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Panasonic is Dependable for Point-and-Click Functioning

Panasonic is Dependable for Point-and-Click Functioning

Panasonic PV-L558 VHS-C CamcorderSima SCW-2 ColorWriter Plus TitlerStrata VideoShop 4.0/3D Nonlinear Editing SoftwareNady 802 Platinum Wireless Microphone SystemSmith-Victor M-75 & MP-100A On-camera Lights

This month:


Long on Zoom, Short on Controls


Panasonic PV-L558 VHS-C Camcorder
($700)
Panasonic
One Panasonic Way
Secaucus, NJ 07094
(201) 348-9090
http://www.panasonic.com

Where some camcorder manufacturers will bring out many new features year after year even on their lowliest cameras, others will attempt to keep a good thing going by providing the same basic quality and functionality on most of their new gear. The latter is true of Panasonic's PV-L558 VHS-C camcorder, a point-and-shoot model with a built-in LCD monitor and the same simple appeal--and some of the same flaws--of its predecessors.

Built around the concept of simplicity of operation, the PV-L558 will please most of those weekend video warriors who want convenience and compatibility with home VHS VCRs above all. Its long optical zoom range (23:1) will appeal to those who like shooting nature and sports, but because it lacks image stabilization, that zoom range will tend to introduce plenty of unwanted camera shake, unless you shoot with a tripod at all times.

First Looks
Upon initial examination, the PV-L558 is difficult to differentiate from older VHS-C camcorders made by Panasonic. The same tall, linear look and feel that has dominated the Palmcorder line since its inception is present in this model--and the addition of the 3.2-inch LCD monitor tends to exaggerate the typical Palmcorder boxiness and bulkiness. In other words, it's small enough to be categorized as a compact camcorder, but just barely.

The arrangement of features and controls on the PV-L558 is likewise similar to earlier Palmcorder models. The camera body fits nicely in the right hand, offering easy access to zoom, power and record controls. The power/record switch, located within easy reach of the thumb, is a slight improvement over previous versions, which didn't feel like they were strong enough to survive many years of repeated use. The newer switch assembly isn't perfect--it still feels like it might fall apart or quit working after repeated use--but it feels stronger than last year's version.

Other camcorder controls are scattered around the camera body in places that make them relatively easy for the left hand to access while shooting. The manual focus control, for example, is a small wheel located just under the front of the lens; pushing it in once toggles auto/manual focus, and rotating the wheel dials in the desired sharpness. All in all, the various controls of the PV-L558 operate fairly well; the buttons offer good tactile feedback, and the zoom provides smooth operation at several speeds.

The camera body's dominant feature is the 3.2-inch flip-out LCD monitor, which offers adequate but not outstanding color images. Some noticeable blurring of the LCD image while zooming and panning did tend to degrade the quality a bit.

Look Again
Images shot on the PV-L558 look fairly good for a current-model VHS-C camcorder. Problem is, most VHS-C camcorders on the market today don't shoot very impressive video. There is certainly room for improvement throughout the whole VHS-C camcorder industry; the manufacturers seem to have agreed upon a certain low level of performance that the buying public will accept, and conformed most of their low-end products to that level (which is, unfortunately, well below what the VHS-C format is capable of achieving).

There are two main drawbacks to the PV-L558: the aforementioned lack of image stabilization, and the lack of any kind of manual exposure controls. Luckily, the automatic exposure system on the PV-L558 is exceptional, offering quick, smooth changes between shooting situations. The backlight button is helpful in correcting a certain type of exposure problem, but it's generally better to have some kind of manual control or at least a handful of pre-programmed auto-exposure settings.

The built-in light on the PV-L558 is one of its strong points, as it offers a quick fix for the most common indoor shooting problem: insufficient light. It isn't enough to make all of your shots look professional by any means, but it is enough to fish a visible picture out of the glitch and gloom that plague all too many indoor home videos.

For those who don't care too much about the quality of the images they shoot, the PV-L558 has an SLP (super long-playing) mode that extends the duration of your VHS-C tapes. This, as with other features on the camera, illustrates a desire on Panasonic's part to cater to the portion of the buying public that doesn't care too much about the quality of the video their camcorder shoots.

