Here's the thing about bringing a new product to a crowded market: you have to either offer something different and/or better or something similar to the competition at a lower price. This is especially true for pocket video cameras, and Panasonic's HM-TA1 mini-camcorder delivers neither.
Design and features
The TA1 is a candybar-style mini-camcorder that is held vertically. The device is attractive, lightweight and very compact. Unfortunately, the design goes downhill from there. For starters, the body is made from glossy plastic (available in three colour choices) with silver edges that show every fingerprint and is somewhat slippery to hold. The power button and battery/memory card compartment are on the right side and depending on your hand size, your thumb may either accidentally hit the power or slide the compartment door open if you hold it too firmly. The door feels cheap and flimsy, too.
Click the image above to see the gallery of the Panasonic Lumix and camcorder launch event. (Credit: Alexandra Savvides/CNET Australia)
On the left side under a door at the top is the sole AV output, which is composite only (a cable is included); there's no option for a component cable accessory and no HDMI output. That means there's no direct viewing from the TA1 of content at HD resolutions on an HDTV. On a side note, since Panasonic's HDTVs have SD card slots, we tried to view the video that way, but no luck: Panasonic's sets don't support MPEG-4 playback from cards.
At the bottom of the device is a slider for a built-in USB connector that pops out from behind a door on the lower left side. A USB extension cable is included for getting to those hard-to-reach ports. Though it is removable, the battery is charged by USB and takes roughly four hours to fully power up. It drains in about 80 minutes of continuous recording, so if you're going to be out doing a lot of recording you may want an extra battery. For most people, though, that should be plenty of battery life.
In an attempt to simplify controls, Panasonic assigned only one function to each button. This only really adds two buttons to the number typically found on mini-camcorders, but it makes the control panel a cluttered mess. And because all of the buttons are flush with the body and made of slick plastic, they can be difficult to press accurately. At least the record button is front and centre, so all you need to do is turn the TA1 on and press it to start recording.
Recording resolutions include VGA, 720p and 1080p all at 30 frames per second. Panasonic also hypes the availability of Apple's iFrame format, a smaller-than-HD 960x540/30p (24Mbps) size designed to be easily imported into iMovie (though you can easily import standard HD MPEG-4 formats into iMovie).
One of the few extra features of the TA1 is that it can be used as a webcam at 640x480, 320x240 and 160x120 resolutions. Panasonic uses Skype support as a selling point, but the software isn't embedded on the device; you'll need to download it separately from Skype. Also, the device can't stand on its own, especially when connected to a computer, so you'll need a support and something to angle it upward if you're using it on a desk.
The embedded software on the Panasonic HM-TA1 is mediocre in usability and features compared with software on competing mini-camcorders. (Screenshot by CBSi)
A big part of why pocket video cameras are popular is the embedded editing and sharing software that makes getting clips off the device and onto video-sharing sites easy. Panasonic's Windows-only software is called HD Writer PE 1.0 and is basically an off-the-shelf package. It does the bare minimum of things such as organising and simple editing, and playback and sharing is limited to YouTube or Facebook. (However, once a clip is uploaded, you can choose to attach the link to an email.) The interface is boring and uses words like "Execute" instead of "Start upload". Overall, it's just a less-than-thrilling experience that makes sharing seem more like a chore.
Performance and image quality
The video quality and overall performance, on the other hand, are very good from the TA1. At 1080p and 720p resolutions, the movies are enjoyable to watch and good enough to be viewed on a large HDTV. Colours are bright and vivid and exposure is accurate. The electronic image stabilisation seems to help keep video smooth with little visible judder when panning. And subjects appear sharp, but not over-sharpened. Low-light video isn't as good with a lot of noise and yellow blotching. (This is similar to the low-light processing we've seen in Panasonic's still cameras.) A built-in LED light in front can help illuminate dimly lit scenes, but it's really only OK for about 2 feet in front of the camera despite being blindingly bright. There is a 4x digital zoom should you want to use it, but it does degrade video quality. Lastly, Panasonic includes the capability to shoot in black-and-white and sepia, as well as apply skin softening with nice-looking results.
If the most important things to you are video quality and a small body, the Panasonic HM-TA1 is a fine choice. However, there are models from other manufacturers that offer more features and similar video quality for the same or less money.
With plenty of models already available from camera and camcorder manufacturers as well as multifunction devices like the iPod Touch and a bevy of smartphones, the TA1 is fairly undesirable for its price and features. Add to that the overall poor design and there's just not much here to like. It is small and the video quality is very good — at least in bright conditions — but the device is otherwise unremarkable. Unless you can find it for cheap, there's little reason to pick the TA1 over mini-camcorders from Flip, Kodak or Sony.