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DIGITAL DUEL

 

INTRO

If you take picture quality seriously then digital is the only way to go; if you really mean business it has to be a 3-CCD machine. We put the Panasonic and Sony DVC top-enders head-to-head

 

COPY

Whilst the dividing line between professional and Ďdomesticí camcorders has become blurred since the arrival of digital equipment, there is still one feature that separates the men from the boys, and thatís the number of CCD image sensors. Thatís not meant to imply single-chip camcorders are in any way inferior, far from it. However, when it comes to accurate colour reproduction and freedom from noise, three CCDs -- one for each primary colour -- is the only way to go. Incidentally, itís worth dispelling the myth that three CCDs give three times the resolution, it doesnít work like that; in the end itís the recording system that defines how much fine detail can be captured.

 

The complex optics used in 3-CCD camcorders are expensive to manufacture, consequently only a very small handful of machines have this feature. Weíre looking at two of them, the Panasonic NV-DX1, and the Sony VX1000. As a matter of interest they were the very first DVC camcorders. The Sony machine appeared here in early 1996, though Panasonic were actually the first to launch in Japan, in the Autumn of 1995 but it didnít arrive in the UK until a couple of months after the VX1000.

 

In addition to the triple CCD image sensors, they share a number of other similarities. To begin with theyíre expensive, compared with regular machines. The Panasonic DX1 is the cheaper of the two at £3000, whilst the VX1000 will set you back an eye-watering £3600. Yes, that is a lot of money, but itís worth putting it into context. Professional, broadcast-quality camcorders with similar capabilities, cost upwards of £12,000, so you could say theyíre a bargain... 

 

They both look the part. The Panasonic machine has the more radical design with what looks like a Walkman-sized deck mechanism, strapped to the side of a black drain-pipe, with a lens at one end, and viewfinder at the other. The VX1000 on the other hand echoes previous Sony Hi8 machines with a plump silvery body, fat lens and distinctive carry handle, fronted by a purposeful-looking microphone. In terms of layout the Sony machine is a little easier to get on with, though the big pivoting viewfinder on the DX1 is very versatile. It comes in handy for waist-level shots, and the larger LCD panel can be more easily viewed at a distance.

 

As befits serious semi-pro machines they each have a full-set of manual exposure controls and relatively few gadgets, though the VX1000 is the more versatile of the two, with a 3-mode program auto-exposure system that has shutter and aperture priority and twilight modes, plus a couple of handy exposure aids. Itís the sort of machine that anyone used to modern SLR still camera will feel immediately at home with. The DX1 on the other hand is better suited to those who think that too much automation and gimmickry is a cop-out, and prefer to retain full manual control. Donít let that put you off though, both machines are as docile as kittens when used in their full-auto modes. Anyone can use them, and expect to get excellent results in all but the most difficult shooting conditions.

 

Other common features include image stabilisers (Panasonic use an electronic system whereas Sony favour no-loss optical Steady-Shot), colour LCD viewfinders, photo shooting modes, three stereo soundtracks (2 x 12-bit/32kHz or 1 x 16-bit/48kHz), timecode recording (VITC on the Panasonic and RCTC on the Sony model), editing terminals (Panasonic 5-pin on the DX1 and Control L/LANC on the VX1000) and S-Video (Y/C) outputs. Manual exposure settings are displayed on the viewfinders and they have Ďcinemaí recording modes, with black bars on the top and bottom of the picture. Theyíre both powered by lithium-ion rechargeable battery packs that last for up to an hour, though 40 minutes is a good average. The large, bright lenses on these machines have 10x zooms with electronic enlargement up to 20x, and both feature manual white balance systems, to take advantage of their improved colour recording capabilities.