Bottom line: we would recommend this camcorder to beginning shooters and those who won't do much editing, but not for the serious amateur who wants cleaner images and a chance to learn about exposure control, editing and other fine points of the craft.


Another ColorWriter From Sima

Sima SCW-2 ColorWriter Plus
($250)
Sima Products Corporation
140 Pennsylvania Avenue, Bldg. #5
Oakmont, PA 15139
(412) 828-3700
http://www.simacorp.com

Not too many months ago, we reviewed Sima's ColorWriter Magic, a low-cost titler aimed at the consumer video market. This issue, we look at the ColorWriter Plus, a product that's intended to be a notch above the ColorWriter Magic in quality and functionality. Our tests have shown, however, that even though the newer ColorWriter Plus incorporates several important features and capabilities not found on its predecessor (see below for details), the same basic drawbacks apply to both units--specifically, a lack of color choices, poor output resolution, poor signal-to-noise ratio and overall poor implementation of controls and functions.

This doesn't mean that the ColorWriter Magic has nothing good to offer. The logical arrangement of controls, the presence of a GPI trigger and the easily-accessed placement of video and audio inputs and outputs are several key design elements for which Sima should be commended. Even so, the most important characteristic in any piece of video equipment is the quality of the output, and in this area, the ColorWriter Plus fails.

Button, Button
One of the first things that you notice about the ColorWriter Plus is the fact that it makes use of the small rubber keys that cause instant headaches for those who are used to typing on an ordinary computer keyboard or typewriter. The lack of tactile feedback and cramped arrangement of this type of keyboard almost necessitate the use of the hunt-and-peck method of typing; when attempting to type normally on the ColorWriter Plus, we discovered that it was easy to skip letters, which means you have to do a lot of correcting of your work.

On the positive side, the ColorWriter Plus has a handy Quick Start guide printed along the left side of the unit. This makes it very easy to set up and begin working within a few moments of opening the box. Most controls, in fact, are very self-explanatory--to choose one of the three fonts available, for example, all you have to do is push one of three buttons. Controls for color, outline and size are similarly easy to implement.

The main drawbacks of the unit become apparent when you turn it on and run the demonstration. One of the first things you notice when you view the output is the jaggy, low-resolution quality of the fonts, which is worsened by the large amount of electronic noise (fuzzy, snowy particles) present in the images. Next in line comes the small number of available colors (8), followed by the poor quality of the transition effects (scroll, wipe and zoom). The quality of the fonts is so poor that the built-in titler on most typical consumer camcorders will deliver a much sharper line than the ColorWriter Plus.

We should note that all of these characteristics, as poorly executed they are, do show some improvement over the earlier ColorWriter Magic product. On the earlier unit, the fonts looked jaggier and the transitions looked poorer. Even with the improvements, though, the ColorWriter Plus compares poorly to other titlers in this price range.

Title Here
In use, the ColorWriter Plus proves to be relatively easy to operate. The manual is helpful, but the real simplicity comes from the fact that the unit isn't capable of performing much of anything. Some interesting combinations of colors, outlines and effects are possible, but the small number of fonts and colors is very limiting.

Those few small improvements that exist in the ColorWriter Plus are a step in the right direction for Sima, but when you get right down to it, there are better titling options available on the market for the same amount of money.


Easy Nonlinear Editor

Strata VideoShop 4.0/3D Nonlinear Editing Software for Mac
($89 introductory price)
Strata Inc.
2nd W. St. George Blvd.
St. George, UT 84770
(800) 678-7282
http://www.strata3d.com

Nonlinear digital video editing--to many, it's the Holy Grail of videography, a goal that combines both editing power and ease of use. Imagine--editing by just dragging and dropping your clips on a computer timeline, cutting and pasting just like a word processor; if you've edited video the old-fashioned way, you'll know why such a technical feat is so desirable.

Unfortunately, beginning videographers often view nonlinear editing as an unattainable goal, something for computer nerds and/or video professionals--not for those just starting out in the craft. Luckily, some nonlinear editing software manufacturers are dedicated to providing powerful tools at a price the rest of us can afford.

The race to provide multimedia videographers with the definitive nonlinear editing application at an affordable price has been going on for a number of years, and the VideoShop package has been in the forefront of low-cost Macintosh-based solutions from the beginning. It began life as an attempt by Avid, a company that's had considerable success in the high-end video market, to bring some of the power and ease of use of nonlinear editing to home Macintosh users and multimedia developers.

