Panasonic HC-X920 camcorder
Any company making camcorders has its work cut out these days. The whole sphere of producing video has changed so much in recent years that there's only room for a couple of companies to have a crack of the whip, and actually make any money.
Panasonic is one of the brands that has endured though. For many years it's been a king in domestic camcorders, right back to the VHS and VHS-C days. Now though, the kind of money that would have bought you a massive old clunker 20 years ago, will get you a sleek little machine now, and one that can produce pictures almost as good as those that come from broadcast kit.
The form factor of these camcorders hasn't changed much since we had 8mm and VHS-C camcorders all those years ago. Modern machines are smaller, of course, and record to memory cards making them silent, power-efficient and much, much cheaper to build.
The X920 fits nicely in the palm of your hand. A handgrip will keep it in place too, giving you a bit of stability and the assurance you're not going to drop a grand in camera on the floor. The screen folds out from the left side, and doesn't unbalance the camera too much, at least not noticeably.
On the top is a microphone array which can record 5.1 channel surround sound. It's also where the zoom rocker lives, allowing to you zoom optically, digitally with no loss, or digitally up to 50x, with clever tweaking to prevent the image from looking too shoddy once you've done it.
A viewfinder is located at the back. To turn it on, pull it out and shut the LCD screen. Once that's done, you'll be able to see in the tiny screen when it's pressed up against your face. The surround on the viewfinder is quite hard though, and we did find it a little bit uncomfortable. It's amazing how quickly we've come to love LCD screens on camcorders.
As well as being bright and easy to use, the LCD screen on the X920 is also touch sensitive. So menus can be accessed through a few taps. This is a nice enough system, although the touchscreen isn't that sensitive, so you can sometimes need to press a couple of times to get what you want.
Auto or manual
One of the very best things about the X920 is that you can, if you wish, keep complete manual control. Shutter speed, iris, focus and white balance can all be controlled manually if you want. A press of the "camera function" button on the front of the camcorder will allow you to bring up each setting that can be adjusted, then you use the ring - or the touchscreen - to adjust what's going on.
What we're most impressed by is that this camera offers a lot of the features you'd see on a broadcast camera. Zebra pattern helps you ensure your shot is perfectly exposed. Anything with a white and black pattern superimposed over it is overexposed, and it allows you to make sure your subject is perfect.
There's also a focus assist, which is known as "peaking" on a pro camera. Here, you'll see blue highlights on anything that's in focus, while out of focused things look normal. This is, obviously, not recorded, but it can be helpful if you're not sure what is, and is not, in focus.
If you need a bit of extra light, there are some gain controls too. These are referred to in the same terms you'd hear on a TV camera. You can boost by 3, 6, 9 and 12db. Generally, try and keep it to 6 for the best quality, but we loved having this control. It gives you a lot more creative control about what you let the viewer see.
While these features are quite old school in pro video terms, this is still an area where video cameras are slightly better set up for video than SLRs. You generally won't get peaking or zebra on SLRs, although we're sure it's just a matter of time.
Of course, this being Panasonic theres an iA mode too, which is as good as it is on their stills cameras. Flick it on, and the camera really will take care of pretty much everything, and do it right. Focus is usually good, and fast, and of course there's face detection too.
Level shot and artificial horizon
If you find yourself shooting video that makes it look like you were drunk at the time, then perhaps you need some help finding the horizon. If so, the Panasonic has some clever stuff going on that can help.
The simple bit is the artificial horizon, which superimposes a set of lines over the display to help you keep the camera on an even keel. Tilt slightly and the green line that indicates you're on the level switches to yellow, and shows you by how much you're out. It's actually a very simple, but very effective system. Although most people don't really notice shots that are slightly on the wonk, it's still nice to be able to offer footage that's perfect.
If this is too much for you, then there's another feature that should help. What it does is detect when you're slightly off level, and use the extra sensor resolution that's not needed for shooting 1080p video to auto-level the shot without damaging the quality of your video.
This works similarly to the digital zoom that doesn't affect picture quality, and it's a clever idea. It can't correct big mistakes, but when you're a couple of degrees off, it's totally perfect and will help you make even better quality video.
