Panasonic HC-V720 £493.99
3rd Apr 2013 | 08:50
Updated camcorder is big on features
When we looked at the Panasonic HC-V700 last year, it was obvious that the problem for camcorder makers at the moment is the same one that affects low-priced compact camera manufacturers: smartphones. When phones like the iPhone 5 and Samsung Galaxy S3 are capable of recording great 1080p footage, where does the camcorder industry turn?
The thing is, phones are really, really basic cameras, with little in the way of features. So Panasonic's sensible plan is to beat them on features. You might consider the phone a gateway video-recording drug, with the Panasonic HC-V720 what people will step up to once they're hooked.
The Panasonic HC-V720 is the successor to the Panasonic HC-V700, unsurprisingly. Those extra 20... er, somethings, get you a host of new features, but in terms of the camcorder's core competencies, things haven't changed as much.
It's got the same kind of 1/2.33 MOS sensor, albeit with a higher total megapixel count now - 17.52MP versus its predecessor's 14MP - and is priced at £493.99 / US$549.99 / AU$681.
Bizarrely, it actually takes still pictures up to 20.4 megapixels, so there's a bit of digital fudging going on there, as you might imagine. The lens is still wide-angle, though, giving you a different view to what you get from non-dedicated camcorders.
The Panasonic HC-V720 records in the same, slightly limited formats as before, too: you can record in 1080/50p, 1080/50i or 540/25p. There are no 720p options, which is only really a problem for the space conscious - with 1080/50p recording at a hefty bitrate of 28Mbps (Blu-ray is a maximum of 40Mbps, for comparison), you'll need some pretty large SD cards. SDHC and SDXC are supported, so you can indeed use some pretty large cards with it.
And the really important features of the Panasonic HC-V700 - the huge zoom and brilliant image stabilisation - are still here, with similarly minor updates.
The 21x optical zoom is the same, while the Intelligent Zoom enables you to go up to a 50x digital zoom without it getting all pixelated (the previous model could a 46x intelligent zoom, so you understand what we mean when we say "minor").
Panasonic has also made the sensor better in low light, but as we said before, it's actually outside of pure imagery that the bigger changes have been made. The standout addition is Wi-Fi, and some key features to make use of it.
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The Panasonic HC-V720 can stream video live to the internet using Ustream - you can use an Android/iOS app to turn your phone or tablet into a remote controller for the V720, complete with streamed live video and options for zooming and recording, and you can watch recorded videos back instantly.
Panasonic also suggests you can even connect to the V720 from outside your home to monitor it remotely, although you'd have to have left it pointing at a convenient angle. The streaming works well, too - there's a bit of a delay with the remote control, meaning that it's better for setting up still shots, but is still useful.
There are also some creative effects you can use, including Silent Movie, 8mm Movie, Time Lapse and our personal favourite, Miniature Effect, which is effectively a tilt-shift.
The audio's also had a boost, with sound now recorded in 5.1 surround sound. There's an indicator on the screen to tell you what direction sound is coming from, as well as the levels on each channel.
As is usually the case with consumer cameras, the built-in audio tends to be a bit basic, picking up wind and background noise quite severely. You can add an external microphone easily enough, especially with the optional shoe adaptor port, but an external mic won't give you the surround sound audio.
The image stabilisation is now complemented by an indicator as to whether your shot is level. Granted, most of the time you can tell this yourself by just looking at the screen, but it's still handy to be able to glance at if you're not paying full attention to the display, or if you want greater accuracy.
Speaking of the display, it's still a bright, clear touchscreen, capable of rotating through 270 degrees. It's fairly responsive to the touch, though some options are a little small. Actually, this is more than just a throwaway bit of fiddliness, because it starts to feel like it's holding you back as you get more confident using the Panasonic HC-V720.
There are manual controls for focus, for example, which is a big thing for those who want to step up to take more creative control - surely a key reason to spend £500 /US$550 / AU$680 on a camera - but they're hidden inside menus on the touchscreen, and when you find them, you're still stuck making focus tweaks on a touchscreen. It's not ideal.
There are some places where the Panasonic HC-V720's touchscreen controls are as obvious as they should be (tap the iA button to change whether you're using the excellent Intelligent Auto mode or want to choose a 'scene' mode, for example), but mostly it feels either needlessly complicated or like you're lacking information.
