VIDEO CAMERA 1993

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REVIEW

 

HEAD

IN THE CLEAR?

 

INTRO

Panasonic are back in contention with a new top-end Super VHS-C palmcorder, the NV-S85 which goes on sale about now for just under 1200

 

COPY

It's been quite an eventful year for top-end camcorders and Panasonic are rounding it off nicely with the NV-S85. It has all of the features we've come to expect from a flagship machine, including a high-performance S-VHS-C recording system, stereo hi-fi sound and a full set of manual camera controls, but it's the long list of picture enhancements and secondary features, several of them completely new, that makes this machine stand out. Moreover, in a year when camcorder prices have made an unwelcome about-turn, the 1200 Panasonic are asking for this highly specified palmcorder actually seems quite reasonable.

 

Panasonic are trumpeting the S85's new 'Digital Crystal-Clear Processing System' which they claim improves colour accuracy, and for once the hype appears justified. It works like this: image sensors, picture tubes and the human eye respond to colour and brightness in an uneven or  'non-linear' fashion so a process, known as gamma correction, is applied to the video signal in order to compensate for these deficiencies. On most video cameras gamma correction normally occurs early on in the video processing chain, to the colour (chrominance) and brightness (luminance) elements of the signal together. In the S85 gamma correction is carried out at a later stage, after the analogue video signal has been converted into digital data, and it is applied separately to the red, green, blue and luminance information. The net results is clearer, more lifelike colours and the ability to differentiate between subtle changes in hue, that most other domestic camcorders would not be able to resolve.

 

The S85's uprated colour performance appears to have shown up flaws in Panasonic's white balance systems, which may explain why the S85 sports a newly developed  RGB (red, green, blue) colour sensor, built into the front of the machine. Panasonic clearly have a thing about white balance -- and rightly so -- just over a year ago they were extolling the virtues of their new super-accurate infra-red sensing WB system.

 

CREATIVE OPTIONS

The S85 has a good selection of camera controls, including manual adjustments for shutter speed and iris, plus 3-mode program auto exposure, selected by a thumbwheel on the side of the machine; they options are:

* Sports -- for improved still and slomo reproduction; shutter speed varied automatically between 1/50th and 1/500th second, according to scene brightness.

* Portrait -- to make the subject stand out against a soft-focus background, narrow depth of field achieved by opening iris and varying shutter speed between 1/50th and 1/1500th sec.

* Low-light -- increases low-light sensitivity, for indoor shooting, or at night

 

There are two additional positions on the AE selector knob, one for full auto recording, the other for manual operation.

 

The S85 also has a set of digital effects, these are engaged by turning a small knob just in front of the viewfinder, the selected facility is indicated in a small window next to the knob. From left to right they are:

 

* Digital image stabiliser -- electronic anti-shake system, useful when walking or shooting from a moving vehicle, some loss of picture quality, though.

* Digital zoom -- electronically extends the 10x optical zoom up to 20x, some loss of definition at higher magnification. Can be used in conjunction with stabiliser

* Digital mix -- mixes from frozen image of last recorded scene

* Digital wipe -- horizontal wipe from frozen image of last recorded scene.

* Digital strobe -- jerky pop-video effect with image updated six times each second, instead of the usual 50 frames per second.

* Digital gain-up -- increases low-light sensitivity, creates an eye-catching after image effect.

 

The S85 also has a digital snapshot function which records a still image for five seconds, this is activated by a small button just behind the zoom lever.

 

The manual adjustment for the shutter and iris has been combined onto a single thumbwheel on the front of the machine and this is one of the S85's few shortcomings. Firstly the control itself is stiff and awkward, and far too thin, it's almost impossible to use without inducing camera shake and fumbling noises which may be picked up by the microphone. Secondly, it is not possible to adjust the shutter and iris simultaneously as the two functions are selected sequentially by a button in the centre of the program AE thumbwheel. On the plus side the iris setting is shown clearly in the viewfinder display, as an f-stop value, from f16, (almost closed) to f2.0 (open) and from then as a positive gain value, from 0 to +18db. The shutter speed is also shown in the display, this has twelve increments, from 1/50th second to 1/4000th sec.

 

White balance adjustment is normally automatic, though there is the option to fix it manually, using the white opaque lens cap as a reference. Manual focus for the inner-focus lens is via a ring on the front of the lens barrel, it's light, well-damped and has a positive feel to it. Rounding off the creative facilities there's a fader, controlled from a button just below the viewfinder, a date/time recording function, and audio dub, for replacing the mono soundtrack, a useful trick and one of the few advantages VHS-C still has over the rival 8mm format.

