB 2.0. Another way, if you are shooting on location, is to dump your clips down to the included 40GB portable hard drive recorder by inserting the SD card, hitting the "copy" button, then transferring the whole lot via USB 2.0 when you are back at your computer. As of publication, however, getting serious software to edit the new AVCHD format is the problem. The AG-HSC1 does ship with a very elementary timeline editor, but it is quite limited. Updates for popular editing software will no doubt be forthcoming, but this is an issue if you need to edit your footage now. You can also enjoy clips straight from the camcorder in pristine quality by using an HDMI cable, or you can use component or composite cables as other options.
If you are looking for a second camcorder to match the high-quality images of your main HD camcorder, or even if this will be your main HD camcorder, don't let the snickers from shooters with full-sized camcorders dissuade you. The images from the AG-HSC1 will make believers out of them as well.
Image Device: 3 CCD
Imager Size: 1/4", 16:9 native, 520k (3x) effective pixels
Lens: 12x Lecica Dicomar, f1.8-f2.8, 38.5 - 462mm (16:9)
Filter Diameter: 43mm
Image Stabilization: Yes, optical
Zoom: 12x optical, 30x/700x digital zoom
LCD Monitor: 3.0" wide LCD (251k pixels)
Microphone: 5.1-ch surround sound, zoom mic
Microphone input: Yes, Stereo mini jack
White Balance: Auto, manual set, indoor, outdoor (with IR sensor)
Video Out: AV multi (composite), component
HDMI Out: Yes, ver. 1.2a
Audio Out Stereo (AV multi), 5.1 surround (HDMI)
PC Connector: USB 2.0
Recording Media: SD memory card, SDHC memory card (4GB memory card supplied)
Recording Format: AVCHD (1440 x 1080 / 60i)
Compression Method: MPEG-4 AVC / H.264
Audio Recording Format: Dolby Digital (5.1ch, 2ch)
Size: 3.6" x 1.3"x 2.4"
Weight: Approx. 0.94 lb (430g) (without battery); approx. 1 lb (490g) (with battery pack, SDHC memory card)
Additional Accessories: 40GB SD Store Drive w/ USB 2.0
Warranty: 1 year parts and labor
- Very compact
- Manual focus, iris, white balance options
- External mic jack
- Manual focus control is tricky.
- No viewfinder
- Access to A/C power jack and some I/O can be restricted when on a tripod.
Impressive performance and some pro-level features are jammed into a very small, palm-sized camcorder.
Contributing editor Brian Peterson is a video production consultant, trainer and lecturer.
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