The tilt-shift options we mentioned before, for example, speed up the footage in the final videos (so in a cityscape, you'd get cars whizzing by, like you've filmed the opening to one of the many CSI shows). The only indicator of this is that the time count creeps up much slower than usual.
There are lots of features like this, where once you've realised how they work, or where they are, they're fine, but this video camera's not beginner-friendly.
The Wi-Fi setup in particular is one of the biggest crimes against good usability we've ever seen. It's obtuse and confusing, and even entering your router's password is comically fiddly.
The thing is, we get why Panasonic doesn't necessarily want to stick all these control options as physical buttons on the camcorder - it looks scary, for a start, and can be confusing to remember. But we can't help looking at all the unused plastic on the outside and thinking how much faster it would be to switch modes or fiddle with the focus with some extra controls.
While all of the Panasonic HC-V720's features make a compelling case for upgrading to a dedicated camcorder, the image quality is what really counts. And we have to say that we're a little disappointed by the Panasonic HC-V720, as we were by its predecessor.
The issue is really in the crispness of the images. It just isn't as good as what we'd want from a spending £500 / US$550 / AU$680 on a camcorder, even at 1080p.
There is, broadly speaker, lots of detail there, but it isn't as sharp as you'd hope. Of course, you might expect this if you're heavily zoomed in using the digital zoom, but it's the case all the time.
There's often quite a bit of noise, too, and colour banding, which is bonkers when you consider that it can record at up to 28Mbps - it's less crisp than an HD video download at a quarter of the bitrate.
We suspect the image sensor is the culprit, because the 1/2.33 sensor used here is roughly equivalent to what we'd expect to see in most lower to mid-range compact cameras.
The Panasonic HC-V720 has a good bundle of features that are very appealing, but a lack of sharpness and a little too much noise and colour banding lets its images down. We think this is due to the budget-standard image sensor in the camcorder.
Now, we're not not suggesting that we should be getting full frame DSLR sensors in a camcorder of this price, but with Panasonic's own Micro Four Thirds Lumix G3 selling for £350 / US$350 / AU$450, we feel like a bigger sensor shouldn't be out of the question.
It would be silly to ignore the things the Panasonic HC-V720 does well. First and foremost is the zoom and image stabilisation, both of which are absolutely outstanding. The Intelligent Zoom really can go all the way to 50x with very little degradation in image quality, despite it only being 21x optical.
Similarly, the stabilisation is near-immaculate, making handheld video look like a full on steadicam most of the time. The only time it's a bit iffy is when you're recording in wind, because then both your body and the camera start to resist any unwanted movement, causing overcompensation. It's minor, though, and just resting your arm on something will take it back to being nigh-on perfect.
And once again, motion is handled really well. There's some smearing when it gets too fast, but that's more or less unavoidable - it's still brilliantly smooth, so is great for sports and nature (especially recorded at 50 frames per second, so you can slow it down later).
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As far as still images go, we weren't too impressed, especially in normal indoor light. There was a huge amount of noise in the images, even with the flash on in an already well-lit room.
If you're spending around £500 / US$550 / AU$680 on something to take still images, we're sure it's no surprise that you'll get better results from something like the Canon PowerShot SX50 HS. The Panasonic HC-V720 just isn't a stills camera, and let's not pretend that it is.
The battery life in the camcorder is also no great shakes, but we wouldn't say it's bad either. We got something like an hour of constant use out of it from the provided battery, and the standby did a good job of prolonging it when not in use. For serious outdoors recording sessions, you'll need spare battery packs, but for a day of light sightseeing, you'll get by.
The important thing when considering whether to get the Panasonic HC-V720, then, isn't whether it'll give you vastly improved image quality in your video over what some cameras or the best smartphones will do. Sadly, it often won't.
But what it does is enable you to smoothly record footage that you couldn't get any other way: close-ups in sporting events; perfectly smooth tracking of a bird taking off; video from a boat that doesn't make people too seasick.
The Panasonic HC-V720 won't drastically improve shots of the kind of things you're already recording, but it will enable you to record whole new things.
Is that worth an almost £500 / US$550 / AU$680 outlay? We think the Panasonic camcorder could, and really should, offer stronger image quality for the money. But we couldn't have got the shots in our sample video without it, and for that, we think it'll still be thoroughly worth the investment for some people anyway.