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Video Performance* (5.25)*
The Panasonic SDR-H200 packs three small imagers, each measuring 1/6-inch with a gross pixel count of 800,000 (effective pixel count in 16:9 is 540,000; in 4:3, 640,000). This is the same imager set found in Panasonic’s top-end DVD camcorder, the VDR-D310, and their top-end MiniDV camcorder, the PV-GS320. Panasonic obviously put a lot of stock in the technology, but its faith may be a bit misplaced. While the bright light performance is indeed quite good, the small size of the imagers tends to fall apart in low light. We’ll get to that in a minute.
First, let’s look at bright light performance. In our shooting in the testing room, we found the SDR-H200 produces some very good looking video. The most impressive aspect, as expected, was the color. The difference between Panasonic’s one-chip and three-chip camcorders is quite clear, and it’s all in the color. The dynamic range looked pretty good, though it definitely tended to blow out the highlights in a shot with strong highlights and lots of shadows. We recommend lowering the exposure a notch or two (most easily done by increasing the shutter speed). Motion rendering was fair, but the MPEG2 compression shows some drag during fast movement.
In the lab, we shot a DSC Labs Chroma DuMonde color chip chart at an even 3000 lux. Under this ideal lighting, the image is great for its price range. The three-chip imaging set really works to Panasonic’s favor in bright light. Colors pop without too much oversaturation. Of course, this is more than their pro camcorders saturate, but consumer camcorders are expected to have a little more "oomph." We did not enjoy being reminded that the camcorder used MPEG2 compression, which produced artifacting that led to some slight fuzziness. The same issue occurred with the VDR-D310 (also MPEG2), but not the PV-GS320, which uses DV compression with a much higher bit rate. Of course, the PV-GS320 is tape, and nobody seems to want tape anymore.
In comparison, the JVC GZ-MG555, its top-end standard definition HDD camcorder, is also very similar to the SDR-H200. The GZ-MG555 uses a larger, single chip, though it managed to produce almost the same color . The greens were a little more saturated and the reds a little less, but that could change under a different lighting condition. Finally, Sony offers the DCR-SR200, their penultimate standard definition HDD camcorder. While we haven’t reviewed that model yet, it’s built on the same chip set as last year’s DCR-SR100, which we absolutely loved. The SR300 tended to warm the image more than the other camcorders, but the sharpness and lack of noise was a huge plus. Overall, we liked Sony the best, though it was a close race. These are all top-level camcorders, and act accordingly. At least in bright light, that is.
Video Resolution* (4.88)*
To test resolution, we turned the Panasonic SDR-H200 on a DSC Labs video resolution chart and analyzed the results on our monitor. This test measures the resolution of the final outputted image, not the "spec" resolution that the company usually touts. We found the camcorder to produce a horizontal resolution of 325 line widths per picture height (lw/ph) and a vertical resolution of 300 lw/ph.
Low Light Performance* (1.97)*
No camcorder is safe from our battery of low light testing, which involves several stages, several formulas, and several monkeys randomly pushing buttons. The first stage involves shooting a DSC Labs Chroma DuMonde color chip chart at an even 60 lux and 15 lux, then holding the results up against the competition for analysis.
At 60 lux, the Panasonic SDR-H200 displayed a good deal of color loss compared to our bright light test. Overall, the noise was low, but there was also a fall-off of fine detail, like in the resolution trumpets, where the noise and compression artifacting simply overran it. The noise was of a fine grain, and not overwhelming. Importantly, the noise was black or gray, with none of the bluish noise that affects some camcorders, especially the lower-end Sonys.
The Panasonic VDR-D310, which has the same chip set, produced an identical image at 60 lux. The PV-GS320, a MiniDV camcorder also with the same chip set, produced exactly the same color performances, but had a sharper picture. This is most likely due to the DV compression, which is better than the MPEG2 compression of DVD and HDD camcorders. JVC’s closest competitor is the GZ-MG555, its top HDD camcorder. At 60 lux, the GZ-MG555 produced brighter colors thanks to its larger imager, but was not as kind to the fine details. JVC’s image looks fuzzy, while the Panasonic was noticeably sharper. Finally, Sony retails the DCR-SR200, an HDD camcorder, at only $50 more. We haven’t reviewed the SR200 yet, but we did test its predecessor, the DCR-SR100, which has a matching chip set. The DCR-SR100 had an incredible performance at 60 lux, easily topping the competition. The colors were bright and strong, the noise was very low, and the detail retention was nearly as good as in bright light. We expect the same good show from the DCR-SR200.
The SDR-H200, like all Panasonics, offers manual control over gain once the aperture has been opened all the way. At 60 lux, the gain was already automatically pumped up to about +15dB. The maximum setting is +18dB, so there wasn’t much wiggle room once the camcorder was switched over to manual. At +18dB, the image did show a noticeable boost in exposure, but the corresponding increase in noise did not make it worthwhile.
At 15 lux, occasionally referred to as the "widow maker test," things typically go downhill. The Panasonic SDR-H200 was able to retain very little information at this light level. Some colors are discernable, but the noise is overwhelming and most fine detail has been lost. This is no great surprise, but always a little disappointing. The Panasonic VDR-D310 and PV-GS320 told the same sad tale. The JVC GZ-MG555 was able to produce a brighter image overall, but the color balance was not very good and the picture was very fuzzy. The Sony DCR-SR100, once again, topped the bill, doing a great job staving off noise and retaining necessary information.
The next stage of the test measures sensitivity. We monitor IRE levels and drop the light steadily until the camcorder is able to produce a peak 50 IRE, and then record the corresponding lux level. At best, the Panasonic SDR-H200 was able to produce a peak 50 IRE at 24 lux. This was about the same score as the Panasonic VDR-D310 and the PV-GS320, and is not an impressive score. Several low-end camcorders have scored better than this, and reinforce our findings from anecdotal shooting. This is not a low light camcorder.
The final test determines color accuracy, noise, and saturation in low light by shooting a GretagMacBeth Color Checker chart and running frames through Imatest imaging software. The SDR-H200 achieved a color error score of 16.6, which is rather high. A closer look at the results showed the error was a matter of undersaturation, due to the small chips, rather than some terrible skewing of the colors toward the wrong tonality. This is a small consolation. The same tests revealed the noise level was a modest 0.88 percent, right on par with the Panasonic VDR-D310. The saturation was only at 53.91 percent.
Overall, the Panasonic SDR-H200 is not a low light performer. Stick to bright light shooting and you should be satisfied. However, indoor shooting is a risky proposition, and night shooting in the backyard is out of the question.
The tested the SDR-H200’s OIS effectiveness by mounting it to our custom-built shake emulator, crafted exclusively for CamcorderInfo.com. With the SDR-H200 in full Auto mode and the LCD flipped out, the camcorder was tested at two speeds. Speed one simulates a casual walk along the sidewalk while capturing video with the SDR-H200. Speed two is closer to a jittery car ride or light jog. The SDR-H200 produced an 84.5 percent shake reduction at speed one, and an 81.2 percent shake reduction at speed two. These are fairly admirable results. Panasonics tend to be equipped with superior OIS systems, and the SDR-H200 is testament.
We tested the SDR-H200’s maximum field of view using a vertical laser at both left and right angles. The camcorder was placed on a tripod directly underneath the laser, with the LCD flipped out, zoom pulled back fully, and optical image stabilization turned off. The SDR-H200’s maximum field of view proved to be 44 degrees—a reasonably decent wide-angle measurement.
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