There's a lot to like about this little series of camcorders. But while the 16GB Panasonic HDC-TM80 and its similar kin, the no-internal-memory SD80 and 120GB hard-disked HS80 do provide a surprisingly full set of manual controls for the money, like every HD model we've seen with a sub-HD resolution sensor, the video quality just disappoints. This review is based on an evaluation of the TM80.
It's fine in bright sunlight, when you're zoomed in to the subject. The video looks clean, though softer than I'd like, with edge artifacts. When you zoom out to a wider angle, though, you can tell that the low-resolution sensor simply can't resolve enough detail. And it's even noticeable played back on a big screen (such as the 47-inch Panasonic I used), which frequently obscures many of the artifacts. There's also quite a bit of aliasing (jaggies) on edges.
Exposures are very good; though like all inexpensive models it blows out highlights, but without excessive fringing, and it handles backlit and other difficult scenes better than most. And while the colors aren't that accurate, they're certainly pleasing and saturated under bright conditions.
Unlike its low-cost competitors, the TM80 and company have an onboard LED video light. While it can help in some low-light scenes, you really don't want to point it toward people or they'll be seeing spots for a very long time. It also results in a not-very-attractive white balance, and you still lose a lot of detail in the scene. Without the light, the camcorder's low-light quality isn't very good. There's quite a bit of color noise and it's very soft.
And if you're looking for a dual-purpose still/video device, look elsewhere. You don't want to use this camcorder as a still camera; the photo quality doesn't even match that of a camera phone unless it's scaled down.
Performance is a mixed bag as well. On the upside, the optical image stabilization works quite well, even out to the end of the 30x zoom range. It also switches decisively, and at a nice rate, between focus subjects. Unfortunately, decisively is not the same things as accurately; it has trouble maintaining a lock on a given subject against a busy background if the subject is even a little off-center. I also saw some odd intermediate white-balance shifts when panning (in bright light) and zooming (in dim light).