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Pansonic HDC 700 review: Pansonic HDC 700

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One of the least expensive and most compact camcorders available with a full manual feature set and electronic viewfinder, plus a 1080/60p recording mode, the Panasonic HDC-TM700 presents an attractive option for users dissatisfied by the quality and lack of controls of midrange HD camcorders but wary of paying $1,000 or more for the privilege. And though it falls short in a few aspects, for the most part it delivers what they're looking for.

OVR
7.9

Pansonic HDC 700

Pricing Not Available

The Good

Very good low-light video quality; full set of manual features; 1080/60p recording option.

The Bad

Smallish, low-resolution LCD; coarse EVF; some edge artifacts in video; middling still photo quality.

The Bottom Line

The flash-based Panasonic HDC-TM700 and its hard-disk sibling, the HDC-HS700, stand out for their low-light video quality and broad set of manual controls. However, while the TM700 is very attractively priced for its class, the HS700 is not, and not worth the price premium unless you absolutely need the hard disk.

The TM700 has an almost identical--but overpriced--sibling, the HDC-HS700, which costs about $400 more simply for the unnecessarily large 240GB hard disk. The body is also nearly identical to its predecessor, the TM300/HS300. It's similarly comfortable to hold, especially with the slight upward curve toward the back that makes the zoom switch and photo button easy to reach. As with competitors' designs, you pull out the EVF to enable it and turn on the power


Panasonic HDC-SD60/TM55 Panasonic HDC-HS60 Panasonic HDC-TM700 / HS700
Sensor 3-megapixel CMOS 3-megapixel CMOS 3 x 3-megapixel 3CMOS
1/4.1 inch 1/4.1 inch 1/4.1 inch
Lens
(with Active SteadyShot disabled)
25x
f1.8-3.3
35.7 - 893mm (16:9)
25x
f1.8-3.3
35.7 - 893mm (16:9)
12x
f1.5-2.8
35 - 420mm (16:9)
Min illumination (lux) standard: 1400
low light: 4
Color Night View: 1
standard: 1400
low light: 4
Color Night View: 1
standard: 1400
low light: 1.6
Color Night View: 1

EVF

No No Yes
0.27 inch, 123,000 dots

LCD 2.7-inch 230,400-dot 2.7-inch 230,400-dot 3-inch 230,400-dot
Primary media SD/8GB flash; SDXC 120GB hard disk; SDXC 32GB flash/240GB hard disk; SDXC
HD recording AVCHD:
1080/60i @ 17 , 13, 9 Mbps; 1440x1080/60i @ 5 Mbps
AVCHD:
1080/60i @ 17 , 13, 9 Mbps; 1440x1080/60i @ 5 Mbps
AVCHD: 1080/60p 28Mbps; 1080/60i @ 17, 13, 9 ,5 Mbps
Manual shutter speed and iris Yes Yes Yes
Accessory shoe No No Yes
Audio 2 channels 2 channels 5.1 channels;
mic, headphone jacks
Body dimensions (WHD, inches) 2.0 x 2.6 x 4.4 2.2 x 2.6 x 4.4 2.6 x 2.7 x 5.4
Operating weight (ounces) 10.5/10.5 (est) 12.9 15.2/17.7
Mfr. Price $499.95/$529.95 $699.95 $999/$1,399.95
Ship date March 2010 March 2010 April 2010

Panasonic sticks with an old-fashioned dial on the side of the camcorder to switch among still, video, and playback modes; the company moved power from the dial to a button inside the LCD indentation. Along with the power, a full complement of ports and connectors live in the LCD recess: AV, component, and mini HDMI out, USB, and an SDXC card slot. Panasonic recommends a Class 4 card. I dislike the placement of the connectors inside the LCD, since that means it's got to be open while you're attached to other devices, which is just kind of awkward. I also think the battery release, also in the LCD enclosure, is in a bad spot; opening the LCD usually turns the camcorder on, which means in order to remove the battery you end up turning on the camcorder.

