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Panasonic AJ-HPM200 P2 Mobile

CreativeCOW presents Panasonic AJ-HPM200 P2 Mobile -- Panasonic HVX - HPX (P2) Review


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I wouldn't want to be the guy in charge of marketing Panasonic's AJ-HPM200, which is also known as the P2 Mobile ($16,000 list price, but $9,995 with a tape deck trade-in through the end of June). The problem isn't the P2 Mobile's capabilities. In fact, the Mobile can do a ton of useful things:

  • It's a high-quality video recorder, taking video from HD/SD SDI and Composite sources, and recording it to P2 cards in high-quality formats like AVC-Intra.
  • It's also a quality up/down/cross converter, letting you bring in video and output it simultaneously at any resolution or frame rate (for audio, there are in/outputs for four XLR connections, along with AES/EBU audio).
  • It's also a surprisingly powerful cuts-only video editor.
  • It's also a video transcoder, which lets you compress master-quality video to an SD card, using the AVCHD format to produce small file sizes that still look good.
  • It's also an FTP client and server, letting you upload and download individual clips or edits through an Ethernet connection.
  • It's also a P2 card offloader, able to offload up to six P2 cards to any USB or eSATA hard drive you've attached.
  • It can also act as a small field monitor, thanks to its 9" LCD display and built-in waveform monitor.
See what I mean? The P2 Mobile does a lot, but it takes a while to explain it all. It's not something you can sum up in a pithy, memorable marketing blurb, which is why I managed to work with P2 products for years and still be only vaguely aware of the P2 Mobile or its predecessors (the HPM110 and 100).

But I recently had the chance to take home a loaner Mobile and play with it for a couple of weeks. And I came away with a real appreciation for all it can do. If you like the idea of having all of this functionality -- or even some of it -- condensed into a rugged 14-pound package that you can set up on any table or desk, run from AC/DC power, and boot in about 3 seconds, then read on.


Panasonic P2 Mobile.
Panasonic P2 Mobile. Please click here for larger image.



AVC-Intra Video Recorder

The P2 Mobile lets you record video from any HD-SDI, SDI or Composite source you plug into its backside. You'll capture the video to P2 cards (it takes up to six), as if you recorded the video using a P2 camera. That means your video is already in a format that any major video editor or post production software can import (Avid, Final Cut, Premiere, Grass Valley, After Effects, Smoke, etc.). More importantly, you can record the video in a number of P2 formats, from DVCPRO to Panasonic's flagship AVC-Intra.

AVC-Intra is what makes the P2 Mobile such a compelling video recorder. It's a full-raster HD format, meaning it uses square pixels to deliver the full 1280x720 and 1920x1080 resolution you expect from HD, instead of using rectangular pixels (as DVCPRO HD does) to deliver only 960x720 or 1280x1080 pixels. AVC-Intra also records every frame of video as a complete, stand-alone frame (known as "intra-frame"), instead of recording every few frames, and interpolating the unrecorded frames in between. Recording every few frames is what Long-GOP formats such as HDV or Sony's XDCAM do, but the Long-GOP approach makes those formats harder to edit and work with in post, and can also lead to some image artifacts.

Besides its intra-frame nature, AVC-Intra also records with 4:2:2 color sub-sampling, with 10 bit color/luminance. That compares nicely with other formats that are using 4:2:0 or 3:1:1 sampling and 8 bits of color. The end result is that AVC-Intra produces smooth gradients with good flexibility for color correction and compositing in post.

Of course, there are even richer formats that record in higher resolutions, with 4:4:4 sampling and deeper color depth than AVC-Intra. But Intra does what it does using a data rate that peaks at only 100mbps. That means you can store hours of video using a few P2 cards -- for instance, I have five 64GB cards, and can store 13 hours of 720/24 material, and 6.5 hours at 1080. Not only is AVC-Intra's data rate sparing of P2 card capacity, it also means that its video doesn't fill up editing hard drives or LTO archival tapes nearly as fast as a format using two, three or four times as much data.