A lot of Panasonic's new camcorders have Wi-Fi built-in. This is a marvellous idea, and it's paired with an app for Android or iOS for some functions which is really very clever.
Our favourite feature is the remote control app. Here, you're able to use you phone or tablet as a viewfinder and remote trigger for the camera. It works by creating a Wi-Fi network in-camera, which you then connect to with your phone, as if it was any other network. Once you've done that, open the app and select the camera's network, and you're good to go.
From the app you can trigger video or still capture, as well as zoom in and out. It's really very cool and if you're trying to capture something without anyone knowing, it could be very helpful. We can see bird spotters or people who want to record their kids without them realising, and acting up. finding it a must-have feature. The image app works with a wide range of cameras, including Panasonic's new head-mounted HX-A100, which has no viewfinder of its own. We also liked the range too, which allowed us to roam through pretty much our whole house and still get a picture.
There are also modes to stream video over the internet, to ustream, as well as monitor the camera at home - like a security system - or even to send video from the SD card to a DLNA compatible device.
We had limited success with the DLNA streaming. Our phone couldn't play the files back, but that's perhaps not a surprise given that they use the MTS format, rather than one of the more common codecs and containers found online. Perhaps streaming to a Panasonic TV is more reliable, but we didn't have one to try.
Picture and sound quality
The HC-X920 is a Dolby Digital 5.1 creator, which means what you get out of this camera in sound is a proper surround soundtrack. Now, of course, the built-in microphones on camcorders aren't brilliant, but if nothing else it will give you some of the best, and crispest audio possible from such a camera. The sound isn't bad, but expect a lot of wind noise and handling noise as you shoot.
There are external mic and headphone sockets too, which will give you access to monitoring and better quality sound, but the 3.5mm jack means you might need adaptors to use high-end microphones. This being a domestic camcorder, and tiny, mean there's no hope of XLR here for sound.
Video is very good indeed too. We shot at 1080/50p, which is a good format because it gives a lot of flexibility when it comes to edit. At that rate, you can drop it down to 25p and get some good-quality slow motion. But most of all, it's a nice starting point for all types of video. If you're looking for a film mode, the camera can drop down to 25p, which it says will give a film look. We're surprised that it's not 24p though.
In terms of what you get recorded, the picture quality is very good indeed. Bright light is preferable, but images look good enough inside too. The gain controls give you some flexibility here, which is good, and it gives you creative control too.
If we had one comment, it's that images didn't exactly burst with colour. While we want realism in what we shoot, we think the Panasonic went almost too far the other way, and gave quite repressed, muted colour. Certainly not in line with what we saw. You could always boost this during editing - or, if you're serious about filmmaking, during grading.
All in all though, we think the Panasonic is a really solid performer, with 1080p images that will look smashing on any TV.
It can shoot 3D too, although it needs an adaptor lens to do that, and we don't have one. Still, we think 3D has had its day, and for home use it's hard to get results that are any good anyway, so we're not too bothered about it. If you want a 3D camcorder though, there are better models out there. Sony's, for example, offer a built-in Full HD 3D lens, and a glasses-free 3D screen to watch footage on.
Still images are also possible with the Panasonic. In perfect conditions, they're quite good too. You can snap them while you shoot, which is a nice touch, and might be useful for all manner of things. It's not a brilliant stills camera in most regards though, and in the same way we don't suggest using a still camera for video, we also don't suggest using a video camera for stills. Things have come on a lot since the 320x240 frame grab days though!
You might be a little sceptical about the need for a proper video camera in the days of DSLRs and phones, but we promise you, there's something a lot nicer about picking up a tool designed to do the job. Sure, you can do all DIY with a hammer if need be, but the results will cary from good, to very smashy and not all that nice to look at. Pick the right tool, and use a couple of things together, and you'll get a much better result.
As a product judged for what it does, we really love the X920. Every feature you could ever want is here, and they all work as intended. Battery life is impressive for the most part - it will outshoot a DSLR on its battery - and the picture quality is astounding. Shoot 1080/50p for the best results, but be aware not everything can play or display that kind of video, and it may need to be converted to work widely.
This is a smashing little camera with some features that you'd get on broadcast cameras that cost at least ten times as much. If you have a family, or want to make proper video for YouTube then this is the camera you want.