Now, VideoShop belongs to Strata, a company that has had its own run of success in the Macintosh-based 3D modeling and design software market. (Ever played the game Myst? That's a finished product developed on Strata's 3D design software.) Their latest version of VideoShop incorporates a number of 3D design elements that produce some very impressive effects with a minimum of effort. It's possible, for example, to map your video onto a moving 3D object with VideoShop 4.0/3D. This, however, is only one of its many impressive features. In fact, its rare combination of simplicity, functionality and overall elegance make Strata's VideoShop a strong contender for Adobe Premiere or any other desktop nonlinear application on the market today.

Did You Say Micons?
Four windows make up the bulk of VideoShop 4.0/3D's workspace: the Bin window (where you organize files and review file statistics), the Canvas window (where you preview your movie and operate motion, size and transparency controls), the Digitize window (where you capture your clips from tape) and the Project window (where most of the actual editing occurs).

While the Digitize window operates similarly to most other software of its type, the Bin window has one interesting characteristic that others lack: micons. Most other applications simply show you a list of the files you're working with in a given project, with perhaps a picon (single frame) from the beginning of the clip. A micon adds motion to the picon, providing a tiny preview of the clip when you click on the image. This can be very handy for those situations when the beginning of the clip doesn't tell you much about the contents of the clip--those that fade up from black, for instance.

The Canvas window is more than just the simple playback window that many nonlinear applications provide. It serves as a true canvas on which you can move, rotate, resize and manipulate the transparency of your movie. This provides a much more intuitive way of working than the approach used by other applications, which usually consists of using a number of pull-down menus to access the window you need.

Storyboard vs. Timeline
While many nonlinear editing applications choose between a storyboard-based and a timeline-based editing environment, VideoShop 4.0/3D incorporates the strengths of both. In Storyboard view, you can view the overall movie, add and remove untrimmed clips and audio tracks, rearrange the rough order of your video or play your movie. In Timeline view, you can view each frame of your video, cut and paste frames or sequences of frames, trim clips, add filters and transition effects and perform any layering and compositing effects (such as titles).

Though the VideoShop 4.0/3D program is easy to use overall, there are some environments that require practice. The Timeline window in particular, offers a bewildering array of buttons and controls. Each individual item in itself is simple to use and understand, but the sheer number of them can be daunting. To simplify the learning process, Strata has provided an excellent tutorial booklet that walks the learner through each stage of the program.

On the audio side, VideoShop 4.0/3D incorporates TuneBuilder, a music creation software tool that cleverly builds a song of the exact length you specify. These songs aren't your typical flat-sounding MIDI re-creations; they're performed by real musicians with real instruments, then digitally prepared in such a way that chopping them up into little pieces and re-combining them will not break any standardized rules of harmony, tempo or tonality. On the user side, all you have to do is provide a certain length you want, and TuneBuilder will deliver a musical expression of that length--with a beginning, middle and end you can use. This useful tool is worth VideoShop 4.0/3D's $89 introductory price on its own.

We tested this package on an AV Power Macintosh 8500 with 16MB of RAM and found it capable of working at the maximum built-in video capture resolution available on that platform (320x240 resolution, 24-bit color, 16-bit stereo audio). For higher resolutions, a better capture card (such as the miro DC30) and a wide SCSI-2 capture drive would have been required, but the Videoshop product had available settings to support up to 640x480 NTSC resolution if the platform had been up to it. Rendering on this platform was quite slow as well--about five minutes were required to create a complex one-second 3D transition. Those who work on newer Power Macintosh platforms with more RAM should be able to render fairly quickly, but those with older computers should consider themselves warned.

In short, VideoShop 4.0/3D delivers the goods at a bargain price. It is easy enough to learn--and easy enough on the pocketbook--that beginners shouldn't fear taking the plunge into nonlinear editing.