AVC-Intra's slick picture quality and its welter-weight data rate make it a great all-around option for recording anything aimed at broadcast or online distribution. That, in turn, makes a video recorder like the P2 Mobile very handy. One way you can use the Mobile is to attach it to an older camera such as a tape-based Varicam, thereby bypassing its outdated tape media, its older DVCPRO HD recording format, and other tape-based limitations such as the inability to playback under/over cranking effects and time-lapse. Viola: you've got a far more modern camera recording in AVC-Intra to digital files (the one caveat, of course, is that you're attached to a 14 pound accessory).

You can also connect the P2 Mobile to a tape deck and convert your tape library to digital files, all without tying up an editing system. Doing tape conversions is where the P2 Mobile's up/down converting comes in handy. The Mobile uses the same converter as Panasonic's $75,000 D-5 tape deck, and lets you capture even SD material at different HD resolutions and framerates, or vice versa (for the record, the Mobile as functions as a sync generator with black burst, tri-level and timecode as well as bars & tone in any of the formats it can record). And once you've captured your tape library as digital files, you're free to toss out those old tapes cluttering up your office (and degrading over time, by the way), and archive the video using more efficient methods, such as LTO tape.

One other advantage to using the P2 Mobile as a video recorder -- whether it's attached to a camera or a tape deck -- is that you can include metadata in the video you record. Metadata is information about your video clips, such as custom clip names, program title, shooting location, crew names, and markers that a cameraman might add while shooting, to mark some point of interest (a homerun, an interviewee posing a new question, etc.). Metadata is a godsend to productions and companies that bother to work it into their workflows, and it's something that the P2 Mobile supports 100%. You can load in metadata files created on your computer (using Panasonic's free P2 CMS app) or you can use the P2 Mobile's own klunky on-screen interface to create metadata directly. To speed things up, you can also plug a USB keyboard into the Mobile and enter metadata more quickly.

Of course, there are other video recorders out there besides the P2 Mobile. One is AJA's popular Ki Pro, which at $3,995, is far less expensive and lighter-weight. But the Ki Pro has a potential problem: it records video using Apple's ProRes format, which shares many attributes with AVC-Intra (full-raster, intra-frame, 4:2:2 color space, and 10 bit color depth) but uses a data rate as high as 220mbps versus AVC-Intra's 100mbps. ProRes's high data rate doesn't necessarily buy you a visually better picture, though (usually it doesn't), so your ProRes footage may in fact be a big waste of hard drive and archival space. Plus, the Ki Pro doesn't let you add metadata your recordings.

Another field recorder is Panasonic's P2 Gear, which you can hold in one hand, and lets you record via HD-SDI to two P2 cards in AVC-Intra. At 5,560, the Gear gives you AVC-Intra recording for much less money than the P2 Mobile. On the other hand, the P2 Gear (as well as the Ki Pro) doesn't do much beyond pure field recording and converting, whereas that's just the tip of the iceberg for the P2 Mobile.


Panasonic P2 Mobile closed.
Panasonic P2 Mobile closed. Please click here for larger image.



Record AVCHD Video to an SD Card

The P2 Mobile doesn't just record to P2 cards. If you've installed the optional AJ-YCX250G board ($3,000), you can convert P2 video into the AVCHD format (or vice-versa), by recording it to an SDHC card. Or, you can actually record from an HD-SDI input to P2 cards and ACVHD formats at the same time.

At any rate, AVCHD is easy to confuse with AVC-Intra, but it's actually a lightweight format designed to replace ancient HDV. It uses a Long-GOP recording scheme, with lower data rates, 4:2:0 sampling, and 8-bit color. But AVCHD still produces an HD image that looks crisp and colorful, especially when using one of the Mobile's higher encoding settings (there are four settings, from a 7mbps data rate to 24mbps).

In fact, AVCHD is often good enough for broadcast news. News crews are known to use the P2 Mobile to quickly generate an AVCHD version of their work, and then use the Mobile's FTP feature to upload the file back to the station for broadcast. Not every job needs a top-tier format like AVC-Intra, and since you can edit AVCHD in most editing applications, it's a great option for projects that can't wait around for physical media. Alternatively, since the P2 Mobile can convert AVCHD into P2, you can also use it as an editing hub for AVCHD footage.

Converting P2 footage into AVCHD (or vice versa) happens at real-time speed. You simply move clips to the P2 Mobile's editing timeline, and then play back the timeline while recording it to the SD card. Fortunately, the P2 Mobile's interface makes it easy to select a bunch of clips together, and then add them all to the timeline at once.

