VIDEO CAMERA 1994

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REVIEW

 

HEAD

SUPER NINETY

 

INTRO

The top -end of the camcorder market is beginning to look interesting again, Panasonic are certainly doing their bit to liven things up with the launch of their latest S-VHS-C palmcorder, the NV-S90

 

COPY

Panasonic show no signs of letting up and their latest Super VHS-C palmcorder is very a good reason to keep your format options well and truly open, especially if you’re casting around for a serious top-end machine. The NV-S90 is the successor to the much-praised S85, launched at the back end of last year. There’s no doubt about its parentage, but it’s much more than just an upgrade of the S85, even though they share numerous features. The S90 is also something of a milestone in camcorder technology, being the first high-band machine to have a genuine ‘no-loss’ electronic image stabiliser.

 

Sony were first into the market with a high-performance electronic stabiliser on the CCD-TR3 which appeared earlier this year, and there was indeed very little difference between stabilised and unstabilised images, unfortunately though, resolution on that machine was below the high-band norm. Resolution on the S90 is a full 400-lines, and switching the stabiliser on and off produces only negligible changes in picture quality. Panasonic have achieved this impressive feat by using a CCD image sensor with 680k pixels. In fact the machine uses around 390k pixels to generate the stabilised image, the picture area ‘floats’ around the face of the sensor, changing position according to motion detection circuits, which use data from the CCD to sense movement or camera shake.

 

Impressive though the stabiliser is the S90 is more than just an effective cure for the shakes, we’ll begin with the exposure system. This has a typically efficient full-auto setting, plus three-mode program AE system with:

* Sports -- shutter set automatically between 1/50th and 1/500th second

* Portrait -- narrow depth of field, for sharp subject against blurred background

* Low-light -- increased sensitivity, for shooting indoors or in poor light

 

Best of all the S90 has a full-range calibrated manual iris (12-steps closed to +18dB), manual shutter (1/50th to 1/4000th second), and white balance lock, with the lens cap acting as a white reference filter. Like the S85 it has a digital effects system, there are six options:

* Gain-up -- improves brightness of dark scenes, with after-image effect

* Zoom -- doubles zoom magnification range, to 20x

* Strobe -- jerky stop motion with quarter-second frame refresh rate

* Image stabiliser -- we’ve already looked at that one...

* Digital wipe -- frozen shot from last scene wiped to reveal new recording

* Digital mix -- frozen shot from last scene dissolves to new recording

 

The digital processing circuitry is also behind a ‘snapshot’ recording mode, where the machine records a five second still picture every time the button (next to the zoom lever) is pressed.

 

That’s a pretty good start but the S90 really comes into its own with a range of editing facilities, starting with a 5/11-pin editing terminal. This is the machine’s means of communicating with a suitable edit controller, so selected scenes can be replayed in any desired order. To ensure the utmost accuracy the machine has a VITC generator (vertical interval time code) which automatically addresses each frame of the recording with a unique time-related identity code, an increasing number of stand-alone and PC based editing systems can now read the code, which is an industry-standard, used by professionals and broadcasters. The VITC generator can also be used to record a selection of camera setting, as well as time and date information, this is switchable, to avoid compatibility problems with some types of controller. It also has audio dub, so the mono linear soundtrack can be replaced, leaving the stereo hi-fi soundtracks intact. The new soundtrack can either be recorded using the machine’s own microphone, or from an external source, via the microphone socket.

 

We’ve saved the best ‘til last, the S90 is one of only a handful of camcorders to have a timebase corrector. It’s not exactly an everyday feature, and it has limited use outside editing, but it means that this machine can replay old, worn timed and dodgy recordings, the kind that you would normally give up on. It does this by regenerating the recording’s synchronisation pulses, they’re the part of the video signal that ensure picture stability, and they’re usually the first casualty when a video recording deteriorates, for whatever reason. This facility is especially important in editing because it means old or poor quality footage can be recovered or re-edited.

 

Regrettably the rest of the S90 is going to look like something of an anti-climax after that little lot, but it’s still worth pointing out that it has battery-save and anti-ground shooting systems that shut down non-essential camera systems when they’re not being used, or if the machine is accidentally left recording. It has a simple menu-operated on-screen display system, combined power/stop/start recording switch, and a barrel-mounted focus ring.

 

HANDLING AND USE

It’s quite a chubbly little thing, but it looks okay and feels comfortable to use. Most of the controls are where you’d expect to find them, even the sideways zoom lever is all right, once you’ve got used to it. With an all-up weight of just over a kilogram it’s no featherweight -- does it really need a stabiliser?  -- but the balance is good.

 

In common with virtually all Panasonic camcorders nowadays it is powered by a 4.8 volt nicad battery pack. With the power save features switch on and a normal amount of stop/start shooting we were able to get around 30 minutes recording time per charge, which isn’t bad at all. The mains charger doesn’t have a refresh mode; this might not be a problem, it’s early days yet -- they’ve only been around for a little over a year -- but so far they seem to have a good reliability record.

