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HD Today: The Allure of Panasonic’s P2
Posted Apr 20, 2006 Print Version     Page 1of 1

There is a great buzz around Panasonic's AG-HVX200 camcorder, a prosumer-sized device with several unique capabilities. Like the DVX100 series camcorders it closely resembles, the HVX200 can record DV on a MiniDV tape. It can also record myriad other formats on solid-state memory embedded into PC cards. These other formats include the higher-sampling DVCPRO 50, as well as DVCPRO HD for both 720p and 1080i. It also records at various frame rates, making it possible to do true 24p, as well as over- or under-"crank" the capture process to produce true slow motion or accelerated motion when played back at 24p.

Best of all, this camcorder doesn't carry the price tag of a BMW—in fact, it costs less than the cheapest Hyundai. But at $5,995 it's expensive for a MiniDV camera, and the trick to getting any of the capabilities above basic DV shooting is that you need Panasonic's P2 cards, the solid state cards that fit into the camcorder's two PC (PCMCIA) card slots.

The first thing you'll discover about P2 is that the cards are wicked expensive. At this writing, an 8GB P2 card has just dropped in price from $2,200 to $1,400. Panasonic explains that the P2 card consists of four $100 2GB SD cards, "structured in a RAID 0 array. The capacity of the SD memory in the P2 card is multiplied by a factor of 4 and so is the basic interface speed." This means that the RAID controller and the rest of the interface on the P2 card cost you $1,000. The costs of the media itself will likely continue to drop, but there are other issues.

If you are shooting 1080i on P2, Panasonic's own charts indicate you'll fill up an 8GB card in eight minutes. The camcorder can cascade from one card to another while you shoot, but with only two P2 slots, you must constantly fiddle with the back of the camcorder, ejecting and inserting cards to keep recording. And that's only if you've bought enough P2 cards to sustain you through a day-long shoot—at $1,400 each, an absurd proposition.

The more practical solution is to hire someone to offload the data while the cameraperson keeps shooting, which means it takes two people to keep the camcorder recording. Only with film have you needed a "loader" before. Thus HVX200 purchasers need to figure in the cost of additional personnel to clear data off the P2 cards to make them usable again. You won't find this cost listed in the brochure.

A few companies have announced external hard drive recorders that connect to the HVX200 and provide 100GB for the price of a single 8GB P2 card. They tout that the various "extras" of thumbnail images, proxy clips, etc. will be on the hard drive as well. But none of these units fit inside the HVX-200. They attach to it with a cable and have to be kept connected. As someone who did many a job with DXC-M7 or DXC-3000 attached to 3/4" decks, betacam decks, or even VHS decks, I'm really not looking forward to something I left behind in the 1980s.

One solution uses a FireWire cable to connect to the camcorder. The tiny 4-pin FireWire port does not lock and sticks straight out the side of the camcorder. The cable can easily be yanked out of the camcorder or banged and permanently damaged.

I recently tested the CitiDISK HDV external hard drive system with a Sony HDV camcorder. This camcorder arranges the FireWire port pointing down so the cable is flush with the camera body and can be taped in place, or run through the Velcro'd hand-strap for greater protection of the fragile 4-pin FireWire port.

Panasonic touts the solid-state nature of P2, emphasizing its durability and lack of moving parts. Even if the P2 card is solid state, the camcorder itself has internal moving parts--not just for the image stabilizer, but the lens has servo zoom and focus because it has to move different parts of the lens in different directions. So the camera itself is quite delicate and will most likely used with a tripod, steadicam, or other platform.

Panasonic offers the P2 Store, a hard drive-based, portable device where you can offload the P2 cards to an internal 2.5" laptop drive. This is very similar to using a laptop to offload the clips. Coupled with the numerous, endorsed external hard drive solutions for the P2 camcorders, your trusted clips will always end up on a hard drive. They'll likely be edited on a hard drive. If shipped electronically, they'll be served and probably broadcast from a hard drive.

How come the HVX200 and the bigger P2 camcorders don't record onto ordinary, inexpensive, removable hard drives? The 80GB hard drive module Focus Enhancements makes for the FS-3 costs $900 and connects to any computer with a powered 6-pin FireWire port. This includes today's desktop computers that generally don't come with PCMCIA slots.

There are already numerous consumer camcorders with internal hard drives, and higher-end professional camcorders (Ikegami and Hitachi) have done hard drive recording for many years. If you're considering P2 acquisition, ask yourself why Panasonic did not use a hard drive from the outset and consider the entire workflow.

The HVX200 is a compelling camera with a lot of features at an interesting price. But by saddling it with solid-state media, instead of proven hard drive technologies, Panasonic has made it a hard pill to swallow. For some workflows and productions, P2 works just fine. But if you're a shooter used to going non-stop for an hour or more on a $5 cassette, rub the dazzle of HD recording from your eyes and consider what the entire P2 media system will cost you in additional gear, time, and personnel.

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