But there are some limitations to the Mobile's AVCHD conversions, in case you want to create quick and easy digital dailies. Number one, the P2 Mobile can't do a timecode window burn over footage it's encoding to AVCHD. It can embed the master clip's timecode into an AVCHD version, but that's not nearly as convenient as having a window burn for dailies.

A more serious hitch is that a dailies file of your footage will have no reference to the individual P2 master clips that make up the output. The AVCHD files don't share the same name as your P2 clips, nor give any reference to them, so there's no way to note a great take in a dailies file, and tell your editor where to find it in the master footage.

Finally, to every device can play back AVCHD files. New TVs and Blu-Ray players can play AVCHD directly from an SD card, but you can't play AVCHD files on hot mobile devices -- like an iPhone, Android phone, or the iPad -- which are perfect vehicles for playing dailies. There are AVCHD players for Mac and Windows computers (try the free VLC player), but none for the truly mobile crowd.

To be fair, Panasonic doesn't advertise the P2 Mobile as a dailies-making machine. But I wish it were, since that's a valuable feature to have on a set. If Panasonic could invent a way to select a bunch of P2 clips, automatically encode them into AVCHD files with the same or similar file name as their P2 masters, and add a timecode window burn, then the Mobile would appeal to a whole new market.


Connectivity

You can attach an external USB or ESATA hard drive to the P2 Mobile, either to offload your P2 cards or to watch/edit material already on the drive. In fact, the Mobile is currently the only P2 hardware that can play back AVC-Intra footage directly from eSATA drives, with no dropped frames. That's helpful if someone gives you a hard drive with P2 card footage on it, and you want to review or work with the contents without tying up a computer.

When offloading P2 cards to a hard drive, the Mobile was reasonably fast, thanks to its eSATA port. For instance, it took almost 19 minutes to copy a 32GB card to a USB2 drive, but only 7:30 minutes to copy the same card to an eSATA drive (with verification off in both cases; double those times if you want verification). The eSATA time is a couple of minutes slower than what Panasonic's fastest card reader, the PCD35, can handle, and a couple minutes faster than Panasonic's Rapid Writer. The Mobile's USB2 copy is actually a little faster than what I've seen from Panasonic's USB2 card readers, such as the PCD20 and the new, affordable PCD2. So all in all, the P2 Mobile's copying speed is respectable.

But one of the cooler aspects of the P2 Mobile is its Gigabit Ethernet port, which lets you plug the machine into a LAN or the Internet beyond that. If you attach the Mobile to a LAN, it actually functions as a NAS (network attached storage) drive, showing each of its P2 cards as individual drives on your network. Theoretically, multiple editing stations can access and edit from the cards, though I wasn't able to test this myself.

But with the Mobile's built-in FTP client, you can upload individual clips or entire cards to any FTP source. Obviously, you're not likely to upload an entire card of raw footage, but FTPing on a clip-by-clip basis is more feasible (the Mobile automatically creates the unique folder structure that P2 footage uses). The same goes for uploading AVCHD versions of your footage or an edited show.


Timeline-based Video Editing

As an editor, the P2 Mobile is obviously not on the level of your Avid or Final Cut system, but it's surprisingly flexible for doing cuts-only editing -- the kind of editing a news crew would have to do to put a story together in the field, or that a cameraman or producer might do to pull out a bunch of useful selects from the day's raw footage.

I've mentioned the P2 Mobile's ability to edit a few times, so let's dive in. Just hit the Mobile's Playlist button and you'll switch to a timeline-based non-linear editor.

The interface takes a little getting used to, since it's all based on pressing the Mobile's physical buttons or using its jog-shuttle. Let's put it this way: if you like editing with keyboard shortcuts, you'll feel right at home.


Editing Screen.
Editing Screen. Please click here for larger image.



To get into the Mobile's editing mode, you'll just hit its PLAY LIST button, which brings up a timeline-based interface. The basics of editing involve hitting the Mobile's PLAYER button to switch back and forth between two key modes. One mode lets you see all the clips available and playback one clip at a time. You can also set In and Out points by holding the Mobile's ENTRY button and then pressing either the IN or OUT button to select a range of frames. Hit that PLAYER button again and you'll be in the timeline mode, where you can position the timeline's playhead and then press the Mobile's red RECORD button to add the selected clip to your edit.

