Panasonic HC-V700 £500
18th Apr 2012 | 13:29
In a world of advanced smartphones, is there a reason to buy a £500 camcorder?
The relentless march of technology inside smartphone cameras means that dedicated camcorders have started to seem less and less necessary as time goes on.
As with so many similar gadget types crushed under the boots of the iPhone, Samsung Galaxy S II and the like, the trick to carving out a useful spot in the market is to offer something the competition can't.
With an RRP of around £500 (though you can get it for less than £450 online), the Panasonic HC-V700 really needs to find a way to stand out to justify its cost.
It strikes you right from the off, though, by offering something a tiny phone never can – an absolutely massive zoom range. The HC-V700 is capable of a 46x zoom in total, with 21x of that being optical zoom, and the rest handled by Panasonic's Intelligent Zoom system.
The Intelligent Zoom is powered by Panasonic's Crystal Engine PRO imaging technology, and is designed to let you go beyond the range of the optical zoom without seeing the usual degradation associated with digital zooms.
It can't work magic, but if you go slightly over the 21x optical, it should produce something close to a purely optical image.
On top of that, the HC-V700 features Panasonic's iA wizardry, making the camera as foolproof to use as possible. You'll rarely have to worry about white balance or controlling the iris, unless you really want to – it's possible to switch back to manual control, but it's all controlled using the touchscreen, which is a pain for manual focussing.
Movies are recorded in 1080i at 50Hz, or 1080p at 50 frames per second, in AVCHD. There's no 720p option, or 30fps 1080p mode. There is a 540p mode at 25fps, but we recommend sticking with the big guns.
That said, while the 1080i50 mode is recognised by most editing software, 1080p50 is right on the fringes of what's currently supported by consumer software – Apple's iMovie doesn't support it, for example. The HC-V700 comes with some PC software to make playing the videos back easy for Windows users, but Mac users face more of an uphill challenge (hint: search online for a tool called Rewrap2M4V, which turns it to an iMovie/QuickTime-friendly format).
The good news is that recording at 50 frames per second means that if you're playing back at 25fps be default, you can slow down by 50 per cent without losing quality, which is great for sports.
Also good for sports is the optical image stabilsation (OIS). Actually, that's good for everyone – the HC-V700 is small and light enough (just 270g) that it's difficult to keep your hand still while using it, so Panasonic has included five-axis correction for your hand movements, and because it's optical, it shouldn't affect the overall image quality.
The lens itself is a 28mm wide-angle unit, and it's paired with a single 1/2.33 High Sensitivity 15.3-megapixel sensor. The 'High Sensitivity' part means it features backside illumination, much like the Panasonic HX-WA10.
You'll be able to see what you're recording on the three-inch LCD monitor, which can rotate 360 degrees. There's no viewfinder, but there is a removable shoe for attaching an external video light or microphone (there's a mini-jack input for mics).
You can get a 3D lens for the HC-V700, but we didn't have it available for testing. It doesn't feature any memory of its own, but it supports SDHC and SDXC cards.
For its price tag, you'd hope for some pretty impressive video footage from the Panasonic HC-V700, and it certainly delivers it at times. However, when it comes to it, it's perhaps in its technical aspects that it impresses, more than the image quality.
However, it displays some quite obvious weak points as well, and for casual use, we would even put it lower in the pecking order than the best smartphone video cameras out there. Yep, really.
However, it does have its specialist features: that massive zoom, image stabilisation, a wide-angle lens and recording at 50 frames per second. So we chose an activity to test all of these thoroughly.
The HC-V700 captures some shots (bad pun intended) really nicely in that video, and it's probably no surprise that they're the ones with motion.
The optical image stabilisation is, quite simply, phenomenal. All of that video was done handheld, and shots that would be full of shake in another camera could almost be mistaken for Steadicam shots here. It's honestly astounding, and goes a long way towards the price of admission itself. When you zoom all the way in, it starts to struggle, admittedly, but the fact that it's doing as good a job as it is at 46x zoom is actually testament to its quality.
Speaking of the zoom, that's also pretty damn impressive. It needs the pairing with the OIS that makes it such a good option, and the two together are killer. The zoom itself is smooth, and the image quality is good as you go past the 21x optical limit. When you get right up to the 46x Intelligent Zoom limit, detail is noticeably missing, but it's still hugely better than that level of digital zoom has any right to be.
General motion is superb as well. It's all perfectly smooth, with no blur except in extreme cases (close-ups of golf clubs, for example). It's easy to track the balls as they soar into the sky, and the 1080p detail is often enough to follow them all the way into the distance without a zoom. Having the latest AVCHD spec, capable of 28Mbps bitrates helps as well.
