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Panasonic HX-A1 review: An action cam that sees in the dark, right out of the box

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With 4K capability being pushed by Sony and GoPro in their top-of-the-line cameras, HD action cams like the Panasonic HX-A1 compete for budget-minded buyers. The A1 is an affordable full-HD action cam selling for $199.99, £179.99 or AU$299. The A1 costs half as much as the GoPro Hero4 Session 's asking price of $399 and about $50 less than the Sony AS200V.

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6.6

Panasonic HX-A1

The Good

The Panasonic HX-A1 is a super-light and compact action cam. Out-of-the-box night-vision makes it the only action cam for shooting in total darkness. An included adapter for use with GoPro mounts gives buyers accessory options.

The Bad

The A1's image quality suffers due to compression artifacting. The A1 also doesn't have an underwater case for waterproofing beyond the camera's low built-in rating so underwater filming is restricted. Pedestrian battery life won't suit those shooting for long stretches of time.

The Bottom Line

The HX-A1's size and price offer a decent option for buyers, but there are better choices.

The A1 isn't only for budget conscious buyers. For anyone who needs to film in complete darkness the A1 has a 0 lux night vision mode that only requires users to bring their own infrared torch.

Design and features

The A1 is a cylindrical action cam weighing in at just 45 grams, or 1.59 ounces. Its completely cylindrical body is a compact 8.4 by 2.6 by 2.6 centimetres (3.3 by 1.02 by 1.02 inches). A 3.54-megapixel 1/3-inch MOS sensor offers full-HD video and 2.66-megapixel still shooting.

The A1 is IP68 compliant, which means it's rated to be waterproof down to a depth of 1.5 metres (5 feet) and completely dustproof. It's also rated to survive drops of up to 1.5 metres and is freeze-proof to -10 degrees Celsius or 14 degrees Fahrenheit.

The camera records 29.97 frames per second (fps) by default in 1080p, 720p and 848x640p resolutions. Filming is in a standard 16:9 aspect ratio and the A1 can be set to record footage with a 150- or 120-degree angle of view. This isn't as wide as other action cams are capable of, with both GoPro and Sony both shooting at 170 degrees at their widest.

Of course, the biggest point of difference the A1 offers is its built-in 0 lux night-vision capability. You'll need to swap out the standard lens for the included "IR" lens, and purchase an infrared torch separately. Once the IR lens is installed, the camera delivers true night-vision footage so long as you've got your infrared light handy. For anyone after a camera with night-vision capability right out of the box then the A1 is the only option.

The A1 doesn't have a built-in screen, and all controls are located on a panel the top of the camera. Record, mode selection and power buttons with indicator lights provide a simple on-camera interface. Switching through the stills, time-lapse and video modes is done by pressing the mode button. Holding down the mode button turns on the A1's built-in Wi-Fi, allowing you to connect to an Android or iOS device. The A1's built-in controls are basic and without a screen settings including the angle of view, frame rates and resolution can only be changed by using the app.

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The control panel is simple and easy to use.

Dave Cheng/CNET

The back compartment screws open to reveal a Micro-USB port for charging, microSD card slot and a hard reset button. The camera comes with a non-waterproof back panel that allows access to the charging port while the camera's in use.

There are a couple of issues with usability and design. First, the camera is completely cylindrical and rolls from side to side when set down. If you're trying to grab a quick shot without a mount, orienting it and keeping it stationary is harder than it needs to be. Manufacturers like Sony and GoPro addressed this by flattening the bottom of the otherwise round AS200V and X1000V cameras, allowing them to stand on their own.

The second involved the controls and recording light. All indicators rest on top of the camera, which is fine when it's mounted to your bike handlebars or on a chest mount. But when placed in a position where the controls are hard to access, seeing the indicator lights becomes difficult. The beep indicator is helpfully very loud and lets you know when it's recording and when it's running out of power. But if you need the camera to run silently and can't see the panel, then you must use the app or flip the camera over, which will then need to be corrected afterward.

