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The Panasonic AG-DVX100A is the kind of camera that sends shivers down the spines of pro videographers and serious amateurs with modest budgets. If you relish the rare pieces of gear that are both affordable and designed for professional use, you're probably already familiar with this MiniDV model's predecessor, the . That version made news by being the only 24P camera available for less than $25,000, and its successor competes with only one other 24p model in the current prosumer market, Canon's XL2. While the DVX100A makes only modest improvements over its predecessor, they're very well thought out, and they demonstrate that Panasonic is listening to what its serious customers want.
If you don't need 24P capture or very advanced features, this camera might be overkill--it's definitely not for the point-and-shoot crowd. While the DVX100A can function automatically, its exceptional feature set will come alive only in the hands of a knowledgeable user.
Editor's note: We have changed the rating in this review to reflect recent changes in our rating scale. Click here to find out more.
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The viewfinder features a large eyecup and a central placement that accommodates either eye. Panasonic also claims that the viewfinder is significantly more scratch-resistant than the DVX100's.
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Behind the flip-out LCD, you'll find audio controls and other useful features.
As with a typical consumer camera, the viewfinder is on the back and above the battery. On the left is a flip-out 3.5-inch LCD, and on the right are the tape compartment, a zoom rocker, and most of the A/V connections. The lens is 72mm in diameter, with zoom and focus rings and a removable shade. The top-mounted, full-size carrying handle sports its own zoom and recording controls, and a stereo microphone sprouts from its front. The camera feels well balanced in the hand and is almost disturbingly light, but its solidly constructed magnesium chassis is built to last.
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|A wealth of shooting adjustments is easily accessible through physical controls.|
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On many cameras, closing the cassette hatch requires two steps, but the DVX100A consolidates them into one simple action: just press down the cover.
Our only lingering design complaint is with the clever joystick that governs menu and VCR functions. It's a bit too small, so controlling it accurately is difficult.
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The DVX100A interfaces with professional mikes and mixers via a pair of built-in XLR ports. Other MiniDV cameras require adapters.
No other model in this price range offers cleaner sound or easier interfacing with pro audio gear, either. The DVX100A's built-in capabilities reduce the need for separate audio-recording devices, such as a DAT or MiniDisc. Likewise, no other prosumer camera provides anything close to the DVX100A's six Scene Files, each of which includes rich, user-customizable menu settings for gamma, color matrix, detail, chroma, pedestal, setup, and other parameters.
The DVX100A shares its predecessor's excellent lens. Particularly notable is the manual zoom function, which includes focal-length markings on the barrel. Also exceptional are the lens's precise focusing and the viewfinder's focus-number display. The updated camera decreases the full-telephoto close-focus distance from the previous 3.5 feet to 1.5 feet. For most purposes, the 10X zoom lens offers a nice range. Panasonic clearly traded an impressive number (say, 12X or 20X) for a useful wide angle, which is generally much more helpful than the competition's extreme telephoto. If you need a long lens for nature videography or event work, you can attach a telephoto converter.
The A model's 12-bit digital signal processing (DSP) enriches this camera's already impressive image controls. There are three new gamma options: Black Press crushes the blacks, Cine-Like_D (D for dynamic range) gives highlights more detail, and Cine-Like_V (V for video) increases midrange contrast. The last two settings are particularly significant because they broaden the DVX100A's latitude by a full stop. That advantage decreases the incidence of blown-out highlights, a problem suffered to some degree by all video cameras. Also new to the Scene Files are the Enriched color-matrix option; an adjustable knee that helps you handle highlights; a vertical detail control; and coring, which minimizes noise in darker image areas. And when you activate zebra stripes to highlight overexposed areas, you can now see their settings in the viewfinder.
The DVX100A has some features that Panasonic omitted from the older model. With the DVX100, only the interlaced mode provided gain adjustment, autofocus, and color bars. All three are now available when you're shooting in the progressive modes, although Panasonic refers to autofocus in progressive mode as Focus Assist because of its sluggish performance. The company also added a squeezed, or anamorphic, 16x9 wide-screen mode. At full resolution, you can now decrease the shutter speed to 1/6 of a second in 24P and 1/4 of a second in 30P. In 60i, you can slow down to 1/4 of a second, but here Panasonic followed its competitors' use of field doubling, which cuts the vertical resolution in half. In our tests, the Panasonic AG-DVX100A performed even better than its superb predecessor. For instance, the earlier model paused whenever we switched from interlaced to progressive mode. We're happy to report that in the update, that irritating processing delay is gone.
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|This switch adjusts the speed of the handle's zoom control.|
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|Unfortunately, battery life still comes up a bit short. Expect only a couple of hours from the high-capacity cell.|
For a MiniDV model, this camera offers particularly responsive zoom controls. The servo zoom now provides a greater speed range, and the manual, cam-driven zoom feels significantly more fluid.
The responsiveness of the manual focus controls is also noteworthy. Aside from the Canon , with its pricey mechanical lens option, no other model in this category offers such precise mechanical focusing. Even the XL1S lacks focus numbers in the viewfinder and the DVX100A's new focus-peaking feature, which sharpens the viewfinder image to make focusing by eye much easier. The automatic focus works very well in interlaced mode, although the DVX100A isn't designed for people who rely heavily on autofocus. In the progressive modes, autofocus is so sluggish that it's only marginally useful with fast-moving subjects and rapid camera movement.
The A version's audio quality is as good as it gets in a MiniDV camera. Its stereo microphone is not very directional, but advanced users know that they can't entrust critical sound to built-in mikes. You can mount a higher-end replacement on the hotshoe, and two built-in XLR ports accept pro audio equipment. Audio and video are perfectly in sync in the progressive modes; the image used to lag a couple of frames behind. You can also now adjust the headphone volume while recording. It's loud enough to drive a professional-grade pair, although we could do with a bit less hiss. When it comes to cinematic imagery, no other model in this price range comes close. If you're looking for a better 24P camera, the next step up is Panasonic's $25,000 SDX900.
The AG-DVX100A's sophisticated controls let you adjust the video's characteristics to suit your tastes and your project. Want a cold image? Dial it in. Prefer more or less detail in the highlights or the shadows? No problem. Want to increase or decrease sharpness? You name it--this camera can do it.
When it comes to shooting standard interlaced video in well-lit settings, the DVX100A is competitive, giving you accurate colors, good latitude, and a sharp lens. The automatic white-balance and exposure settings produce very nice results.
Of course, nothing is perfect, and the DVX100A has its shortcomings. Image quality is less impressive in low light, especially if you're not shooting interlaced video. The camera loses about a stop in progressive mode, and the gain is not particularly clean.