 

The higher price of the VX1000 is largely due to a number of additional creative facilities. It has a switchable neutral-density (ND) filter, for shooting in very bright conditions, a slow-speed shutter (down to 0.25th second), self and interval timers, custom presets for colour level, white balance and exposure settings, fader with overlap effect and a zebra-pattern generator. The latter is a feature common to a lot of professional machines, it superimposes a series of stripes on areas of the picture that are over-exposed, making manual iris adjustment a lot easier. One rather more important additional feature is the VX1000ís FireWire digital output. Itís used to connect the VX1000 to other items of digital video equipment. Admittedly thereís not a lot you can use it with right now, apart from a solitary Sony DVC video recorder (and some professional equipment), but it could, and probably will become the standard digital video interface for VCRs, editing equipment and PCs in years to come.

 

PERFORMANCE

Digital video always comes a bit of a shock to those accustomed to high and low-band analogue recording systems. Whilst there are some minor technical differences between DVC and broadcast video, most people would be hard-pressed to spot any differences on a domestic TV. Both camcorders perform very well, in fact thereís very little to choose between them, as far as resolution and picture noise levels are concerned. Samples of the Panasonic DX1 weíve tested have achieved in excess of 450-lines; the Sony VC1000 can manage maybe a dozen or so more lines, but these small differences are well within the 5 percent error range of our tests and are not significant. The lack of noise is far more important; images look incredibly crisp and detailed. Theyíre stable too, with almost some of the lowest levels of jitter weíve seen, at all replay speeds, including still frame.

 

Differences do begin to emerge with colour reproduction, however. The impact of those triple CCD sensors is immediately obvious in the sharpness and subtlety of colours, the almost complete lack noise in areas of high saturation and wide tonal range. Varieties of shades, in plants and flowers for example, really stand out, they almost glow. Left to their own devices, with the white balance controls set to automatic the Sony machine gives a very slightly warmer picture. The DX1 is just a tad cooler. Both models can be manually set to suit individual preference or lighting conditions, though it is slightly easier on the VX1000 with itís wider range of adjustments.

 

Thereís a remarkable similarity between the audio recording systems on these machines. When used with an external microphone dynamic range, frequency response and background noise levels are all but indistinguishable. Itís a slightly different story with the on-board microphones though. The VX1000 produces a much broader stereo image, and it has better forward sensitivity. The top-mounted microphone on the DX1 is less directional, and is also prone to picking up handling noises and motor whine in very quiet surroundings, when the AGC is wound up. The DX1 sound system is more flexible, though, with an audio dub facility. The VX1000 soundtrack can only be dubbed during post-production. Panasonic could have gone further though, thereís no audio line inputs, so dubbed audio has to come through the microphone channel.

 

SUMMARY

Thereís little or no point talking about winners and losers, based on AV performance and price, which in any case varies quite dramatically at street-level. If youíre can live without the frills, and digital connectivity isnít a requirement then the DX1 is the one to go for. The dearer VX1000 has some useful additional exposure facilities and the potentially important FireWire interface.  Both machines will knock your socks off!

 

BOX COPY 1

DIGITAL ALTERNATIVES

Sadly Sony have just discontinued the DCR-VX700, which had the same basic spec as the VX1000, but a single chip image sensor, and a £2700 price tag. There might be a few left, itís well worth considering. The Sony DCR-VX9000 is unquestionably the ultimate DVC camcorder. This shoulder-mounted model uses full-size DVC tapes and is squarely aimed at serious semi-pro movie-makers. Youíll have to dig deep though, it costs around £4500. At the other end of the scale thereís a good selection of DVC compacts around the £2000 mark, from Sony, JVC and Sharp. Theyíre designed for demanding family users and snap-shooters. Performance in all cases is excellent.

 

 

BOX COPY 2

THEREíS STILL LIFE IN THE ANALOGUE DOG YET...