JMc


Mobile Sounds

Nady 802 Platinum Series Wireless Microphone System with LT-5 Transmitter
($480)
Nady Systems
6701 Bay Street
Emeryville, CA 94608
(510) 652-2411
www.nadywireless.com

Everybody knows that camcorder built-in microphones are almost useless if the subject is more than a few feet away. The golden rule of audio is "get your microphone close to your subject". What do you do when you want to shoot a subject that isn't right next to the camera? You can use an external wired mike, which leaves your subject attached to your camcorder with a sonic umbilical cord, or you can cut the cord and go wireless, which usually means fighting static and interference.

The Nady UHF 802 Platinum system includes the 802 receiver and your choice of one of the four transmitter packs: the HT-5 which includes a handheld microphone, the GT-5 instrument body pack (to attach to instruments such as electric guitars), the SX-5 body pack transmitter with mini balanced input (lets you use any microphone, though one is not included) or the LT-5 lavaliere body pack. This month, we'll examine the Nady 802 Platinum Series wireless microphone system, with the LT-5 lavaliere microphone transmitter.

Ultra High Performance
The 802 system operates in the same UHF (ultra-high frequency) band professional gear uses. The UHF band provides improved performance and less interference than VHF (very high frequency, the band used by most consumer gear), because of its higher frequency and lower use.

The 802's receiver, which operates on 12-volt DC power with the included power supply, has two outputs for more versatility: a balanced microphone level output with a three-prong XLR jack, and an adjustable line-level output with a 1/4-inch jack. The adjustable mute helps block out unwanted RF (radio frequency) signals.

True Diversity
The 802 receiver features two separate channels, so if there is interference or another wireless mike on one channel, you can use the other. The Nady 802 is a true diversity receiver, which means that it uses two separate receiving circuits and antennas, unlike some systems which claim to have diversity receivers, but really use a single receiving circuit with two antennas. If one circuit is receiving a static-filled transmission, the other circuit should have clearer reception. The diversity system automatically senses which receiving circuit has the strongest signal, and switches to that circuit.

In Operation
We tested the LT-5 transmitter, which has a range of 250 feet under typical conditions and 500-plus feet during line-of-sight operation. The LT-5 transmitter is permanently attached to a Nady E-701 lavaliere microphone with a frequency response of 25-20,000Hz. The only controls are a three-way switch for power off/channel 1/channel 2, and a switch that allows the user to turn the mike's power off, but keep the transmitter on (to prevent receiving unwanted outside transmissions). It also features a small LED (light emitting diode) to show battery level.

The system was very easy to set up. The only problem we encountered with the overall operation is that the receiver, although small and lightweight, isn't designed to mount on the camera. Instead, it is made to sit on a table. Because of its stationary design, dual outputs (line and microphone levels) and high-quality signal, the Nady 802 system is well suited for event videography with a multi-camera setup, a video mixer and a recording VCR. Of course, one could also sit it on a table and run long cables from its mike outputs to the camcorder's input.

In operation, the system worked flawlessly. The microphone was very sensitive and picked-up voices at an even level, no matter which way the subject's head was turned. In fact, during testing, the only time we received any static was when the transmitter reached the far end of our testing lab a floor below where the receiver was setup. Overall, the 802 system worked with the reliability and clarity of a wired microphone.

Although pricey for the average consumer, the Nady Systems UHF 802 Platinum Series wireless microphone system is a worthwhile investment for the prosumer, especially when you consider that the price includes a high-quality lavaliere microphone.

--JM


A Little Light on the Subject

Smith-Victor M-75 & MP-100A On-Camera lights
($250 & $165)
Smith-Victor Corporation
301 North Colfax Street
Griffith, IN 46319
(800) 348-9862

Lighting is one of the most overlooked aspects of video production. Beginner's videos are famous for the "I can see fine, why shouldn't my camcorder?" approach to lighting. Manufacturers claim that their camcorders work in extremely low-light conditions, but these claims are somewhat deceptive. Yes, without proper lighting, you may get a picture on your tape, but chances are your subject will be hard to isolate from the harsh shadows and blotchy color that dominate poorly-lit video. In the June issue of Videomaker we reviewed the Smith-Victor K-86 studio light kit. While light kits are necessary for professional three-point lighting, they're bulky and inconvenient for most casual shooters.

On-camera lights, powered by a separate battery pack, are a simpler solution to most lighting problems. While they won't give you the look of professional three-point lighting, on-camera lights will provide enough illumination to salvage video shot in low light. This month, we'll take a look at a pair of Smith-Victor products, the M-75 and the MP-100A on-camera lights.

