Panasonic HX-WA10 £250
3rd Jun 2011 | 10:09
Will waterproofing and Full HD recording combine to make the ultimate consumer camcorder?
Panasonic HX-WA10 review: Overview and Features
The snappily titled HX-WA10 is one of Panasonic's first forays into pistol-style camcorders. These were once Sanyo's bread and butter as part of its Xacti line, but the company was bought by Panasonic several years ago, resulting in the HX-WA10 and its brothers, the HX-DC10 and HX-DC1.
The WA10 is the top of the range, offering a 16-megapixel backside-illuminated sensor capable of recording 1080p footage, all in a waterproof exterior. The DC10 is identical save for its lack of waterproofing, while the DC1 has a 14MP non-backside-illuminated sensor.
Backside-illuminated sensors are hot stuff at the moment thanks to their inclusion in the iPhone 4 and Sony Ericsson Xperia Arc. The reason the technology is so popular is that it should provide improved recording in low-light situations - especially indoors.The WA10 offers a tempting selection of recording formats: 1080/60i, 1080/30p, 720/60p, 720/30p, 540/30p and 480/30p.
Movies are recording as H.264 MP4 files, with audio in two-channel AAC. This is all complemented by electronic image stabilisation (EIS) and a slightly complicated zoom.
The actual optical zoom is 5x, but Panasonic's Advanced Zoom can take this to 12x with no drop in image quality (though only at 30p). We have to say that we didn't even realise it wasn't straight-up optical zoom the whole way at first, so it's obviously doing its job. There's also a further digital zoom, but that comes with the expected loss of detail.
You can monitor and play your recordings back on the 2.6-inch LCD screen (230,400 dots, for those curious). The DC10 and DC1 both have three-inch screen, with the same resolution. The screen isn't quite capable of rotating through 360 degrees, but it's close enough for most use.
The screen darkens quickly when viewed from a high angle, and can be quite reflective, but if you adjust it so that you're viewing straight on, it's smooth detailed and bright.
One of the big features Panasonic has brought to the party is its intelligent auto (iA) processing system, along with live facial recognition technology, which should mean you won't need to go tinkering with any settings to get an ideal picture.
In a normal, well-lit scene, iA will assess all of the best options for you, and tweak as you go. Throw a person into the mix and you'll see boxes over their faces on the screen, and the WA10 will adjust the scene to keep them in the best exposure and focus it can. Go to somewhere dark, and the iA symbol switches to a candle, and it'll start optimising for low-light conditions.
Setting certain picture modes turns iA off by default, and it doesn't come back on automatically, annoyingly. It only requires one button press, though, which is placed conveniently under your thumb.
Just above the iA buttons are the main controls. Here you have your all-important record button, as well as a button for instantly taking a still picture, and a zoom rocker. Because of their waterproof nature, they all feel a little soft when you press them. This actually works in the zoom rocker's favour, though it's not ideal for the others.
However, that's just nit-picking - the buttons are still easy to press, and you'll know if you've pressed them of not because the light will come on.
We're less forgiving of the menu controls on the side of the WA10, though. They're responsive enough, but the arrow keys can be quite fiddly for those with larger digits - you'll be much better off if you've got longer nails.
The thing is, that's not their biggest problem. They inevitably face at a right-angle from the screen, so you can can either look where your fingers are, or look at the options on screen. This will mean a lot of accidental wrong selections. There's nothing can be done and it's not a catastrophic flaw, but it's an irritant owners will have to get used to.
From these menu keys, you can access the WA10's many options. Many of the features we've already mentioned can be turned off or tweaked, and there are scene and colour modes to be tested. You can even opt for manual focus, but since this is adjusted with the menu arrow keys, we don't think you'll make much use of it.
The WA10 takes SD/SDHC/SDXC cards and offers video-out over mini-HDMI (cable not included) or with an AV cable (included). You can get your videos off the device using the USB port.
You can pick the WA10 up for around £250 at the time of writing.
Panasonic HX-WA10 review: Performance
Although the Panasonic HX-WA10 offers several recording modes, what we're really interested in is the 1080/30p and 720/60p modes. Good progressive 1080p recording is still hard to come by on consumer camcorders, while any kind of high-speed option is something we're very keen to explore at this price.
We won't waste any time here; on balance, the video quality of the WA10 is strong. It has weaker parts - which we'll come to - but when it's good, it's really very good.
The first point to mention is that 1080p video in smaller, consumer-level devices is still hampered by the size of image sensors. It's so tempting to assume that you're going to get the kind of video sharpness you see in HD films or TV. You aren't.
Without using a much large, heavier (and far, far more expensive) device with a bigger sensor, 1080p footage is going to look a little softer than the HD footage we're used to from other sources.
This is true of the WA10, particularly in shots with lots of trees in the background; the definition in the leaves just isn't as crisp as you might hope. It's not bad for a consumer device by any means, but it's a reminder that video is a delicate balance.
