Panasonic's top-of-the-range 700-series HD camcorders comes in two flavours: the excellent value flash memory SD700 and the HS700 that costs AU$600 more thanks to its 240GB hard disk.
The body is nearly identical to its predecessor, the HS300, which we never saw in Australia. It's 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 electronic viewfinder to enable it and turn on the power.
Panasonic sticks with an old-fashioned dial on the side of the camcorder to switch between still, video and playback modes. For this generation, 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: component and mini-HDMI out, USB and an SD/SDHC/SDXC card slot, with a Class 4 card recommended.
We 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. We 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 1080/50p mode. When you turn it on, an odd message appears: "Record in 1080/50p 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 we 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, we're getting tired of these warning messages popping up on camcorders every time you switch into a "non-standard" mode: on Sony camcorders it's a warning about not being able to record 1080/50i 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 touchscreen. 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 in its price group, 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.
In addition to the slightly better set of manual controls and typical set of automatic features, including an Active mode for the image stabiliser (for shooting while walking). The HS700 also 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.
You can tell where Panasonic cut corners to beat the price of the most similarly equipped competitor, Sony's Handycam 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.
We prefer this approach, since touchscreen 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 we 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.
We 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 touchscreen reasonably responsive. But the smallish screen quickly gets cluttered with the icons and readouts, and the coarse screen and clunky icons are simply unattractive.
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 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 HD camcorders, it looks far better on a TV than on a computer. It's better in low light than the competition, with lower noise and accurate but slightly more saturated colours. 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 50p video looks a bit better than the 50i variety, with sharper edges partly thanks due to the higher bit rate. However, the camcorder generally shows artefacts 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 13Mbps quality mode, which is full 1920x1080 resolution, compared to Sony and Canon which default to sub-HD 1440x1080 modes. Because it uses three small low-resolution sensors (one for each colour), still photo quality doesn't match the competition's. We do think the 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 SD700 is so attractively priced compared to its competitors. If you don't mind the functional-but-homely interface and design, the SD700 is a solid choice.