VIDEO CAMERA 1993

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REVIEW

 

HEAD

NIFTY-FIFTY

 

INTRO

Panasonic are back on track with their latest VHS-C palmcorder, the R50, the first camcorder to have a quarter-inch CCD image sensor

 

COPY

That's more like it! With the launch of the NV-R50 Panasonic are well on the way to redeeming themselves for the CS1 debacle. The R50 is the sort of  camcorder Panasonic do best; it's small, light, packed with useful features and picture performance is well above average. The R50's slim shape and layout is vaguely similar to the CS1 but that's as far as it goes, unless you count the fact that both machines use VHS-C tapes and have colour viewfinders....

 

The R50's LCD colour screen is a little more technologically advanced than the optical viewfinder on the CS1, though it has to be said LCDs have a long way to go before they can match the clarity and resolution of monochrome, let alone optical viewfinders, but that's about the only feature on the R50 we would bother to question. The R50's most revolutionary feature, though, is the new quarter-inch CCD imaging chip; it will go completely unnoticed by the majority of users, which is a shame because the optics on this machine are a masterpiece of miniaturisation. The smaller CCD has enabled Panasonic to build a 10x zoom lens that's considerably smaller than the 6x zooms of three or four years ago.  The one and only practical drawback we could find is a slightly reduced low-light sensitivity, from the current norm of around 2 or 3 lux, to 10 lux, though Panasonic have sought to offset this with two effective low-light shooting modes.

 

It's not so easy to ignore the R50's most impressive assortment of exposure, effects and editing facilities, that should appeal to both beginners and more experienced video movie-makers alike. The programmed auto-exposure system has three shooting modes, selected by a rotary switch on the side of the machine. In addition to manual and automatic modes, it has:

 * sports, automatically varies shutter speed between 1/50 and 1/500th of a second, for optimum slow and still frame VCR replay recordings of fast-moving subjects.

* portrait, the iris is set to give a narrow depth of field, so the subject stands out against a blurred background

* low-light, increases the gain of the video circuitry to increase low-light sensitivity from 10 lux to 5 lux, at the expense of  an  increase in picture noise.

 

The R50's six digital effects are selected from a twin dial arrangement on the front of the machine, with the inner ring controlling manual focus. The options are:

* digital gain up, effectively a slow-speed shutter which  increases the exposure time, with a distinctive image lag effect that has some creative possibilities.

* strobe, recreating the characteristic jerky pop video effect

* wipe, where a previously recorded still image is wiped to or from the recorded picture

* mix, a still image dissolves to or from the recorded picture

* digital zoom, which electronically magnifies the optical zoom by a factor of 1.5x, giving a maximum zoom of 15x,

* digital stabiliser, an electronic method of eliminating small amounts of camera shake.,

 

There's also a still recording mode, which records a digitally frozen  picture for five seconds, every time the 'snapshot' button (next to the zoom switch) is pressed.

 

All of the R50's digital effects incur a small reduction in picture quality, and increase in granularity. As a matter of interest, when the R50 was first announced it had a 45x electronic zoom, the specification for the British model was changed fairly late in the day on the advice of Panasonic's UK engineers who felt that such extreme magnification, and consequent quality losses were unacceptable. Good decision!

 

Two other features rate a mention, they are the microphone socket just behind the microphone, and the RMC edit socket, which allows this machine to be used with an edit controller, including Panasonic's own splendid little WV-EC1, which is ideal for knocking home video movies into shape.

 

LAYOUT AND HANDLING

We're very pleased to see the combined power/record switch on the R50, this ingenious arrangement first appeared on the S20, though we repeat our earlier warning that the switch can be accidentally caught in the user's clothing, when the machine is slung from its shoulder strap. We were not expecting to like the manual control for the inner-focus lens, the small dial on the front of the machine looks as though it's going to be tricky to use but it turned out to be quite the opposite. Obviously it is not as responsive as a control ring on the lens barrel, but in this instance, its the next best thing. The only fly in this particular ointment is the LCD viewfinder, to be fair it's better than most, but it is still difficult to make accurate manual focus adjustments in very bright, or low-light conditions.

 

We have just a couple of minor ergonomic niggles, the hinged cover for the transport controls on the top of the machine is far too flimsy and we suspect won't last very long. It's a nuisance to have to pull out the eyepiece on the viewfinder, it only extends by a centimetre or so, why bother? It's not as though it can be used as a sportsfinder, for example, and the space saving is minimal.

 

Plus points include the sideways zoom switch;  after some initial scepticism  we grew to quite like it. The two-speed zooming feature (controlled by pressure on the switch) is a bonus. Another pleasant surprise was the tiny battery pack -- four fifths the size of a normal NP-style nicad pack. That's because it has four cells instead of five, giving a 4.8 volt output, instead of 6 volts. This has been made possible by the use of new, lower voltage microchips in the R50's control and processing circuits; we can expect more of the same in the future. Although smaller and lighter the battery has a similar capacity rating to larger packs and we managed to get almost 35 minutes recording time per charge, with the usual amount of stopping, starting and zooming.

