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A S-VHS-C camcorder for less than £800, so whatís the catch? The Panasonic NV-SX3 actually costs less than £750, and there is no catch...



The Super VHS-C camcorder format has been kept alive by the almost single-handed efforts of Panasonic who have produce some really cracking machines in the past five years. Sadly the NV-S70 and S77 have grown a little long in the tooth and are being replaced by a new generation of machines, (the NV-S88 continues for a while longer). Theyíre based around a new slim-line chassis, first seen on the RX5,  (reviewed back in May 96 issue). Itís first high-band outing is on the NV-SX3, Panasonicís newest entry-level S-VHS-C camcorder.


The shape and proportions look familiar, Panasonicís first Ďslimí camcorder appeared over three years ago, but the original design philosophy has changed since then. The rationale behind the thin shape on early models was the use of a 1/4-inch CCD image sensor chip. That enabled designers to produce smaller lens assemblies, and hence slimmer machines. Lately, however, quarter-inch imaging chips seem to have fallen by the wayside; low-light performance was never that good, but the return to third-inch CCD chips has meant size and weight have crept back up. Yes, it is a slim shape, but itís a good deal bigger all round, compared with those first Ďslimcordersí.


One thing that has got smaller though, and thatís the price. The SX3 will set you back just £750, thatís a new price benchmark for a high-band camcorder from a major Japanese manufacturer. The general specification is quite modest though, and in a lot of respects, not substantially different from its VHS-C stablemate, the RX5. Both machines have 14x wide-angle zoom lenses, the only significant change is the manual focus control; the RX5 has a simple thumbwheel whilst the SX3 has a focus ring on the lens barrel.


The playback controls live under a little flap on top of the lens barrel, the hatch cover doesnít look terribly strong. The rest of the controls are reasonably well placed, with the exception of the manual focus button and stabiliser switch, which are uncomfortably close to the microphone. In fact the position of the mike is a bit of a problem, weíll look at that in more detail in a moment.


The right side of the machine looks a bit odd, the designers seem to have just given up, itís a large expanse of plastic, with only an occasional moulding, button or socket to break the monotony. Panasonic have defied convention and gone for a proprietary jack socket, that carries the audio and video outputs, rather than the usual phono sockets that almost everyone else uses. Itís okay until the day the plug fails, or the cable gets mislaid, and you can bet your boots replacements will be expensive and difficult to obtain.


Other headline features on the SX3 include an electronic image stabiliser, stereo hi-fi sound system and 3-mode program auto-exposure system. Theyíre selected by a simple dial on the side of the machine, the options are:


* Sports --  higher shutter speeds are automatically selected to reduce blur and improve slomo or still frame playback of fast-moving subjects.


* Portrait -- the depth of field is reduced, so the subject remains in sharp focus, whilst the background looks soft, making the subject stand out.


* Low-light -- for shooting indoors or in poor light. Itís an electronic gain-up mode, that improves image contrast and brightness, though at the expense of some extra picture noise.


The remaining exposure facilities are a backlight compensation button, that corrects for strong light coming from behind the subject, and thereís a simple fader facility (to black) to ease scene transitions. Thereís not much in the way of gadgets, unless you include the auto power-save/anti-ground shooting feature, which puts the machine into standby if itís left pointing at the ground for more than few moments. Power is supplied by a compact 4.8 volt nicad pack on the back of the machine; this gives around 20 to 25 minutes recording time, maybe a few minutes longer if youíre careful with the stop/start button and zoom.


Internally thereís a been a few improvements to the video processing circuitry, with Panasonicís digital ĎCrystal Clearí system helping to maintain a sharp picture and keep noise levels under control. The internal clock is powered by a non user-replaceable re-chargeable lithium battery, this lasts for around 3-months after a 4-hour charge. The outfit comes with a dinky little infra red remote handset and a full set of AV connecting leads. The SX3 has a 5/11-pin editing socket on the side, so it can be used as a source machine with a wide range of edit controllers. Unfortunately thatís the only editing facility of note; weíre a little disappointed to see it hasnít got audio-dub, which is one of the few advantages S/VHS-C has over the rival Hi8/8mm formats.