Fortunately, the Mobile's Timeline mode gives you some good flexibility for making edits. You can either insert or overwrite a new clip into your edit. You can also set In and Out points on the Timeline to define how long a new edit will last. You can also lock the Timeline's single video or four audio tracks to precisely edit the content you want -- for instance, let's say you want to edit B-roll footage over a talking-head interview. Just hit the P2 Mobile's A1 and A2 buttons to toggle off those two audio tracks before making an edit, thereby bringing in a new clip's video, but not two tracks of audio.

You can also delete footage from the timeline, leaving gaps or removing them automatically, and can undo your last change by hitting a dedicated button (but nothing beyond that - it's just one level of undo). When you're finished with your edit, you can record it to a P2 or SD card, or play it out via the P2 Mobile's various outputs.

So goes editing on the P2 Mobile -- i.e., it's nothing fancy but certainly functional. If you edit only rarely, you'll probably have a hard time remembering all the Mobile's button combinations and toggles. Otherwise, you're bound to get pretty fast with its buttons-only interface. My guess is that regulars can expect to edit as fast as they would on a mouse-based system. And remember: the P2 Mobile starts up in about 3 seconds, so you can edit instantly instead of waiting for a laptop to boot and load a bloated editing application.


Button Interface.
Button Interface. Please click here for larger image.



Some other features or limitations worth noting:
  • You can attach the P2 Mobile to a tape deck via an RS422A cable, and edit from tape like an old-school linear editor.
  • You can't edit different resolutions or codecs on the same timeline, but that's not likely to be an issue for most shows, which shoot one consistent format throughout.
  • There's no way to make titles.
  • As I mentioned earlier, you can edit P2 footage directly from any attached USB2 or eSATA hard drive. I was able to edit AVC-Intra footage from even a lowly USB2 connection without dropping frames during playback, even though Panasonic recommends an eSATA connection for AVC-Intra work.
  • When you pull out a P2 card or disconnect a hard drive, any clips you've already edited become unavailable on the timeline, but quickly relink as soon as you slip the card back in, or bring the drive back online.
  • You can save an edit, called a Playlist, to a P2 card (though not an SD card).
  • If you power off the P2 Mobile without saving your "Playlist" edit, it will still be waiting for you when you turn the Mobile on.

Sizing It Up

The P2 Mobile's epic scope is its greatest strength and weakness. It's impressive that it can do so much. On the other hand, it does more than a lot of productions absolutely need, which makes the Mobile's $16,000 list price (not including optional AVCHD board) harder to justify.

But the Mobile is certainly valuable in the right circumstances. It's a great unit for news crews or other mobile producers that need to shoot and edit from the field, with the option of uploading low-bandwidth footage via the net.

It's also a great option for producers and companies looking to standardize their workflow on a tapeless, high-quality format like AVC-Intra. With the P2 Mobile, you can convert almost any video source (HDMI being the one notable omission) into AVC-Intra, while editing metadata right in the unit. Plus, the Mobile can easily lay off P2 footage to tape (though that idea makes me cringe), and do double-duty as a pure converter, between whatever sources you've got.

You could, of course, try to match the P2 Mobile's functionality with a conventional laptop. You might start with, say, a 17" Macbook Pro, since that's the only one with a built-in ExpressCard/34 slot ($2,299). Then you'd add a Matrox MXO2 MAX, which connects to the Macbook via an ExpressCard and captures video from SDI or other sources into ProRes ($1,995). Then you'd add a Panasonic 5-card reader such as the PCD20 ($1,980) and some Final Cut Pro software ($999). Altogether, that comes to about $7,200, but you still have no way to record in AVC-Intra, which is one of the Mobile's best features. Plus, you've got multiple devices to power, multiple cables to worry about, and far longer setup/tear down times.

In the end, the P2 Mobile is meant to be a portable hub for ambitious tapeless workflows, and it definitely succeeds. It's obviously not for everybody, but for others, it's a complete and totally unique solution.


About Helmut Kobler

Helmut Kobler is a Los Angeles-based documentary cameraman specializing in P2. He's also written three editions of Final Cut Pro for Dummies. For more information, go to www.varicaminla.com.




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