In the recess there's also a dedicated button for switching to 1080/60p mode. When you turn it on, an odd message appears: "Record in 1080/60p mode for best quality when playing back on this unit." What it should say is "Beware: you may not be able to play the video back properly on a computer or have software to edit it." Various playback software I tried (VLC, ArcSoft TotalMedia Theater and Splash Lite) had no trouble with the file format, but didn't play very smoothly on either my 32-bit or 64-bit systems. Adobe Premiere CS5 had no problems opening the files on the PC, and it's reported that ClipWrap will losslessly transcode them to work with Final Cut on the Mac.

Also, I'm getting tired of these warning messages popping up on camcorders every time you switch into a "nonstandard" mode: on Sony camcorders it's a warning about not being able to record 1080/60i video on an AVCHD disc. It introduces an unnecessary delay, and one warning is plenty. For the Panasonic, an easily spotted pink-on-white icon appears on the LCD so you're unlikely to get confused.

As with previous models, Panasonic puts the accessory shoe on the side of the lens barrel rather than the top. On top of the camcorder towards the front is the microphone. Like Sony, Panasonic offers dubiously useful 5.1-channel surround recording (in addition to stereo). However, at least Panasonic provides a decent set of volume controls to support the mic, including the option to set levels with or without automatic gain control.

You toggle between intelligent auto and manual via a button on top of the camcorder. The camera function button on the side of the lens barrel lets you cycle among focus, white balance, shutter speed and iris options; you can also pick them directly via the touch screen. You scroll through and select adjustment values via the ring on the lens barrel. (This is a change from its predecessor, which had a separate button for focus.) It does have the nicest iris controls, however, such as switching the readout from f-stops to decibels when you cross the line where the optics are wide open, as well as providing an optional luminance-level readout in the center. When you're not in a selection mode, the ring zooms instead. The zoom switch has a nice feel, and it's pretty easy to maintain a steady rate with it.


Canon HF S200/S20 JVC Everio GZ-HM1 Panasonic HDC-TM700 Sony Handycam HDR-CX550V
Sensor 9-megapixel CMOS 10-megapixel BIS CMOS 3 x 3-megapixel 3CMOS 6-megapixel Exmor R CMOS
1/2.6 inch 1/2.3 inch 1/4.1 inch 1/2.88 inch
Lens 10x
f1.8-3.0
43.5 - 435mm (16:9)
10x
f2.8-4.5
n/a
12x
f1.5-2.8
35 - 420mm (16:9)
10x
f1.8-3.4
29.8 - 298mm (16:9)
Min illumination (lux) standard: 4
low light: 0.3
standard: 11
low light: 3
Night Shot (IR): 0
standard: 1400
low light: 1.6
Color Night View: 1
standard: 11
low light: 3
Night Shot (IR): 0

EVF

No No Yes
0.27 inch, 123,000 dots

Yes
0.2 inch 201,000 pixel
LCD 3.5-inch 922,000-dot touch screen 2.8-inch n/a 3-inch 230,400-dot 3.5-inch 921,000-dot touch screen
Primary media 0GB/32GB flash; SDHC 64GB flash; SDHC 32GB flash; SDXC 64GB flash; SDXC
HD recording AVCHD:
1080/60i @ 24, 17 Mbps; 1440x1080/60i @ 12, 7, 5 Mbps
H.264 MPEG-4:
1080/60i @ 24, 17, 12, 5 Mbps
MPEG-4: 1080/60p 28Mbps;
AVCHD:
1080/60i @ 17, 13, 9 ,5 Mbps
AVCHD:
1080/60i @ 24, 17 Mbps; 1440x1080/60i @ 9,5 Mbps
Manual shutter speed and iris Yes Yes Yes Yes
Accessory shoe Yes Yes Yes Yes
Audio 2 channels;
mic, headphone jacks
2 channels;
mic, headphone jacks
5.1 channels;
mic, headphone jacks
5.1 channels;
mic, headphone jacks
Body dimensions (WHD, inches) 3 x 2.9 x 5.5 2.7 x 2.9 x 5.4 2.6 x 2.7 x 5.4 2.6 x 3 x 5.8
Operating weight (ounces) 18 17 (est) 15.2 17 (est)
Mfr. Price $999/$1,099.99 $1,199.95 $999 $1,199.99
Ship date April 2010 March 2010 April 2010 February 2010