In the shots that are slowed down to 50%, you can see just how clear the movement really is – it looks just as good as full speed. There are rare moments where artefacts come in, and they really stand out when they do, which is a shame. Of course, they only stand out so much because the motion is so good elsewhere, so it's forgivable in the long run.
However, the picture quality itself is a little up and down. The grass is often nicely detailed, especially in close-ups, but other aspects often appear quite soft – especially in the middle distance. The patterns on clothing tends to be a bit soft and flat, especially on jeans. In close-ups of leather shoes, detail is sometimes brilliant, but often just appears soft.
When you look at shots of the sky, pay attention to it and not the ball and you'll notice that it's full of digital noise – it's actually quite distracting. It's not the only noise either; many solid colour objects exhibit it.
Similarly, whites were almost always blown out in these shots. The edge of the white golf ball facing the sun consistently loses all detail, while the striped white shirt often loses its stripes.
Below, we've got comparison stills taken from identical videos shot by the Panasonic HC-V700 against an iPhone 4S. The Panasonic is the top image in each case.
The first thing you'll likely notice is the effect the wide-angle lens has, taking in much more of each scene.
OK, that's probably not what you noticed first. You probably noticed that the iPhone shot looks better in each case. You're not mad – that is simply the case.
The colour in particular is far superior in the iPhone's video, as is the levels of contrast. It has depth in scenes where the Panasonic looks rather flat, and vibrancy where the HC-V700 looks bland. Detail is much more apparent in each of the iPhone's images as well.
That's all a bit damning for the HC-V700, but it did best the iPhone comfortably in one aspect of these videos: all motion was quite obviously far smoother in the Panasonic shots. The difference is as big as the difference in detail above – one doesn't even come close to the other.
Similarly, the image stabilisation was far superior in the Panasonic, with the shots simply appearing smoother than the iPhone equivalent.
And we shouldn't forget that these sets of shots pitch the Panasonic and the iPhone against each other in zoomed-out circumstances – if you want to see anything in the distance with any clarity, the phone won't get you far.
When it comes to low-light shooting, the Panasonic has a small video light on the front that comes on automatically when needed.
It casts rather a blue/purple light, as you can see here, which will almost always be at odds with your main lights if you're filming at home, which are usually yellow. It gives the whole thing a bit of an odd look.
As you'd expect, it's fairly noisy and soft, but the fur on the animals is visible close up, which is good.
With the light turned off, it's even softer, but less eerie. You lose a bit more detail, still – that backlit sensor does well, but can't work wonders.
When it comes to audio, you might have noticed that the HC-V700 picked up a lot of wind on the golf course. It was a consistent issue, and we have to say that it didn't feel all that windy on the day (though you can see the flags going at times).
It picked out other noises fairly clearly, though normal speech became a bit quiet at about 9-10 feet outdoors.
When it comes to stills, the HC-V700 can take 5.8-megapixel images, but they're not up to that much. They capture colour fairly well, but are really noisy, and don't offer a huge amount of detail.
The Panasonic HC-V700 has some really stand out features to remind you that smartphones and small Sony Bloggie-style cameras can't do everything a bigger unit can.
With its wide-angle lens, massive zoom and image stabilisation, it's easy to see the technological advantages of the HC-V700.
Unfortunately, it proved to be only competent at actual image quality, and at £450, that inevitably knocks it down from being an essential purchase.
The zoom and image stabilisation are both massively impressive, but even more so in combination with each other. Under normal circumstances, it'll mean it's difficult to miss getting a great shot from distance.
The iA system also works really well, and you'll rarely have to put in any effort to get the white balance or focus correct.
And most of all, motion is handled just brilliantly. Video is totally smooth, and the high bitrates mean there's little artefacting, even in fast pans. And it's always nice to be able to have some slow motion without impacting image quality.
The sad fact is that the image quality isn't quite up to where we'd expect it to be for the price. Colours aren't as vibrant as we'd like, detail can be hit and miss, and there's often digital noise in solid colours.
That it suffered from overexposing whites didn't help, and we should note that the built-in microphone isn't up to much either (though the removable shoe means you can fix this).
The price probably wouldn't be a sticking point if the image quality was killer, but it isn't, so it's not an easy sell at almost £500 RRP.
The Panasonic HC-V700 isn't a bad camera by any means, but we were a little disappointed by its image quality in the long run – we just wanted a bit more from it.
But that doesn't detract from what it offers that cheaper units don't. Excellent quality in capturing motion, brilliant image stabilisation and a positively decadent zoom level mean this unit absolutely deserves consideration, but only if the price sits well with you.