Having already dabbled its toe into HDV waters with the hard-drive HDCSD1, Panasonic is hoping to create something of a splash with the HDC-DX1, which captures HD footage onto DVDs - of the 8cm variety. Unlike the hard-disk based cam, which can store up to 40 minutes of top-notch footage on its (supplied) 4GB SD card, the DX stores 30 minutes to each DVD-R.
Initial inspection of the DX very quickly reveals that this is a camcorder aimed much more towards the grown-up videomaker. For starters, it's big, really big. With a 680g mass, this brick of a camcorder has more in common with the analogue models of yore than the fiddly fag-packet-sized cams that are everywhere today. Of course, this is no bad thing.
That extra weight ensures that the DX is better balanced in the hand and so easier to hold steady, while the larger chassis ensures that there's plenty of room for all the controls. These fall easily to hand and like previous Panasonic cams, are dominated by the thumb joystick, which is used for both navigation and manual controls.
While this is intuitive and comfortable to operate, we can't help feeling the lack of a lens ring for focusing is a notable absence for the money. The DX pretty much ticks all of the important boxes that serious filmmakers expect a worthwhile video making tool to do, and a few more besides. Manual overrides on the camcorder include everything from focus and white balance through to shutter speed and iris.
Footage can be captured in HF, HN or HE modes, with HE being the highest quality setting (this equates to 30 minutes of 080i footage), while HN and HF offer increased shooting time at the expense of image quality. Features that you won't find on run-of-the- mill cams include shooting guidelines, zebra patterning, colour bars and a Manual Focus Assist mode that enlarges the central part of the image so that you can make sure that it is focused correctly.
Elsewhere on the DX is a dream team line- up when it comes to socketry. As well as the usual analogue composite video outputs and microphone input, there are component video outputs for outputting to an HD-Ready TV and, more importantly an HDMI for keeping HDV in the digital domain.
Reviewing footage on a 40-inch LCD screen, the DX provided everything that we've come to expect from the HDV format. For those that are used to DV material, the difference is marked - fine details, clarity and colour reproduction are all cranked up a couple of notches to reveal a picture that is about as close to the real thing as it's possible to get.
Perhaps the first thing to jump out at the viewer is the oodles of image detail that give images an almost hyper-realistic feel - this is how your eyes would perform if you had 20:20 vision. Newspaper print, the dust on shelves and the grime on windows are picked up with unerring accuracy, meaning that your actors will find every blemish or imperfection on their skin highlighted if good makeup is not employed.
Equally impressive is the way that the DX maintains the sharpness and solidity of hard edges and solid blocks of colour. Colour reproduction, meanwhile, reveals a broad spectrum that is as capable with bold primary colours as it is with dark inky blacks and pure peak whites. Even the audio performance leaves most mid-priced DV camcorders in the shade with its clarity and precision.
So is there any area where the HDC-DX shows any frailties? If there are, we couldn't find them. The price might not be to everyone's taste, but if you want to capture professional-looking footage you should expect to fork out that little bit more. If it is out of your price league, we'd suggest you save a bit harder - you won't regret it.