 

TIME CODE

The S85 has a rather unusual time-code facility. It has a conventional VITC (vertical interval time-code) recording system, which invisibly tags each frame of the recording. This can be used for highly accurate editing (with a suitable controller via the machine's RMC edit terminal), but it is the only domestic machine that can also read VITC data. VITC time codes are recorded in an unused portion of the video signal, so there's normally no reason for a machine to be able to read them, that's the job of the edit controller, but on the S85 the time code is read and displayed on the viewfinder. As far as we can see it's of limited practical use, the S85's tape transport does not have the capability to cue up an individual frame in a recording, so a VITC-compatible edit controller is still needed for accurate editing . However, Panasonic have made good use of the spare capacity in the VITC code, and along with time-code information the S85 also records and displays time and date, zoom setting, manual or auto focus, shutter speed, iris setting and white balance mode, and these can be superimposed on the video output, which could, conceivably, be useful at a later date for reference purposes.

 

CONTROLS AND HANDLING

There's a few reminders of previous Panasonic machines, including the NV-R50, as far as the S85's control layout is concerned. We quite like the sideways zoom lever which is more responsive than the traditional rocker, once you've got used to it, and the one-touch standby/record switch is a real time-saver when you need to get the machine up and running in a hurry. The two machines also share the same diminutive 4.8 volt nicad battery pack, and whilst this has the same capacity as the larger 'NP' style packs, Panasonic have devised a neat power-saving system that switches off the viewfinder and AF motor whilst the machine is in the record-pause mode. Just below the viewfinder there's a small infra-red detector that sense the user's face, when the machine is being held in the shooting position. It can be disabled, if needed, but Panasonic reckons it saves around 1 watt of power. Our tests suggest could add between five and ten minutes to the recording time, which on our sample was never less than 25 minutes, even with a fair amount of stop/start recording, and use of the zoom.

 

The secondary controls and most of the AV output sockets are hidden behind a hinged flap on the right side of the machine; the edit control and S-Video output sockets are situated just below the battery. The main transport keys are on the top, protected from accidental operation by a sliding cover. All of the regularly-used controls are accessible and easy to use, with the exception of that iris/shutter thumbwheel. Some users with big hands may find their right small finger straying perilously close to the mic grille; the top panel could do with some sort of moulded recess to prevent this, but in general feel and balance are very  good, the S85 feels substantial and well-built..

 

PERFORMANCE

Out sample turned in a very healthy set of results with horizontal resolution better than 380-lines on an S-Video output, and approaching 340 lines using a composite video feed. Recordings made using normal VHS-C tape managed to resolve 250-lines, which is about as good as you can get. The extensive use of digital processing has helped keep picture noise to very low levels and in good light the picture looks very clean indeed. Colours are sharp and well defined; the new processing circuitry has had a definite impact, flesh tones, in particular, (which are notoriously difficult to reproduce), look soft and true to life in good natural light. The new white balance system also plays its part and although colours loose their vibrancy in artificial light, they waver far less, even under tube light. The S85's auto systems cope extremely well and be relied up on to get it right most of the time, the only time they encounter any difficulty is in low-light situations where the auto focus can become unreliable; it's usually a good idea to take over exposure control as the auto iris may need help, especially if there's a bright light somewhere in the scene, or the subject is strongly backlit.

 

The program AE system modes works well enough for the specified types of shot, though the manual controls are far more flexible and have a very familiar feel to anyone who has ever used an SLR camera. We noticed only two small slight discrepancies with the manual iris: at f16 the iris is not fully closed and an image is still visible, and the instruction books maintains that the viewfinder should display f1.7 when the iris is fully open, our sample jumped from f2.0 to 0db.

 

The stereo hi-fi recording system on the S85 has a bandwidth of between 50 Hz and 20kHz, which covers the whole audible spectrum, though for various reasons, probably concerned with reducing wind and motor noises,  the upper frequency cut-off, via the on-board mic, is limited to 8kHz. So whilst this is more than adequate for routine recordings of speech and incidental sounds, audio performance isn't that special, and it won't do full justice to musical recordings though better results can be obtained using an external microphone. The stereo image produced is fairly narrow, though it is certainly better than the lifeless mono of most mono VHS-C machines.

