Panasonic's trio of top-of-the-prosumer-line HD camcorders--the flash-based HDC-TM300, and hard-drive-based HDC-HS300 and HDC-HS250--in many ways vastly improve over older models such as the HS100 and SD100. Panasonic jettisoned most of what I disliked about those models, including the too-low-resolution CMOS sensors, connector placement, and how the manual controls function, and retained everything I liked, notably the breadth of manual controls and eye-level viewfinder, at least on the two highest-end models. While the company replaced the awkward ring-based manual operation with an equally awkward touch screen, the improvement in video quality and performance make these a far better bet.
The three models incorporate the same 12x zoom f1.8-2.8 lens--the same lens as the HS100/SD100--as well as the same trio of 1/4.1-inch 3-megapixel 3MOS sensors, with an effective resolution of 2.07-megapixels each for 16:9 video. The real 3-megapixels for the predownsampled AVCHD video finally breaks the resolution barrier; normally, 3-chip systems use lower-than-HD resolution sensors, which don't seem to produce terribly sharp HD video. Because of the different media, the camcorders have slightly different designs, but the same feature sets, and should have identical video quality. (As such, for the purposes of this review, we ran our standard video tests on only the TM300.) The highest video quality they offer is 1,920x1,080-pixel resolution at 30 frames per second at 17 megabits per second, and can record about 8 minutes of video per gigabyte of storage space, or just less than 16 hours of video on the hard disk. The next level down, 13Mbps, gets about 10 minutes per gigabyte.
The TM300 and HS300 share the same higher-end features as the HS100--manual focus ring, EVF, accessory shoe, and microphone input--while the HS250 trades those for a more compact design. Both the HS250 and HS300 have a 120GB hard disk. As the name indicates, the TM300 is analogous to the HS300, but records to SD cards or the built-in 32GB memory. They all include the optical image stabilization and Intelligent Automatic features of the older versions.
Weighing 1 pound, 2 ounces, with dimensions of 2.9 inches wide by 2.8 inches high by 5.5 inches long, the HS300 is the heaviest and largest of the three and is larger than competitors like the Canon Vixia HG20. It's comfortable to hold, especially with the slight upward curve toward the back that makes the zoom switch and photo button easier to reach. The earlier models had a toggle to switch between the LCD and EVF; with this one, pull out the EVF to enable it, which is a nicer and more utilitarian design.
In contrast to the older models, only the optical image stabilizer button lives inside the LCD recess, and most of the controls have been replaced by a hybrid button/touch screen interface. Within the recess, under hard covers, are all but one connector--AV, component video out, mini HDMI, and USB--and the SD card slot. (Panasonic recommends a Class 4 card.) Mic and headphone jacks are on the front right side, beneath the flash, while a covered accessory shoe sits on top.
Under your right forefinger lies a traditional mode dial for choosing among power, video and still recording, and playback. Above the LCD on the body are the Intelligent Auto and 3-second prerecord button; on the LCD's bezel are zoom and record controls, a delete button, and Q(uick) Menu and Menu buttons. Through the Quick Menu you choose video quality, time lapse, picture size, onscreen display options, LCD brightness, and guidelines. Via Menu you select options such as where to record (hard drive or SD card) and choose from a handful of scene modes. Plus there are options for Digital Cinema (24p) mode, mic options (surround, zoom or focus; bass settings; and levels), and display options like Zebra and histogram. To the left of the lens are two buttons for invoking manual controls. Pressing manual focus switches the lens ring operation between zooming and focusing. The Function button brings up three options on the touch screen: white balance, shutter, and iris.