The Basics
The Smith-Victor M-75 and MP-100A lights mount on the hot shoe (an on-camera mount for attaching accessories, which sometimes supplies power) found on some camcorders. Optional mounts are available for camcorders lacking hot shoes. The M-75 uses a 75 watt, 12-volt quartz lamp, while the MP-100A sports a 100 watt version.

Besides wattage, the main difference between the lights is the M-75's AC adapter, and the type of battery plug each one uses. The lights plug into the battery packs (or AC adapter for the M-75) with a plug that cannot be attached the wrong way. The MP-100A uses an automotive cigarette lighter plug. This feature also allows it to be used from the cigarette lighter of nearly any vehicle.

Both lights use a gel-cell lead acid battery, which is kept in a soft case with a shoulder strap (A gel-cell battery uses sulfuric acid in a gelled state). Don't plan to unpack the system and immediately put it to use, though. First, you'll need to charge the battery, which is shipped partially-depleted. The battery must be fully-charged before use, which means eight-hours attached to an AC outlet. The batteries will reach their fullest capacity after four, full discharge-recharge cycles. A fully depleted battery requires 16 hours to recharge, and cannot be charged for longer than 24 hours, so plan ahead.

Light Show
When you're ready to use the system, you first need to attach the bracket to the light, which is a quick and easy job using the supplied hardware. The light bracket slips onto the camcorder's hot shoe and tightens down with a thumbscrew, providing a very secure mount. Because of its light weight (8 ounces), the light doesn't make a big impact on the balance and feel of most camcorders.

We tried the M-75 first, using the AC adapter. The plug's connection between the power supply and the light is very secure. In fact, it was a little difficult to plug and unplug the light, which could be a dangerous situation if a desperate user decided to use a screwdriver to pry them apart. This unplugging problem was apparent on the M-75 only; the MP-100A's cigarette lighter plug slipped in and out easily.

The first thing you'll notice after turning these lights on is that they quickly get hot. Even though both lights have glass safety shields, be careful when using them. Don't place them near anything combustible and allow them to cool before putting them away or changing the lamps.

To change bulbs, you first must remove two Phillips head screws on the bottom front of the lighting unit, then remove the entire reflector and safety glass assembly. This seems like a difficult task in the middle of a shoot. It would be nice if the units had a better design, incorporating a quick and easy way to change lamps. So, if you use the M-75 or MP-100A lights, it might be a good idea to include a Phillips screwdriver in your gear bag.

A nice feature of the M-75 is that the heavy AC adapter comes with a soft, cloth case that clips to the a user's belt. The power supply is also equipped with a hot shoe mount, so you can mount it on a camcorder. You can mount the power supply on your camcorder, but that leaves nowhere to put the light. It would make more sense if the power supply also had a mounting bracket for the light on the other side of the hot shoe mount. Then you could put the power supply on top of the camera, and the light on top of the power supply. It doesn't, so the power supply's hot shoe bracket seems like a waste.

Both lights do a very good job of lighting subjects. When used close to the subject, the lights were a little too bright, causing a hot spot on the subjects face. Tilting up the light to bounce off of a white ceiling (just loosen the wingnut) makes a big difference in close situations.
With the included battery packs, you can take either of these lights outdoors to use as a fill light during the day, a great advantage over AC-powered light kits. For daylight shots to look natural, however, the light should be corrected to daylight color temperature with clip-on gels. It would be nice if both kits included some form of clip-on daylight correction and diffusion gels.

Watt's the Difference?
You might notice that the lower-powered M-75 is priced $85 more than the MP-100A. Why? Both lights include batteries, but the M-75 includes an AC power adapter, while the MP-100A has a DC plug that fits into a car's cigarette lighter. To decide which light would be best for you, think about what type of shooting you do.

The M-75 supports both AC and DC operation. Use this light if you work indoors where AC is available. You can't power it from a vehicle's cigarette lighter, so it would be a poor choice if you shoot your video in or around cars.

The MP-100A offers no option for AC power; indoor use is battery-powered only. It is best suited to use in or around a vehicle, where its cigarette lighter DC plug is useful.

