Panasonic HC-X920 Camcorder Review
Panasonic's new flagship has the same look of its predecessors, but it's got a few new tricks under the hood.
First, some history: instead of using a single, large image sensor, the Panasonic HC-X920 includes a three-chip sensor array (which Panasonic brands 3MOS). This allows the camcorder to utilize a different sensor for each color in the RGB color space (one for red, one for green, one for blue), which, in theory, should result in better image quality.
Panasonic has used this system for a few years now, and a three-sensor setup is also commonly found on professional camcorders. For the HC-X920, though, Panasonic also drastically increased the size of its individual sensors—the backside-illuminated chips are up to 1/2.3-inches on the diagonal, much larger than the old 1/4.1-inch chips on last year's HC-X900. The megapixel count of each chip has also increased to 12 megapixels, which is four times the megapixels on the individual sensors in the HC-X900. That's a heck of a lot of megapixels when you add them all up: 38.28 megapixels, to be exact (3x 12.76 megapixels). Now, don't go around thinking this means the X920 is capable of recording a 38-megapixel image. The camcorder is limited by its individual sensors, so for still photos you still top out with an effective resolution of around 8.5 megapixels—around what you'd get from a cheap point-and-shoot camera.
Crystal-clear images in bright light, but Panasonic's new sensor array may be too much for its own good
With these new, beautiful image sensors, we expected to see some changes in the X920's performance. What we didn't expect was the X920's sharpness results would actually be lower than what we got from last year's X900. In our test, the camcorder measured horizontal and vertical sharpness levels of 800 lp/ph at MTF 50—both of which are slight drops compared to last year. Could it be that these new sensors are loaded with too many pixels? Yes. That's exactly what we think. Remember, full HD video is only around two megapixels, while the X920 has an effective pixel count of around 8.5 megapixels. That means the camcorder is downsizing its image very aggressively, squeezing a huge amount of information into a much smaller video package.
This isn't to say the X920's sharpness performance is horrid. It's actually very good, even compared to other flagship camcorders. But the video would possibly look even better if the megapixel count weren't so darn high. Real-world images looked great, but looking closely at our test footage revealed problems with moire, oversharpening, and interference.
If you do a lot of shooting in the dark, the HC-X920 is one of your best options.
Panasonic's new sensor system may have resulted in worse sharpness scores from the HC-X920, but the camcorder did have improved low-light sensitivity compared to its predecessors. In fact, the camcorder is one of the best we've seen for low light videography, with only the Canon HF G20 requiring less light to record a usable video image. At its best, the X920 needed just 3 lux of illumination—about as much as you'd get from a candle—to record an image deemed bright enough for broadcast television. Not only does this make the X920 a great camcorder for low light, it's also a vast improvement over the HC-X900 (which was a good low light camcorder itself).
Motion & Detail
Panasonic's 60p mode is fantastic for capturing motion, but we saw some interference when using the 24p Digital Cinema setting.
Panasonic was the first major manufacturer to incorporate 1080/60p recording on its consumer camcorders, and the feature has shown excellent results over the past few years. Motion looks excellent when recorded with this setting, and the HC-X920 managed to capture significantly sharper video in the 60p mode than in its top 60i setting. Best of all, paused video looks crisp and detailed in the 60p mode, while the interlaced 60i video didn't always look smooth during playback.
If you want that film-like aesthetic, you must switch the HC-X920 over to Digital Cinema mode. This records video at a lower frame rate (24p), and the results are immediately noticeable. Video is choppier and less fluid, which gives it a dreamier quality. Unfortunately, we did notice some interference with the X920's 24p video when we played it back directly from the camcorder. Fast moving objects (like the rotating pinwheels in our test video) had splotches and blocks of artifacts that were ultimately distracting. We didn't notice this issue when we viewed 24p clips on a computer.
Color & Noise
The HC-X920's auto white balance mechanism posed a problem for the camcorder in certain lighting conditions.
With the right settings, the HC-X920 can produce video with beautiful colors. In our bright-light test, the camcorder had good saturation at 87%—a number that is low enough that allows you to boost color depth in post production if you prefer. Color error was 4.15, which is decent for a camcorder using auto white balance.
Shooting low light is where we saw problems. The auto white balance system gave videos a cooler tone than they should have, which nearly doubled the color error (to 8.16). Of course, the camcorder does have a manual white balance option (as well a a white balance shift function) that lets you fine tune the color accuracy if you want to put in the effort. But how many shooters actually have time for this? Do casual videographers carry around white cards in their pocket?
Noise wasn't much of a distraction with the HC-X920, even when shooting in very low-light situations. In bright light, noise averaged 0.5%, which is basically nothing. In low light we recorded noise percentages at three different light levels. First there was 120 lux, which is similar to a normally-lit indoor room (like a living room, restaurant, or bedroom). Noise averaged around 0.9% under this light level, which is good. Cutting the light in half (down to 60 lux) resulted in only a tiny increase in noise, raising the level to 1.0%. Again, this is a good performance for any camcorder.
The only huge increase in noise came when we shot in very dark settings, between 10 and 15 lux. Here we saw noise levels hovering between 1.5% and 1.75%—numbers that are quite low considering the dark environment. To put this in perspective, 15 lux is equivalent to shooting at dusk or recording video under a street lamp. Visually, noise is certainly perceptible in these low light shots, but the noise is fine and crisp, so the X920's image still retains a lot of detail. Many camcorders look awful in low light because noise turns the image into discolored much, but that's not the case with the X920.
Battery Life & Wide Angle
Like to shoot for long periods of time between charges? Start researching additional battery packs now.
Don't expect to be able to record much longer than 80 minutes on a fully-charged battery pack with the HC-X920. That's how long the camcorder lasted in our battery life test (well, 79 minutes to be exact), and that's a terrible performance for a flagship model. We hammered last year's HC-X900 for lasting just 88 minutes in this test, and the X920 lasted almost ten minutes less. Not good, Panasonic, not good at all.
At least there's something you can do about it, as long as you're willing to shell out extra cash. For around $150, Panasonic sells a larger battery pack—the VW-VBN260—that should last twice as long as the provided battery (the VW-VBN130). But $150 is a significant expenditure for a battery life that we think should come standard with a camcorder like the HC-X920.
The lens on the HC-X920 records with a field of view of 62.5°. Compared to camcorders from a few years ago, this is extremely wide, but new models from Sony tend to be even wider than the X920—with some coming close to a 70° angle of view.
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