You can tell where Panasonic cut corners to beat the price of the most similarly equipped competitor, Sony's HDR-CX550V: primarily with the small, low-resolution LCD. Of course, that's one key to its small size as well. Panasonic is the last manufacturer to leave buttons on the LCD bezel. I prefer this approach, since touch-screen based controls tend to introduce a slight operational delay--you have to wait for the preceding screen to time out, for example, before the menu or zoom controls appear. It's also more practical here, since Panasonic also has the smallest, lowest-resolution LCD in its class.

Overall, the LCD isn't bad, and is relatively usable in direct sunlight, but during manual focus and exposure I ended up relying a bit too much on the peaking or luminance-level readouts; not everyone is comfortable shooting by the numbers rather than by sight, but it's necessary here. I also have mixed feelings about the interface. It's generally well-designed; you can easily access most frequently needed settings, the menu structure is pretty straightforward, and the touch screen reasonably responsive. But the smallish screen quickly gets cluttered with the icons and readouts, and the coarse screen and clunky icons are simply unattractive.

In addition to the slightly better set of manual controls and typical set of automatic features, including an Active mode for the image stabilizer (for shooting while walking) the TM700/HS700 offers a somewhat expanded set of automatic options, such as intelligent contrast and exposure. The most novel capability is face recognition, which seems to work similarly to the way it functions in the company's still cameras. You can register up to six faces in the camcorder's memory with names, priority (for AF and exposure), and a custom focus icon. It identifies them during recording, but not playback. (For a complete rundown on the TM700 and HS700's features and operation, download the PDF manual.)

The most notable aspect of the camcorder's performance: battery life. The bundled battery lasts far longer than its competitors', which seems to be partly due to its higher capacity--while Canon supplies an anemic 890mAh model and Sony a middling 980mAh, Panasonic's is rated at 1250mAh. The autofocus system operates reasonably well. Though it took a few missteps when deciding what was subject and what was background, the tracking AF did a nice job.

Overall, the video quality is quite good, and like all the camcorders, it looks far better on a TV than on a computer. It's better in low light than the rest, with lower noise and accurate but slightly more saturated colors. Its automatic metering delivers better exposures, especially in backlit situations, though it appears to clip highlights more frequently. But there's practically no fringing on the edges of those highlights. The 60p video looks a bit better than the 60i, with sharper edges (in part due to the higher bit rate). However, the camcorder generally shows artifacts on edges, including interlace and rolling, on scene elements such as the static windows of a building behind waving flags. On the bright side, Panasonic defaults to its 13 megabits-per-second quality mode, which is full 1,920x1,080, compared to Sony and Canon which default to sub-HD 1,440x1,080 modes. Because of the small, low-resolution sensors still photo quality doesn't match the competition's. I do think the TM700/HS700 has the best audio quality of its peers, with a warmer (not tinny) sound and an effective wind filter.

Unless you need enough capacity to record all-day sessions there's really no reason to opt for the overpriced hard-drive-based HS700; a hard drive full of video left in the camcorder is an accident waiting to happen. Especially since the TM700 is so attractively priced compared to its competitors. If you don't mind the functional-but-homely interface and design, it's a solid choice.

OVR
7.9

Pansonic HDC 700

Pricing Not Available

Score Breakdown

Design 7Features 8Performance 8Image quality 8