Itís deceptively large, though itís by no means a heavy or unwieldy machine, and the balance feels about right. Most of the controls are fairly well placed, though the low-slung microphone is a pain. Itís almost impossible to use any of the controls whilst shooting, without scuffling noises being recorded on the soundtrack. Attempting to switch focus modes on the hoof is inadvisable as the fingers on the left hand seem to be drawn to the mike like a magnet. Itís difficult to avoid touching the microphone when focusing manually, using the focus ring, and even when the machine is supported by two hands, the palm of the left hand occasionally brushes the mike grille.



The big bright lens produces a crisp, well-defined image; resolution on our sample was a little over 380-lines on S-VHS-C recordings, dropping to within a whisker of 250-lines on normal VHS-C tape. Noise levels are commendably low, especially on well-lit scenes. Indoors, in artificial light, noise levels creep up a little, though theyíre still below average. If you take the trouble to set the white balance properly, colours are near natural, even under normally tricky tube light and mixed natural/artificial lighting conditions.


Weíve already talked about the microphone placement, and to be frank it can be a real nuisance. The actual recorded sound -- minus the handling noises -- is okay, though thereís a fair amount of background hiss. Nevertheless frequency coverage is reasonably flat, and the microphones produce a coherent stereo image up to around 3 metres in front of the machine.



We like the SX3, especially the price, but there are a few weak spots. Microphone location is the worst one, the others are relatively minor niggles by comparison, like the non-standard AV output jack, and flimsy-looking control flap and awkwardly-placed controls. Otherwise this is a quite respectable machine. Sadly itís not in the classic mould, like some of their previous high band models, but it should keep the S-VHS-C flag flying a while longer, and hopefully persuade a few more people to trade up to better picture quality.



The only other sub £800 high band machine comes from Samsung, in the shape of the VP-H65 and its colour viewfinder upgrade, the H70. The next cheapest high band camcorder is the Hitachi VM-H520 at £800, a fine machine but quite basic in comparison with the SX3. After that prices climb quickly towards £900 and beyond. The only other machines in the £750 price bracket are end of line or discontinued models, including soon, we suspect, a few old Panasonic S70ís and S77s, that could be well worth a look!



Make/model                               Panasonic NV-SX3B

Recording format               S-VHS-C/VHS-C

Guide price                                £750



Lens                             f/1.4, 3.9-54.6mm

Zoom                            14X optical

Filter diameter            43 mm  

Pick-up device            0.3in CCD

Min illum                       1 lux (low light mode)



Long play (LP)                        no                   

Max rec time                        60 mins

IR remote control                        yes

Edit terminal                        yes (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                                  no

Character generator                       no                    

Digital superimposer                 no        

Image stabiliser                         yes                                          

Video light                                 no        

Battery refresh               no                                        

Accessory shoe             no        




time/date recording, record review, retake, tally lamp, auto head cleaner, power save/anti ground-shooting, backlight compensation, index recording



Viewfinder                       0.5 in monochrome

Viewfinder info               deck mode and status, low battery, tape count, fader, focus mode, tape end, time/date, zoom magnification, stabiliser, condensation, error code



Stereo                                       yes

Wind noise filter                         no                   

Mic socket                                yes                  

Headphone socket              no        

Mic                                           single point stereo



Sockets                                    AV out and microphone (minijack), S-Video out (mini

Din), edit control (5/11-pin), DC power in (4-pin square)

Dimensions                               267 x 143 x 86 mm                      

Weight                          0.95 kg (inc tape and battery)



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

AV lead             yes      

video light                      no                    

remote control            yes      

cassette adaptor yes                  

RF Converter             no        

Scart adaptor                 yes                  



Resolution                                 380-lines

Colour fidelity                           good

Picture stability                         good

Colour bleed                              negligible

White balance                            good

Exposure                                   average

Auto focus                                  average

Audio performance                   average

Insert edit                                  n/a

Playback thru adaptor              good



Value for money            ****

Ease of use                   ****

Performance                  ****

Features                       ***



R Maybury 1996 2507





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