 

VERDICT

Panasonic got off to a rather unpromising start earlier this year with the NV-CS1 record-only machine but they've redeemed themselves with their two most recent launches and the S85 shows once again that the S/VHS-C format still has much to offer, and Panasonic haven't lost their touch. The S85 should have a wide appeal, from snapshooters looking for performance without fuss and bother, to serious users who also demand higher than average quality pictures and sound but want to take charge of their recordings and retain a high degree of creative input. The price, even in the wake of recent increases is fair and the S85 looks like it could become one of the year's most important newcomers at the top end of the market.

 

THE RIVALS

The S85 is a more than adequate replacement for the NV-S7 which we rated as one of the best high-band machines of 1992, though this new model costs almost 200 more. Between 1,000 and 1,500 there's quite a few fine machines to choose from and the Sony FX700 remains one of our firm favourites for serious work. Anyone seeking a high-band palmcorder would be well-advised to look at the Sony TRs 8,707 which have all performed well, and are generally a little cheaper than the S85, though they tend to be fairly modestly equipped when it comes to fancy creative effects. Canon's UC2 Hi and the recently introduced UCH Hi are both good machines though their upright layout can be an acquired taste. The Sony TR805 is the only other sub-compact machine in this price bracket to have a time-code facility and for this reason it should be of interest to anyone who puts accurate editing high on their list of priorities. JVC's SZ1 is another versatile S-VHS-C sub-compact and it's not short of gadgetry, though at 1500 we feel it is somewhat overpriced and it has limited editing facilities, apart from its own simple built-in assembly edit system.

 

SPECIFICATIONS

Make/model                      Panasonic NV-S85     

Recording format           S-VHS-C/VHS-C

Guide price                     1,200

 

OPTICS

Lens                               f1.6, 6-60mm

Zoom                              x10 optical, 20x electronic

Filter diameter               37mm  

Pick-up device               0.3in CCD

Min. illum. (lux)             1 (gain up

 

VIDEO DECK

Long Play (LP)                          yes

Max. rec. time                                          45mins (LP mode)

IR remote control ?                                    no

Edit terminal?                                              yes, 5/11pin RMC

           

MAIN FACILITIES                

Auto Focus?                              yes

Manual focus?               yes

Auto exposure?             yes      

Manual iris?                               yes

Programmed AE?                  yes (3-mode)  

Auto white balance                          yes

Manual white balance?            yes

Power zoom                              yes      

Manual zoom?               no

Backlight compensation            no

Insert edit?                                no

Audio Dub?                               yes

Character generator?            no        

Digital Superimposer?            no

Image stabiliser?                     yes

Video light?                               no        

Battery refresh?                            no

Accessory shoe?               no

Record review                yes      

Fader?                          yes/black

Digital effects                             yes

Digital zoom?                            yes

 

ADDITIONAL FEATURES

time/date recording, record review, VITC/data read and write, digital wipe, mix and gain-up

 

VIEWFINDER

Viewfinder                       0.7in monochrome

Sportsfinder eyepiece?   no

Viewfinder info.               deck mode and status, low battery, tape count, fader, focus mode, tape end, time/date, dew, AE preset mode, digital effects, VITC data, shutter speed, stabiliser, iris value, AE compensation, gain

 

AUDIO

Stereo?                                       yes

Audio dub?                                yes

Wind noise filter?                no

Mic socket?                              yes

Headphone socket?             yes

Microphone                                      single-point stereo

 

GENERAL

Sockets                                  video and audio out (phono), ext. mic., headphones (minijack), DC power in, S-Video out (4-pin mini DIN). 5/11pin 'new edit' terminal

Size (mm)                               112 x 1`17 x 216

Weight                                   1.1kg (inc. tape and battery)

 

STANDARD ACCESSORIES

Batteries, (nicad and lithium), straps, AC charger/power supply, cassette adaptor, AV lead

 

video light?                    no

remote control?            no

cassette adaptor?            yes      

RF Converter?             no

SCART adaptor?            yes      

 

PERFORMANCE

Resolution                    380-lines (S-Video), 340-lines (composite)

Colour fidelity               very good

Picture stability             very good

Colour bleed                  none

White balance                very good

Exposure                       very good

Autofocus                      average

Audio performance       good

Insert edit                      N/A

Playback thru adaptor  very good

 

VC RATINGS

Value for money          8

Ease of use                  9

Performance                9

Features                       9

 

---end---

(c) R Maybury 1993 0110

 

 

 

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