For several years, Panasonic has brought out a range of highly-regarded consumer camcorders with a degree of manual control – most notably a physical focus ring on the lens – with each successive generation incrementing the features and capabilities from the last.
Their current leader of the pack is the x920, retailing at around £700 – £750 GBP. Some might suggest that this model is no more than a fractional update to the already successful x900 but it does nonetheless have features that make it worth considering as an upgrade, and certainly is worth your time if you are purchasing afresh.
For starters it’s equipped with three, back-side illuminated sensors and these give acceptable image quality even in relatively poor light. Sure, it’s not going to beat a professional camcorder but in its market, it’s competing with the best.
The aforementioned ring on the lens is actually a multi-purpose device that’s switchable between focus, white balance, shutter, and iris & gain (in sequence) by the use of a small toggle button or the touchscreen. The toggle’s a bit fiddly actually and you need to remember that the ring can both scroll through the options available to you as well as then change the option you’ve selected so it’s easy to become very slightly confused and end up changing something you didn’t mean to.
One peculiarity is that as soon as you toggle onto the Shutter setting, the camcorder instantly seems to go into auto-iris. That’s just by selecting Shutter, not by changing anything. Weird, since you’re supposedly in manual control mode. If you then toggle again onto the Iris setting, you can amend it to your preference and you have the option of a histogram on screen to help with exposure metering, should you want it.
The ring has a very smooth, accurate action to it that’s much better than the equivalent on the competing Canon HF-G25. It’s easy to use when focusing especially when coupled with the focus assist feature (“peaking”) which highlights in blue those areas of the image that are sharp. The only disappointment is that the camcorder doesn’t simultaneously zoom in (on screen, not on the recorded image) to give you a closer view of what you’re focusing on. The Canon does, and it’s helpful.
On top of the camcorder, the zoom toggle – a tiny, fingertip sized lever – is also surprisingly decent to use with a smooth action which enables you to get just so much zoom and no more rather than racing away as soon as you touch it. That’s a welcome relief compared to some other camcorders we’ve tried.
The camcorder’s touchscreen is a decent size and is useable without having to stab at it like a frenzied psycho. On the left hand side, a tall column of controls can be invoked by pressing a button on the bottom-left, and then the – slightly awkward – left and right buttons at the bottom swipe through a series of options to be displayed in that column. For example, one column shows the focus / shutter / exposure controls; another shows stabilisation options etc.
There’s a “Quick” menu of useful shortcuts but you still have to scroll to the menu to invoke the quick menu, which seems a little contrary. In short, all the options are there for manual control but lacking any real buttons to get to them, fiddling with the touchscreen is slightly irritating. If Panasonic added two or three customisable buttons on the camcorder body, that would be an excellent step forward.
One of the camcorder’s proudest boasts is a 5-axis stabilisation system that will help to counteract any wobbling in the shot as you handhold the device. It works really well and is a bit of a miracle compared with what was on offer only a few years ago.
Irritatingly, the batteries on the x920 are not the same as ones from a few years ago. Despite having the same voltage and same power capability, the plastic moulding is ever so slightly different so if you have older batteries, they may not fit and you’ll have to invest in new ones. That’s a nice little earner for Panasonic.
Other issues with the camcorder are that the SD card slot is underneath the unit so as soon as you mount it onto a tripod plate, you can’t change the card without removing the plate. The battery also can’t be released without opening the screen. It’s a tiny annoyance but it is annoying all the same. And, if the screen is tilted forward at all, this gets in the way of turning the control ring.
On the upside the camcorder boasts WiFi capabilities including remote setup and monitoring from a tablet or smartphone and even live Internet streaming – that’s the kind of power that used to demand an entire satellite truck and thousands of pounds worth of gear and it’s all packed into a handheld camcorder! Weirdly though, you don’t connect directly to UStream but have to also activate an account with Panasonic; this makes no sense really and is frankly a little bit creepy. Once you’ve bought the camcorder, we don’t see why you should be tied in to Panasonic in order to use it.
Picture quality is good especially in the highest quality mode, which is 28Mbps 1080/50p. Files are stored in the AVCHD format (.mts) and importable directly into any decent editor (Sony Vegas, Premiere etc) though you’ll need a computer with lots of horsepower in order to play them back without stuttering. That’s just an inevitability of the AVC/H.264 codec which AVCHD uses, it’s not the camcorder’s fault.
On board audio comes from a 5.1 surround microphone on the top, next to the lens ring. That means it could pick up some handling noise from your fingers of course but Panasonic have also included a funny little adapter that slots into the side of the camcorder to give you a cold shoe mount, into which you could then place a proper microphone, connected to the 3.5mm jack on the side (headphone socket also available, thankfully)
Other niceties include “zebra” patterns which show which parts of the image are about to be overexposed; a level gauge to help you keep the camcorder straight and even automatically correct for slight tilting – no more diagonal horizons! – and the focus peaking, which we already mentioned.
Overall, this is a camcorder which could pass muster for professional broadcast at a push (albeit lacking pro-XLR audio inputs though these could be added with a Beachtek adapter or similar). Given its price drop from launch, we have no hesitation in recommending it as a top flight consumer camcorder.
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