Battery life isn't a strength, with the built-in battery allowing an average running time of 70 minutes give or take. Oddly, on our first battery test, the camera continue to film uninterrupted for more than 2 hours and 38 minutes. However, this stellar result couldn't be replicated in subsequent tests. Panasonic offers two ways to address this limitation; charging while recording, making the camera vulnerable to water and dust, or buying the optional VW-BTA1 battery extension which more than doubles the camera's length.

Another potential issue with the design is that both the front lens and rear cap are completely removable. We all try to be careful with our gear, but fiddly little parts often get lost. Because the A1 doesn't have a waterproof case like GoPro or Sony, its sealing depends on the integrity of the camera. Whereas waterproof cases have hinged doors that aren't removable, the A1's lens and back can be removed from the camera itself. If any of these parts are lost while shooting in wet or dusty environments, you'll need to stow the camera away to prevent internal damage.

As the A1 doesn't have an optional underwater housing available. Should you need waterproofing beyond 1.5 metres, then this camera isn't for you. But if you're a casual adventurer and diving the ocean depths isn't on your agenda, then the compact camera is fine for use during most other activities.

The HX-A1 with the front lens and rear cover removed.

Dave Cheng/CNET

Panasonic image app

Panasonic have Android and iOS versions of their Image App available that allow you to connect your phone to the camera's Wi-Fi. The app offers live view and remote control functionality, image preview, video playback, frame-rate settings and file transfer. It's simple enough to use, and it's the only way to make changes to settings with the camera itself offering minimal input options.

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The Panasonic Image App provides live view and control of the A1's settings.

Screenshot by Dave Cheng/CNET

Image quality

The A1 has two still resolutions: 2.66 megapixels and a 2.1-megapixel cropped frame in line with its 150- and 120-degree viewing angles. Both are large enough for your Facebook and Flickr needs, but it's low compared to its competitors like the GoPro Hero4 Session's 5- and 8-megapixel still options. If stills and time-lapses are your thing, the lower resolution will limit your cropping options.

Panasonic HX-A1 test photos

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The biggest issue with the camera's video performance is the compression of the video files themselves. The A1 records HD video at 29.97fps with an average bit rate of 15Mbps. Cameras like the similarly priced Replay XD Prime X record at 25Mbps at the same resolution and frame rate. Block artifacts from the compression are apparent when watching the recorded footage. Artifacting is really noticeable in the reds, and the footage shows the edges of the red portion of the flag as large blocks rather than a smooth line.

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A 250 percent crop shows block artifacting. Dave Cheng/CNET

Sharpness is also an issue, with edges appearing fuzzy. It's normal for cameras to compress video files; models with higher bit-rate recording and therefore less compression don't have quite the same issues. The camera sits in what is now a very affordable price point in the action-cam market, but it does prompt the question whether it's worth paying an extra $100 to $200 for something better.

If you're shooting in winter as we did during testing, you'll come across fogging issues when the temperature rapidly changes. I found that getting the camera into a cold pond fogged the lens and reduced image quality. Taking it out of the pond and going straight to shooting stills produced very blurred results. It's not unusual for cameras of any kind to fog with fast changes from warm to cold environments. GoPro's solution was offering anti-fog inserts within the case, but without any room to do the same A1 users will need to check the lens before shooting again.

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Fogging occurs in real-world shooting situations.

Dave Cheng/CNET

Conclusion

The Panasonic HX-A1's compactness and price are its key assets, but its night-vision really sets it apart for anyone who needs to shoot in complete darkness. For the price it's a decent performer, but if you need an action cam with more selectable frame rates, better waterproofing, higher resolution stills and longer battery life, the Replay XD Prime offers a lot more for a very similar price. Otherwise the Sony AS200V or GoPro Hero4 Session are the next step up.

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6.6

Panasonic HX-A1

Score Breakdown

Design 7.5Features 6Performance 6Image quality 6