 

PERFORMANCE

We’re naturally suspicious of any performance-related claims when it comes to electronic image stabilisers, so we gave the one on the S90 a particularly thorough workout. Resolution with the stabiliser switched on and off did indeed just reach 400-lines, so no problems there, but we were also looking for any other differences between stabilised and unstabilised recordings. There are some, but they’re very subtle and you have to stare hard at test patterns to see them. The most obvious one is the selection of a fixed shutter speed of 1/250th second, which can cause a slight change in texture, especially in low light, or under tube light, but we’re being very picky here; this really does qualify as the first true ‘high-band’ electronic stabiliser, congratulations Panasonic.

 

Actual stabiliser performance is fair to middling, it doesn’t seem to have quite the same range of movement as the more recent optical stabilisers but it appears to cope better with faster shakes, shooting from a moving car, for example.

 

Picture noise levels are below average and colour accuracy is very good, Panasonic been busy refining their digital ‘crystal clear’ processing and white balance circuits and it seems to have paid off, recordings made under good natural light are amongst the sharpest and cleanest we’ve seen, on any machine this side of £2000.

 

The mono linear soundtrack has the usual amount of hiss, the stereo soundtracks are clean, treble response tails off a little early and the stereo image is fairly narrow but it compares well with 8mm stereo, and the dubbable mono soundtrack comes in very handy.

 

THE VERDICT

Stabilisers have never been high on our list of priorities but we’re prepared to tolerate this one, mostly because there’s no quality overhead, no extra bulk, weight, and apparently, little or no extra cost, compared with its predecessor which also had a £1200 launch price (it’s now selling for £1000). However, the stabiliser is only one very small part of the S90 story; this is one of that small but select band of camcorders that cover the whole spectrum of movie-making, from family snapshooting, up to serious and semi-professional applications, and beyond. It has the best selection of editing and post production facilities on any camcorder we’ve seen this year, superb picture and sound quality, and a refined, easy going nature, in other words, we rather like it!

 

THE RIVALS

There’s no contest. No other machine between £1000 to £1500 comes close, though we’ve still got a lot of respect for the Hitachi VM-H70 Weathercam, and that would be our high-band choice in this price bracket if we were regularly going to use make video movies in damp or arduous conditions. The Sony TR2000 might be worth a quick peek if you’re committed to Hi8; it has a fair sprinkling of editing facilities, including an edit terminal and timecode generator, plus manual exposure controls, moreover it also has an image stabiliser but the S90 still wins out on picture quality and secondary facilities.

 

SPECIFICATIONS

Make/model                               Panasonic NV-S90

Recording format              S-VHS-C/VHS-C

Guide price                              £1200

 

OPTICS

Lens                             f/1.8, 4.6-46mm

Zoom                           x10 optical  x20 digital

Filter diameter            37mm  

Pick-up device            0.3in CCD (680k pixel)

Min illum                     1 lux (gain up mode)           

 

VIDEO DECK

Long play (LP)                        no                   

Max rec time                        45mins (SP only mode)

IR remote control                        no

Edit terminal                        yes (Panasonic 5/11-pin)

 

MAIN FACILITIES               

Auto focus                               yes                                          

Manual focus               yes      

Auto exposure             yes                              

Programmed AE                    yes (3-mode) 

Fader                                       yes                  

Manual white balance            yes

Auto white balance                       yes                                          

Manual zoom                           no       

Power zoom                            yes                                                                              

Insert edit                                no       

Audio dub                                yes

Character generator                     no                   

Digital superimposer               no       

Image stabiliser                                  yes                                          

Video light                               no       

Battery refresh                         no                                       

Accessory shoe                 no       

 

 

ADDITIONAL FEATURES

time/date recording, high-speed shutter (12speed up to 1/4000th sec), record review, VITC recording, auto power save/anti-ground shooting, digital effects (wipe, mix, strobe, snapshot), timebase correction

 

VIEWFINDER

Viewfinder                       0.5in monochrome

Viewfinder info               deck mode and status, low battery, tape count, shutter speed, fader, focus mode, tape end, time/date, exposure, AE mode, stabiliser mode

 

AUDIO

Stereo                                      yes

Wind noise filter                                         no                   

Mic socket                                yes                  

Headphone socket              yes      

Mic                                           single-point stereo electret

 

GENERAL

Sockets                                    S-Video out & Edit terminal (mini DINs), ext. microphone (minijack),  AV out (phonos), DC in (4-pin square)

Dimensions                              111 x 116 x 215 mm                      

Weight                         1.1kg (inc. tape and battery)

 

STANDARD ACCESSORIES

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

AV lead                        yes      

video light                   no                   

remote control            no       

cassette adapter            yes                  

RF Converter             no       

Scart adapter               yes                  

 

PERFORMANCE

Resolution                               400-lines

Colour fidelity                           very good

Picture stability                         very good

Colour bleed                              none

White balance                            good

Exposure                                   very good

Auto focus                                  average

Audio performance                   good

Insert edit                                  n/a

Playback thru adapter              good

 

VC RATINGS

Value for money         9

Ease of use                  8

Performance               9

Features                      9

 

---end---

R Maybury 1994 0609

 

 

 


 

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