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

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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.

6.6 Overall
  • Design 7.5
  • Features 6
  • Performance 6
  • Image quality 6

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.

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.

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.

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