That's not to say that all footage at 1080p looks too soft. Overall, we were quite impressed with what it could do, and there are plenty of shots of the golf course's turf that show lots of detail and texture. In particular, look out for the close-up shots of the holes, where the scratches and mud look impressively true-to-life.
What really recommends the WA10, though, is how it handles movement.
Even at 30fps (we'll come to the 60fps recording later), motion is handled stunningly well. In our videos, the fast movement of the golf balls is handled stunningly. Going through frame by frame shows a totally normal amount of motion blur and, crucially, an impressive lack of artefacting.
Inspect closely and you can actually spot some digital artefacts around a rolling ball, but it's a very small amount and is confined to either within the ball's motion blur or its shadow, where you can't really spot it at all unless you're looking for it. The 1080p video has a nice high bitrate of 15-16Mbps, which no doubt helps.
That said, we did find several points where, after analysing some scenes side-by-side at their native sizes, we thought the 720p video appeared a little more crisp than its 1080p counterpart. This was particularly evident in the running stream.
However, there were plenty of other times that the 1080p footage was better than the 720p footage. Most crucially of all, when you scale the 720p video up to 1080p, it's not even a contest. Every aspect of the frame is clearer and more detailed in the 1080p footage.
The iA system also worked extremely well, as did facial recognition. It generally made skin tones look quite natural, and the WA10's recording of our golf game on a slightly drab, overcast day has some quite accurate colours. Many of the shots also don't look all that deep, but the overcast lighting will have played a huge part there.
Our only concern is that there can be a lot of quivering of the picture if you're trying to hold the WA10 steady yourself. Obviously, hand-shake is a culprit, but the image stabilisation seems to be also contributing in a way that can produce some odd results.
It's not something you'll notice that often - investing in a tripod means you should be able to comfortably eradicate it, and it's not really evident while panning - but it is there.
The low-light shooting does a good job of trying to improve things, but it's still clear that a bit more light helps hugely. In the first pan of this video, you can see everything well enough, but in the second pan - where we added a bright light just above - you can see far more texture on the aluminium and detail in the keys.
As we said, having a (relatively) high-speed filming option on the WA10 really got us excited. It's uncommon for this level of camcorder to have anything higher than 30fps, so a bit of 60fps action is very welcome.
Two things to note are that the 60fps options is only available at 720p, and that it disables the Advanced Zoom, so you're restricted to 5x, rather than 12x.
Now, we've already said that the WA10 handles motion well at 30fps, so it won't come as a surprise that the way it records movement at 60fps is sublime.
Originally, we'd only planned to do a quick test of the camera underwater (we'll cover the waterproofing at the end of this section), but when we saw how good the underwater footage looked when played back at half-speed, we had to immediately go back and do some more.
While we were always impressed with the WA10 before trying it underwater, but not blown away by it, its performance both submerged and in slow motion converted us totally. The underwater footage looks fantastic, with as much detail on show as above water in every aspect - bubbles are picked out perfectly, and edges are crisp and brilliantly defined.
Importantly, the camera also survived its trip into our little pool totally unharmed. We had the screen folded out and played with the controls, and everything worked fine. The screen was fairly visible in the water, but that always going to be slightly dependent upon the conditions you're in.
While we couldn't test the WA10 down to its rated three metres, we did have it in the water for up to 20 minutes at a time without incident.
While we're talking about the design, though, we will say that the pistol grip might not be for everyone. It's hard to hold it as steady as a standard camcorder design, and we found the WA10's grip to be a little thin. If it were a bit chunkier, it would be easier to hold steady.
The battery life is quite good, lasting for a day of on and off shooting easily. On holiday you'll need a reliable way to charge it at night, but it's good for a day out.
Panasonic HX-WA10 review: Verdict
Although the pistol-style camcorder isn't to everyone's taste, we're glad to see it being given new life under Panasonic's banner. The HX-WA10's waterproofing sets it apart from the other options, aiming to offer a reasonably high-quality underwater camcorder.
Under the right conditions, you can get some really great video out of the WA10. It handles motion well at 1080p, there's a minimum of artefacting and there's a noticeable bump in detail going from 720p to 1080p.
The 60fps mode is also a brilliant addition for the price, offering the chance to really have some fun with the camera. The same is true for the waterproofing, and we were massively impressed with the quality of footage taken while submerged. The iA and face tracking work incredibly well, making it easy to get great shots.
There are some niggles with the video quality we need to point out, including the odd wobble while it tries to stabilise your hand's shake. It suffers from the perennial problem that consumer camcorders have, where wide shots can appear a bit soft because the sensor is simply too small.
We wish the grip was a little chunkier too, since it would be easier to hold, and the position of the controls at a right-angle to the screen is terrible ergonomically.
Overall, we're mightily impressed by the HX-WA10. You're paying something of a premium for the waterproofing features, but we'd say they're worth it. It's safe underwater, it's easy to use and it produces some excellent video. We do recommend investing in a tripod to go with it, but as a fairly small, reasonably light consumer camera, it's absolutely worth your time.