Donít write off analogue camcorders just yet! In fact theyíre  perfectly adequate for the vast majority of movie-making and desktop video applications. DVC is still expensive, and the extra quality is relatively unimportant if all you want to do is make movies for your own enjoyment, or youíre on a tight budget. Hi-band camcorders (S-VHS-C and Hi8) are capable of good results. The most flexible Hi 8 machine has to be the Canon EX2 Hi, mainly by virtue of itís interchangeable lens system, though at £2700 it doesnít stack up very well against digital equipment. You donít have to spend anything like that much though, the best Hi8 camcorder at the moment, as far as features, price and performance is concerned, is the Canon UC9Hi, which sells for just £800. You should also take a look at the S-VHS-C Panasonic NV-SX3 at £750 and Sony CCD-TR810. If you fancy a few more bells and whistles then think about the Canon UC-X30 (£1100), and the old Panasonic NV-S88, a real classic, and worth tracking down.

 

SPECIFICATIONS

 

Make/model                  Panasonic NV-DX1E

How much?                   £3000

 

OPTICS

Lens                             f/1.6, 6-60 mm

Zoom                            10x optical, 20x electronic

Pick-up device            3 x 0.3in CCDs

Min illum                       4 lux    

Filter diameter            49 mm  

 

MAIN FACILITIES               

auto/manual focus, manual iris, fader, manual white balance, insert edit, audio dub, image stabiliser, accessory shoe, time/date recording, timecode recording, self-timer,  high-speed shutter (1/50 sec to 1/8,000th sec), record review, retake, tally lamp, frame-record, photo shooting mode, manual audio recording level control,  0.7in colour LCD viewfinder

 

AUDIO FACILITIES

2 x 12-bit stereo PCM, 1 x 16-bit stereo PCM, external microphone socket, headphone socket

 

GENERAL

Sockets: composite/S-Video and audio out (proprietary), microphone, headphone (minijack), 5-pin edit terminal (mini DIN) DC power in

Dimensions:                  144 x 121 x 267 mm                      

All up weight:            1.8 kg (inc. tape and battery)

 

PERFORMANCE

Resolution                                 470-lines

Colour fidelity                           good

Picture stability                         excellent

Colour bleed                              none

White balance                            average

Exposure                                   excellent

Auto focus                                  very good

Audio performance                   excellent

Insert edit                                  clean

 

CV RATINGS

Video quality                 9

Audio quality                 9

Edit facilities                  9

Build quality                  9

Ease of use                   8

Value for money            9

 

Overall rating            93%

 

 

SONY DCR-VX1000

 

Make/model                  Sony DCR-VX1000

How much?                   £3600

 

OPTICS

Lens                             f/1.6, 5.9 - 59mm

Zoom                            10x optical, 20x electronic

Pick-up device            3 x 0.3in CCDs

Min illum                       4 lux    

Filter diameter            52mm  

 

MAIN FACILITIES               

auto/manual focus, manual iris, programmed AE, fader, manual white balance, insert edit, image stabiliser, accessory shoe, time/date recording, self-timer,  high-speed shutter (1/4 sec to 1/10,000th sec), record review, retake, tally lamp, frame-record, switchable ND filter, aperture and shutter priority, still, slomo, 16:9 recording mode, custom picture presets, zebra pattern display, fade/overlap, photo shooting mode, RC timecode and data recording, manual audio recording level control,  0.6in colour LCD viewfinder

 

AUDIO FACILITIES

2 x 12-bit stereo PCM, 1 x 16-bit stereo PCM, external microphone socket, headphone socket

 

GENERAL

Sockets: AV out (phono), S-Video out (mini DIN), digital video out (DV jack), microphone, headphone and Control L (minijack), DC power in

Dimensions:                  110 x 144 x 329 mm                       

All up weight:            1.6kg (inc. tape and battery)

 

PERFORMANCE

Resolution                                 480-lines

Colour fidelity                           excellent

Picture stability                         excellent

Colour bleed                              none

White balance                            excellent

Exposure                                   excellent

Auto focus                                  average

Audio performance                   very good

Insert edit                                  clean

 

CV RATINGS

Video quality                 10

Audio quality                 9

Edit facilities                  9

Build quality                  9

Ease of use                   8

Value for money            8

 

Overall rating            92%

 

---end---

R. Maybury 1997 0603

 


 

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