The Panasonic AG-DVX100B may well be the last and best semipro DV camcorder ever built. No, I'm not predicting an imminent apocalypse, but rather the approaching obsolescence of high-end standard-definition (SD) video cameras. Sony, Canon, and JVC have all released HD cameras in the sub-$10,000 price range, and Panasonic has introduced its long-anticipated HD version of the DVX, the HDX200.
So why did Panasonic bother updating the groundbreaking and still category-leading DVX camera? Apparently, new manufacturing regulations dictated a redesign to eliminate lead-containing components; while they were at it, the Panasonic engineers decided to implement about 20 improvements, ultimately earning the redesign its B designation. If you own the earlier AG-DVX100 or AG-DVX100A, you probably won't opt to upgrade to get the relatively modest set of improvements the new model offers. However, if you're looking for a new or additional standard-def camera, the Panasonic AG-DVX100B represents perhaps the greatest value to date. The Panasonic AG-DVX100B looks almost identical to its predecessor; its most noticeable change is its darker Black Sapphire color. That's a good thing, as the AG-DVX100 camera has an extremely well-thought-out design.
In essence, the AG-DVX100 series combines a Handycam-like form factor with the full complement of external professional controls and connections usually found only on bigger, shoulder-mounted cameras. In many respects, the AG-DVX100B offers the best of both worlds: the light weight and easy handling of a home-video camera and the sophisticated controls of a pro rig.
As is typical of a consumer-oriented camera, the AG-DVX100B locates its viewfinder on the back, with the battery underneath. On the left is a flip-out 3.5-inch LCD monitor; on the right are the tape compartment, the zoom rocker, and most of the audio and video connections. Up front is the 72mm-diameter lens, with zoom and focus rings and a removable lens shade. On top, there's a full-size carrying handle with its own zoom and record controls and a stereo mic sprouting from the front. The camera feels well balanced in the hand, and its solidly constructed magnesium chassis is built to last.
The professional controls on this model are almost identical to those on cameras costing 10 times as much: The Panasonic AG-DVX100B offers discrete and logically positioned buttons, switches, and wheels for iris, shutter speed, white balance, two built-in neutral-density filters, gain, zoom, focus, left and right audio levels, audio monitor level, phantom power, image stabilizer, zebra stripes, frame rate, and more. You can control each of these functions quickly and directly without needing to explore time-wasting menus or automation. The camera even offers three user-assignable buttons, enabling you to directly control three functions that you could otherwise access only through menus. Very smart!
Besides the usual complement of audio and video connectors, the AG-DVX100B offers a pair of balanced XLR audio jacks. These are a necessity for working with professional mics and mixers, but most MiniDV cameras require accessories or jury-rigged adapters to interface with this gear.
The Panasonic AG-DVX100B shares its predecessor's excellent Leica Dicomar 10X zoom lens. The lens is particularly notable because it is quite wide, eliminating the common need for a wide-angle lens adapter. The lens can be zoomed manually and has focal-length markings on the barrel. You can also focus it precisely using the focus numbers displayed in the viewfinder. Those doing event or nature videography may find this lens a bit short for their needs, but telephoto adapters are available to extend the focal length.
Now for what's new with the camera's layout. Panasonic has made subtle but significant improvements to the already excellent viewfinder and flip-out monitor. Both are now slightly higher in resolution (increased from 200,000 to 210,000 pixels in the LCD, 180,000 to 230,000 in the viewfinder), and both now show the full overscanned image. The ability to see the overscan is particularly useful for Web video, which lacks television's slight underscan (cropping). Under the flip-out LCD, a new Display button makes it easy to toggle the onscreen graphics on and off. Perhaps to enable audio playback when the flip-out LCD is closed, the speaker and VCR-record buttons have switched places. A new 1/8-inch Focus/Iris port lets you connect an optional wired control--a major convenience for studio shooting.
The only other change to the camera's controls is a general ruggedizing. The audio-level and scene-file knobs are surrounded by bumpers even more prominent than those on the Panasonic AG-DVX100A, making them almost impossible to accidentally adjust. The tripod socket has been beefed up with a replaceable metal plate, but I wouldn't mind seeing it further professionalized with a pair of 3/8-inch holes. The flip-out LCD hinge has been reinforced and stiffened.
Though barely visible from the outside, the entire tape-transport mechanism has been strengthened. This last feature comes at a slight loss in convenience: while the older versions of the DVX had only a single cassette door, the Panasonic AG-DVX100B incorporates the more common double-door system, in which the user must close the inner door and wait for the tape to retract before closing the outer door.