With their low prices, even without the gels, either light would help any videographer. They are both big improvements over the small, under-powered lights that most camcorder manufacturers include with their camcorders.

--JM

Tech Specs

Panasonic PV-L558 VHS-C Camcorder

Format
VHS-C

Lens
23:1 optical zoom, 3.8-87.4mm focal length, single-speed zoom, f/1.6, inner focus, wide macro

Image sensor
1/4-inch, 270,000-pixel CCD

Viewfinder
3.2-inch LCD monitor, 1/2-inch black and white LCD

Focus
TTL auto, inner manual

Maximum shutter speed
1/10000th of a second

Exposure
Auto, backlight compensation

White balance
Auto

Digital effects
None

Audio
Monaural

Inputs
None

Outputs
Composite video, mono audio (both via 1/8-inch mini-plug), headphones

Edit interface
None

Other features
Auto-fade, built-in camera light, titler, built-in lens cover

Dimensions
4.4 (width) by 4.6 (height) by 7 (length) inches

Weight (sans tape and battery)
2.4 pounds

Video Performance (approx.)
Horizontal resolution
(camera)
250 lines

Horizontal resolution (playback)
190 lines

Performance Times

Pause to Record
0.5 seconds

Power-up to Record
2.5 seconds

Fast Forward/Rewind (30 min. tape)
4 minutes 30 seconds

Strengths

  • Easy to use
  • Good auto focus, auto exposure controls
  • Built-in light

Weaknesses
  • No manual exposure control
  • Some ghosting on LCD monitor
  • No image stabilization

Summary
Recommended for beginning shooters and casual weekend shooters, but not for the serious amateur

Sima SCW-2 ColorWriter Plus Titler

Fonts

3

Colors
8

Styles
5

Effects
8

Memory
20 pages, 360 characters/page maximum

Inputs
Composite video, S-video, stereo audio, GPI trigger

Outputs
Composite video, S-video, stereo audio

Dimensions
12.5 (length) by 8.25 (width) by 2.5 (depth) inches

Strengths
  • GPI trigger
  • Simple to operate

Weaknesses
  • Keyboard difficult to type on
  • Poor quality fonts

Summary
A step above Sima's earlier ColorWriter Magic, but still not quite up to par for the price.

Strata VideoShop 4.0/3D Nonlinear Editing Software

Platform

Macintosh

Minimum System Requirements

Motherboard

Any Power Macintosh

Memory
5 MB RAM minimum

Hard disk
100 MB disk or more

Operating system
Mac OS System 7.5 or later

Other requirements
QuickTime 2.5 or later
Sound Manager 3.2 or later
For live video capture: any AV Power Macintosh system or QuickTime-compatible video capture board

Recommended system

Memory

8MB RAM or more

Hard disk
Wide SCSI-2

Strengths
  • Easy to use
  • Powerful interface
  • Micons

Weaknesses
  • None

Summary
A good nonlinear solution for beginners or experts.

Nady 802 Platinum Series wireless Microphone system

System
2 channel, diversity UHF receiver and transmitter

Transmitting Frequency between 800 and 850 MHz

Output balanced, fixed level XLR microphone and variable line level 1/4-inch

Frequency response 25-20,000

Power Receiver, 12 volts DC at 150mA, tip positive. Transmitter, 9 volt battery

Outdoor range 250+ feet

Strengths
  • True diversity system
  • Excellent range

Weaknesses
  • Will not mount on camera

Summary
Great wireless system for the advanced consumer or prosumer.

Smith-Victor M-75 & MP-100A On-Camera Lights
Lights

Quartz lamps, 75 watts (M-75) and 100 watts (MP-100A)

Power
12-volt battery packs; AC adapter for the M-75 and an automotive cigarette-lighter plug for the MP-100A

Battery life
Approximately 30 to 35 minutes

Battery recharge time
16 hours

Weight
MP-75 Light 8oz, Battery 6lbs, AC adapter xoz
MP-100A Light 8oz, Battery 6lbs, DC adapter xoz

Strengths
  • Portable
  • Hot shoe mount
  • Bright even light

Weaknesses
  • No gels
  • Plug on M-75 hard to use

Summary
Good, portable on-camera lights made for the amat
Tags:  July 1998
Joe
McCleskey
Wed, 07/01/1998 - 12:00am