 

PERFORMANCE

In spite of the fact that the R50's image sensor is nearly ten percent smaller than most other camcorder CCDs, it has the same number of light-sensitive picture elements or pixels. In this case, and on our sample that translates to a resolving power --  the ability to discern fine detail -- of almost 250-lines. That's good for any palmcorder, irrespective of  CCD size! Colour rendition was very good, and there was no detectable colour spillage, even on highly saturated colours. The only difference between this, and machines with larger image sensors and lenses are slightly elevated noise levels, especially in low-light conditions, outdoors in good daylight it holds its own with the best of them.

 

The digital effects, especially wipe and mix are old friends and used judiciously give recordings a really professional look. Strobe and snapshot are gimmicks, fun to use once or twice but they can become tiresome when overused. The digital zoom is no substitute for a proper teleconverter, though we accept that it could have occasional uses, when it is not possible to get close to the subject, or there's no time screw on a converter lens. Digital gain-up is interesting, it works really well, though any movement will be blurred, but this can be used to advantage, as an eye-catching effect when zooming or panning. We've never been terribly impressed by electronic image stabilisers, and the one on the R50 does nothing to change that; if anything it's not as good as previous systems, and it produces an annoying jerk when panning at a particular speed. The three AE modes are definitely worth having, and Panasonic have wisely included a backlight control as well, for difficult shots where the AE cannot cope.

 

The upward facing microphone produced mixed results, forward sensitivity is not very good, but it is better at picking up incidental sounds, from the sides and back, including the user's voice, so it can be used for narration. That also means it'll pick up every wheeze and grunt and in quiet surroundings that can sound like something out of a bad horror movie...

 

VERDICT

Camcorder lore says that any machine with its fair share of the three 'p's -- performance, price and proportion --  has to be a winner. The R50 scores three out of three, though  the price, at just under 900 is borderline; you can get some quite decent stereo machines for that sort of money. Picture quality is very good, and we would rate this as one of the best VHS-C  machines we've seen in a while. The shape and layout are pure Panasonic, designed by people who know a thing or two about camcorders. The only quibble we have concerns the LCD viewfinder. If it were possible -- and we suspect it's not -- we would prefer to pay 100 less for one with a monochrome viewfinder. Nevertheless, we can't ignore the fact that camcorder buyers are voting with their wallets and they're becoming very popular. The R50 is another much-needed boost for the VHS-C format and confirmation, if it were needed, that Panasonic haven't forgotten how to make and market camcorders.

 

BOX 1 -- WHAT ELSE IS THERE?

Comparable palmcorders with colour viewfinders include the Mitsubishi CX6, Canon UC16 (another slim machine)  and the quirky Sharp MX7 'Twin Cam', but if you're prepared to trade in the LCD display and/or the ultra-compact shape there's several other machines well worth considering at or around the 900 price mark, they include the Sony FX500 and TR305, Akai's MS8 and Panasonic's S6.

 

SPECIFICATIONS

Make/model                   PANASONIC NV-R50

Recording format           VHS-C

Guide price                     899

 

OPTICS

Lens                               f1.8

Zoom                              10x optical, 15x digital

Filter diameter               37mm  

Pick-up device               0.25in CCD (320k pixels)

Min. illum. (lux)             10 (5 lux low-light mode, 1 lux digital gain-up)

 

VIDEO DECK

Long Play (LP)?                     yes                  

Max. rec. time                             90 (LP mode)

IR remote control ?                        no

Edit terminal?                                  yes (RMC/5-pin)

 

MAIN FACILITIES               

Auto Focus?                              yes      Manual focus?               yes

Auto exposure?             yes            Programmed AE?                    yes

Auto white balance                          yes            Manual white balance?            yes

Power zoom                              yes            Manual zoom?              no

Backlight compensation            yes            Insert edit?                             no

Character generator?            no            Digital Superimposer?            no

Image stabiliser?                     yes            Video light?                            no

Battery refresh?                            yes      Accessory shoe?               no

Record review                yes            Fader?                          yes/black

Digital effects                             yes            Digital zoom                            yes

 

ADDITIONAL FEATURES

time/date recording, backlight compensation, record review, digital effects (strobe, snapshot, still, wipe, mix, gain-up)

 

VIEWFINDER

Viewfinder                       0.7in colour LCD

Viewfinder info.               deck mode and status, low battery, tape count, AE mode, fader, focus mode, tape end, time/date, stabiliser, digital effect, index marker, snapshot mode, zoom, head clog, dew

 

AUDIO

Stereo?                                        yes         

Audio dub?                                no

Wind noise filter?                no

Mic socket?                              yes

Headphone socket?             yes

Microphone                                single-point stereo

 

GENERAL

Sockets                           video and audio out (phono), DC in, RMC edit control

Size (mm)                       76 x 118 x 233

Weight                            0.9kg (inc. tape and battery)

 

STANDARD ACCESSORIES

Batteries, (nicad and lithium), straps, AC charger/power supply,

AV lead

video light?                    no        remote control?            no

cassette adaptor?            yes      RF Converter?            no

SCART adaptor?            yes                  

 

PERFORMANCE

Resolution                    >240-lines

Colour fidelity               very good

Picture stability             very good

Colour bleed                  none

White balance                good

Exposure                       good

Autofocus                       good

Audio performance       average

Insert edit                      N/A (manual inserts clean)

Playback thru adaptor  good

 

VC RATINGS

Value for money          8

Ease of use                  9

Performance                9

Features                       9

 

---end---

(c) R Maybury 1993 2906

 

 

 

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