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 like 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, three-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 only ran our standard video tests on the TM300.) The highest video quality they offer is 1,920x1,080-pixel resolution at 30fps at 17 megabits per second, and can record about 8 minutes of video per gigabyte of storage space or almost 16 hours 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. They all include the optical image stabilization and Intelligent Automatic features of the older versions.
Weighing just more than a pound, with dimensions of 2.9 inches wide by 2.7 inches high by 5.0 inches long, the HS250 is the smallest, though not the lightest, 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.
Only the optical image stabilizer and Manual buttons live inside the LCD recess, and most of the controls operate via a hybrid button/touch-screen interface. Within the recess, under hard covers, are all the connectors--AV, component video out, mini HDMI, and USB--and the SD card slot. (Panasonic recommends a Class 4 card.)
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, and delete and Menu buttons. 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) video quality, picture size, onscreen display options, LCD brightness, and guidelines.
Though the HS250 offers many of the same manual features as its more expensive siblings, you access them via a button that lives in the LCD recess; it invokes manual focus, white balance, shutter, and iris. Primary operation occurs through the touch-screen menus, which fly out from a small icon in the lower-left corner. In auto mode, there's spot AE and AF, backlight compensation, intelligent contrast, fade, soft skin mode, telemacro, and MagicPix night mode. In manual mode, you select via a scrolling menu on the left. White balance offers the typical options, and shutter speed and iris are as broad and flexible as you'll get on an entry-level pro model. For instance, the iris opens as wide as 18dB in 3dB increments and closes to F16 in half stops. Although the shutter speeds start at a rather high 1/60 sec (in auto modes they'll drop lower and 24p mode drops to 1/48 sec), they go as high as 1/8,000.
At 2.7 inches, the LCD is a typical size for this class of camcorder; overall, it's fairly good. However, it's not very effective as a touch screen. There's visible feedback when you press one of the virtual buttons--it turns yellow--which helps when you're frustrated and pressing them repeatedly, attempting to get them to register your touch. And on the HS250, which lacks a focus ring, using the up/down arrows on the screen to focus isn't very fluid.
It performs relatively well, though like most hard-drive camcorders, it doesn't start very quickly on power on because it has to read the hard drive. It does have a Quick Start standby mode, though it does consume some power. The zoom feels relatively precise and easy to control--though the tiny zoom switch isn't quite as comfortable as the wide one on the TM300--and the camcorder focuses reasonably quickly in all but the lowest light. The audio sounds a tad thin, but acceptable. And Panasonic's optical stabilization works solidly out to the end of the zoom range.
The video quality is quite good, showing none of the artifacts that plagued the older models. Video looks sharp, though a tad softer than competing models from Canon and Sony, but color and exposure live up to what you'd expect for a camcorder in its price range. Low-light video looks a bit soft, though not nearly as soft as we've seen in previous models, and remains quite noise-free. The audio sounds the same, however, a bit thin but with adequate volume and microphone coverage. And while the stills look quite nice zoomed out and printed as large as 11 inches by 16 inches, you can see all the interpolation artifacts when viewed at 100 percent on screen--though Panasonic claims 10.6-megapixel resolution, the real resolution is only as high as any individual sensor.
The annoying touch-screen interface holds back what is otherwise a solid prosumer HD camcorder that effectively competes with models like the Canon Vixia HG20. If you don't need the EVF, accessory shoe, or mic input, and you don't do a lot of manual focusing, the HS250 is the best value of the lot, and you should probably save yourself the $300 or so price difference.