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Panasonic's flagship HC-X920 (MSRP $1000) is a powerful camcorder for serious video enthusiasts. With brand-new image sensors and a couple of new features (say hello to built-in WiFI) the HC-X920 delivers all the controls and performance that most people are looking for in a high-end camcorder.
The X920 has no internal memory, which is one of the reasons for its cheaper-than-average $1,000 price tag. In countries other than the US, Panasonic may offer a version of the camcorder stuffed with 32GB of internal flash (the HC-X900M). Panasonic seems to think those of us in America would rather buy our own memory cards than have memory built into the camcorder (and they're probably right).
It's been four years since Panasonic launched its revolutionary HDC-TM300 camcorder, and over that timespan the company has put little emphasis on cosmetic changes to its flagship models. The new HC-X920 has the same utilitarian look of its predecessors: a solid frame with a bland aesthetic, but a slight aura of professionalism. This is not a gadget that screams cutting-edge or modern, so don't expect it to wow your techie friends. If you have the urge to turn the X920 into a high-tech gimmick, there's always the option of spending an extra $300 for a conversion lens that lets the camcorder shoot 3D video. Unless you own a 3D television, and you have a strong desire to shoot 3D video, this is not something we recommend.
Despite its stale design, the HC-X920 fits snugly into the palm of your hand, and, while we'd appreciate a comfier hand strap, the one provided by Panasonic does enable you to get a good grip. The large LCD and fantastic lens ring make shooting video fun, and the presence of a viewfinder offers a glimmer of hope when intense glare makes using the LCD impossible.
There's much to love about the HC-X920's video performance, and the casual videographer shouldn't have anything to complain about. The camcorder excels in low light, needing only a small amount of illumination to record a detailed image (you could even shoot with a flashlight strapped to the camcorder and your video would turn out ok). Image sharpness was a bit worse than last year's HC-X900, but the X920 still captured crisp video. Unless you're doing video testing or shooting a lot of fine details, you won't have a problem with the X920's sharpness capabilities.
The camcorder's greatest performance flaw may be its auto white balance system, which didn't cooperate with our low light tests. The camcorder's videos had a cool tone that we couldn't get rid of unless we calibrated the white balance manually—and that's not the easiest task for a novice videographer.
Far and away, the biggest new feature on the HC-X920 is built-in WiFi. In fact, 2012 may go down as "The Year of WiFi" for camcorders, as nearly every manufacturer offered this feature in some form or another. Panasonic's system has a few unique traits, but it doesn't put forward anything revolutionary. And, as is usual for camcorders with WiFi, the setup process is extraordinarily frustrating.
If you have a smartphone and a WiFi connection—as well as plenty of time to troubleshoot—here is what you can do with the X920: use your smartphone to control the camcorder remotely or upload videos to the web via your phone's data connection, play back video wirelessly with a DLNA-compatible television, live stream with the camcorder after setting up an account with Lumix Club and Ustream, or use the X920 for home monitoring.
Our favorite feature, and the easiest one to set up, is the ability to use your smartphone as a remote control and viewfinder for the camcorder. This doesn't even require connecting the camcorder or your phone to the internet—you simply pair the two devices as a unit by turning the X920 into a WiFi hotspot. Also, you need to download Panasonic's free Image App for iOS or Android to make this happen.
For most of the WiFi features, you can expect to spend a good 15 or 20 minutes getting everything started and ready to go. Live streaming with the camcorder is probably the most difficult, as it requires you to create accounts for both the Lumix Club and Ustream service, as well as register and create a password for your camcorder. Luckily, if you keep using the X920 with the same smartphone or WiFi hotspot, then you'll only need to go through this setup phase once.
Panasonic has included lens rings on its top models for many years, and it seems like the company has no intention of discontinuing this practice. The ring on the HC-X920 works extremely well for adjusting focus, but it can also be set to control zoom, aperture, shutter speed, or white balance with the click of a button. It's a smooth and pleasant experience, and it saves you from using the camcorder's flaky touchscreen interface.
As for the controls themselves, they're quite substantial, although the X920 doesn't offer quite as much control as the top model from Canon (the HF G20). You can set shutter speed and aperture, but you can't always set them independently, and gain control for boosting exposure is only an option when the iris is completely open. There are a few pro-level features that advanced videographers may appreciate: a manual focus assist, zebra patterns, on-screen markers and levels, a histogram, a luminance meter, and plenty of audio controls. For those looking for simple and fun effects, the HC-X920 includes a few digital filters, face detection and motion tracking, and a time-lapse record mode (not to mention all that WiFi nonsense).
Instead of offering radically improved performance and design, the HC-X920 builds only slightly on its predecessor, offering better low-light sensitivity, a few extra controls, and WiFi. The camcorder is still a winner, though, and you can't get much better performance out of a consumer camcorder than what the X920 is capable of. For a high-end model, the X920's $1,000 price tag isn't too shabby either.
Is this the best flagship camcorder on the market? Probably not. The Canon HF G20 did better in low light and has a few pro features that are absent on the X920, so it's ahead on our leader-boards for now. But the G20 is another model that represents an incremental upgrade over its predecessor, and it doesn't have any of those new WiFi features that seem to be on every other camcorder these days.
If you want a camcorder with a good all-around package, and you're interested in shooting 60p video and using WiFi functions, the HC-X920 is certainly a good choice. If its performance doesn't wow you, and you're willing to shell out a bit more cash, then you should consider switching over to a DSLR for your video needs. Even though it's an incremental upgrade, consumer camcorders don't get much better than this.
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