My only lingering complaint about the design--albeit a minor one--is that the clever joystick used to control menu and VCR functions is a bit too tiny, making it difficult to control accurately. The Panasonic AG-DVX100B retains all the features that made the original AG-DVX100 such a revolutionary camera. First on the list are the great progressive-video modes: 30p and two types of 24p, in addition to standard 60i (interlaced video). Without getting too technical, the important thing to know is that 24p video goes a long way toward giving digital productions a cinematic look as opposed to the look of a soap opera; it also makes for a superior film transfer. These are especially important issues for producers doing narrative projects on DV, and the Canon XL2 is presently the only other competitively priced standard-definition camera offering this capability.
The other two other areas in which the AG-DVX100 broke new ground were audio and image control. No other camera in this price range offers cleaner sound or easier interfacing with pro audio gear, reducing the need for separate audio-recording devices such as DAT or MiniDisc recorders. The AG-DVX100B still provides state-of-the-art image control with its array of six Scene Files, each of which includes rich, user-customizable menu settings for gamma, color matrix, detail, chroma, pedestal, setup, and other parameters.
With the AG-DVX100B, Panasonic improves on the features of the AG-DVX100 and the later AG-DVX100A. In addition to the overscan and the increased resolution described in the Design section, the viewfinder and the LCD can now display an anamorphic (squeezed) 16:9 image in the correct letterboxed proportions. This feature is essential when shooting anamorphic material, as it is very difficult to properly compose shots when they appear vertically distorted. And with wide-screen content becoming increasingly popular, this feature will only become more important. It is worth noting that while the Panasonic AG-DVX100B does not have chips optimized for 16:9 shooting, it can nonetheless capture excellent wide-screen content.
While on the subject of viewfinders, I'd like to request a pro feature that hasn't yet trickled its way down to the DVX: adjustable guidelines. These are very helpful for the situation many videographers find themselves in these days: having to shoot one aspect ratio while "protecting" for another. Now that the AG-DVX100B shows the full overscanned image, guidelines would also be very helpful in delineating a typical underscanned area.
Because of its echoing sound when you're shooting progressive, the headphone-monitoring circuit has been an area of considerable frustration for users of the AG-DVX100A. Panasonic has addressed this weakness in the B model with a new menu option: the monitoring circuit can now be switched to either live (no delay) or tape (delayed, echoing sound).
There's good news for those involved with multicamera productions. The Panasonic AG-DVX100B enables the transfer of scene-file settings and time code over FireWire. Formerly difficult, if not impossible, syncing up and matching multiple cameras is now easy.
Miscellaneous improvements include a slower middle-zoom speed, more colorful menus, and an end-search function that now works in camera mode as well as VTR.
Finally, one feature present in earlier versions of the DVX has been lost in the AG-DVX100B: interval recording, used for time-lapse photography. Apparently, this feature is incompatible with the new tape transport. In almost every regard, the Panasonic AG-DVX100B performs identically to its capable predecessor. It has particularly responsive zoom and focus controls for a MiniDV camera. No other camera in this category offers a real mechanical zoom control or such precise mechanical focusing.
The automatic focus, the white balance, and the exposure work very well, although this camera deserves to have its functions controlled manually. It is worth noting that the autofocus mode is so sluggish in the progressive modes that it is only marginally useful with fast-moving subjects or rapid camera movement.
The Panasonic AG-DVX100B's audio quality is as good as it gets in a MiniDV camera. Though the built-in stereo mic is said to be twice as sensitive as the one on the AG-DVX100A, experienced users know not to rely on camera mics for critical sound. If it is necessary to attach a higher-end mic, the camera can easily accommodate this addition with its supplied mount. Due to an improved signal-to-noise ratio, the Panasonic AG-DVX100B offers slightly cleaner (less noisy) low-light video than that of its predecessor. This is significant, as it's only in low light that the DVX's image quality trails the competition's.
In producing standard interlaced video in reasonably well-lit conditions, this camera does as well as any standard-def prosumer camera, capturing sharp video with accurate colors and good latitude.
When it comes to cinematic imagery, the AG-DVX100B offers the best available value in a standard-definition camera. In this reviewer's opinion, the 24p mode can produce video--and video transferred to film--rivaling that of projects originated on 16mm film. If you're looking for a better 24p SD camera, the next significant step up is Panasonic's 24p SDX900, which costs seven times as much!
Beyond these general comments, the Panasonic AG-DVX100B's sophisticated image controls make the usual remarks about image quality irrelevant. Want a cold image? Dial it in. Rather warm it up? No problem. More or less detail in the highlights or the shadows? More or less sharpness? You name it--this camera can give it to you.