On January 27th Panasonic and Sony unveiled a new high-def video format that may put a stake in the venerable camcorder’s silicon heart. Called AVCHD Lite, this subset codec of the AVCHD format found in today’s top camcorders (Canon HG21 and Sony SR12), is geared for digital cameras; the first ones arrive in April from Panasonic. Given that Sony is planning a big press conference at the upcoming Photo Marketing Association convention March 2nd, we’d safely bet they’ll unveil AVCHD Lite cameras too.
The reason AVCHD Lite is a potential camcorder neutron bomb is the simple fact that it records 720p video that’s far better than the clips we’ve seen taken by any other digicam—outside of the very expensive $2,699 21.1MP Canon EOS 5D Mark II, which records 1080p. It’s even better than the 12.3-megapixel $999 Nikon D90 that also records 720p. If you can buy a nicely featured compact digital camera that takes high-quality stills and excellent video, why would you buy a separate HD camcorder that’ll set you back at least $600—and typically takes lousy stills? Our thoughts exactly.
Panasonic plans to introduce two AVCHD Lite cameras in April, the Lumix DMC-ZS3 and DMC-TS1, both $399 but targeted to very different photographers. The 10-megapixel ZS3 (the replacement for the TZ5) has a 12x optical zoom with a nice range of 28-300mm and a big 3-inch LCD screen. It’s also 10 percent slimmer than the already thin TZ5. The 12MP TS1 with a 4.6x zoom starting at 28mm is Panasonic’s first entry in the ever-growing “tough” category of digicams popularized by the Olympus Stylus SW series. You can drop this baby 5 feet and take it underwater for capturing stills or HD video.
The two digicams have iA Movie, similar to the Intelligent Auto mode for photos found in Lumix models. Engage it and the camera decides the proper exposure, engages optical image stabilization, face detection and will even pick the proper scene mode. It’s about as aim-and-forget as you can get.
DigitalTrends had the chance to put the two cameras through their paces at the Lumix Global Seminar in Miami. Since these were pre-production models they were prone to freeze-ups but this is hardly out of the ordinary for practically hand-made units. After shooting we took the SD cards out and reviewed the stills and movies on a 50-inch plasma. It was here we experienced the excellent video—even from early sample cameras. Naturally we’ll do more thorough tests when the real-deal arrives. In the meantime, you might hold off purchasing a camcorder—unless that cute new baby is just about to arrive.