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Panasonic HDC-TM700 HD Camcorder Review
by Jamison Cush -  5/11/2010

I’ve been excited about the Panasonic HDC-TM700 since its debut at PMA 2010. Panasonic set the bar high last year with the excellent HDC-TM300, so as its follow-up HD camcorder, I expected the TM700 to have even better performance and more exciting new features.

Photo by Kimberly Hallen

On paper, Panasonic didn’t disappoint by including Intelligent Resolution technology (digital zoom with optical zoom quality), facial recognition, 35mm wide-angle Leica lens, 3-inch LCD screen, and 1080p at 60 frames per second (fps) recording mode.


I tested the Panasonic TM700 to find out if it’s as impressive in practice. More importantly, I explored whether Panasonic’s flagship camcorder is worth its $1,000 MSRP.


BUILD AND DESIGN
There are two models in the Panasonic 700 series, the TM700 and HS700, and the only difference between them is a whopping 240GB hard drive on the more expensive HS700. The TM700 has 32 GB of on-board flash memory. Despite the HS700 hard drive’s added heft, the devices perform the same. For the review, I’ll be using the TM700. 

The TM700 measures 2.59 x 2.71 x 5.43 inches and weighs a little less than 1 pound with its removable battery attached. It doesn’t deviate from the traditional consumer camcorder design and features a large lens area in the front with a flash, recording lamp and AF assist light, all encircled by a manual lens ring. On the back of the TM700 are the removable battery (the DC input resides behind it), a slide-out viewfinder and corrector dial (for focusing the viewfinder display) and the record start/stop button.

HDC-TM700

Photo by Kimberly Hallen

The palm side of the device houses the Velcro grip strap, mode dial, covered accessory shoe adapter mount, and covered external microphone and headphone terminals. Opposite the palm side is the 3-inch LCD screen and camera function button. Flip out the LCD to reveal the power button, 1080/60p mode button, and covered access to the AV and mini-HDMI connectors, USB terminal and SD card slot. The on-board microphone, zoom toggle, stills button, optical image stabilizer (OIS) button, and Intelligent Auto/manual button are all on the top. Finally, the tripod mount is on the bottom of the TM700. 

The TM700 has Panasonic’s 3MOS sensor system, which is three 1/4.1-inch CMOS sensors, each registering 3.05 megapixels for a total of 9.15 megapixels. According to Panasonic each sensor deals with one of the primary colors - red, blue and green - and it “reduces light loss compared to the 1MOS sensor, and renders colors, details and gradation all with intricate detail and natural beauty.”

Ergonomics and Controls
Everything on the TM700 is nicely spaced to avoid button clutter. It simply looks professional, due also in part to the dark grey and black color tones and fingerprint-proof textured plastic and brushed aluminum shell. It’s also very ergonomic; I had no problem holding it for hours or accessing any of the buttons or dials while shooting. The top-mounted mic could present issues for those with long digits who might accidentally brush against it while recording, but I didn’t have trouble with it.

I especially liked the added Intelligent Auto/manual button and OIS button on the TM700 body. When Intelligent Auto is activated, it recognizes the scene and selects the most suitable shooting mode (nighttime, portrait, spotlight, macro, etc.) for the HD camcorder. The TM700 does an impressive job choosing the appropriate setting and is great for beginners not yet comfortable with manual controls, especially with its easy button access. The same goes for the OIS. Some recording situations turn bumpy fast, and having the option to turn it off and on quickly is a nice touch.

The only gripe I have with the design is that the DC input is hidden underneath the battery. In addition, you can’t charge the battery while it’s attached; you have to remove the battery and charge it in an external adapter. The DC line also runs through the adapter. For some reason, you can’t power the TM700 via the DC adapter and charge the battery simultaneously. It’s a minor nuisance at worst, but it slightly mars the otherwise excellent TM700 build.

Menus and Modes
The TM700 offers comprehensive picture controls and shooting options, all accessed by hitting the menu button just below the 3-inch LCD. There is also a quick menu option for speedy access to basic controls, but new users will want to familiarize themselves with the basic menu first.

For recording with Intelligent Auto activated, that includes:

The recording mode menu doubles with options when the TM700 is set to manual mode, offering a host of controls for grizzled video vets, including white balance, exposure, aperture, shutter speed and audio levels. For beginners looking to learn manual controls, Panasonic included a handy “information” option that gives explanations for each menu item. There are also additional help options available, including “Zebra” that indicates overexposed areas in the display; “MF Assist” that highlights the focused object; and “Luminance” that shows light level as a percentage.

The TM700 offers five HD recording modes. There is the very special 1080/60p that can only be accessed by pressing the dedicated button and four sets of 1080/60i, each at a different transfer rate for varying file sizes. There is also a “Digital Cinema Mode” offering film-like 24fps, and that can be accessed as a separate menu option. There are no 720 or standard definition resolutions available on the TM700, but clips can be downgraded with the TM700’s packaged software.

Two features of note are time lapse recording and facial recognition. Time lapse is extremely fun. You can set the TM700 to shoot a frame every second, 30 seconds, one minute or two minutes. It certainly makes my morning trip to work on the Massachusetts Turnpike appear much more exciting.

Facial recognition – not to be confused with face detection, which the TM700 also has – is new on the TM700. It allows users to input and label up to six faces, which the device will recognize, prioritize with focus and exposure, and track each time the faces appear in frame. It works – for the most part. I got it to recognize my John Locke from “Lost” action figure (below), which was impressive, and it picked up my face when I placed older photos in frame. But it was ultimately finicky and had trouble recognizing faces at angles or in challenging lighting conditions. The TM700 allows you to input up to three different “faces” per person, covering different expressions, angles and lighting conditions. But it’s still a new and imperfect technology, one that I expect Panasonic will refine with future devices.

John Locke Facial Recognition

For stills, the TM700 offers a handful of options, including:

There are also multiple settings options covering everything from the internal clock and language to television playback resolution and power settings.

Display
Almost all menu controls are accessed through the TM700’s 3-inch, 230,400 pixel, LCD touchscreen. LCD screens are notoriously difficult to see in bright sunlight, and Panasonic included plenty of display controls to take the edge off any glare. 


Photo by Kimberly Hallen

At 3.0 inches, the TM700 screen feels cramped, especially with all the information icons lining the edges and corners. Even though it’s responsive, the small size makes it difficult to select the proper menu item with a touch. The TM700 comes packaged with a stylus for this very reason, but a larger screen would be more helpful. Other HD camcorders in the TM700’s class sport a 3.5-inch touchscreen, which I think is a perfect size for this device, even if it means increasing its bulk.

Underneath the touchscreen but still on the display frame are six buttons to bring up the menu and quick menu, trash footage, record, and control the zoom/volume/playback display (same functions as the zoom toggle on the top of the camcorder). Most of these buttons also exist elsewhere on the device, which is good. On the display, they are small and difficult to press. Try pushing one while recording and it will probably show up as a bump in your footage. The TM700 also features a slide-out electronic viewfinder with a dedicated diopter adjustment ring. While it’s not as ergonomic as viewfinders found on higher-end camcorders, it’s a nice professional touch.

PERFORMANCE
Shooting with the TM700 made me feel like a real video pro. The manual controls and camera features give the consumer-class device a professional sheen. I especially liked the lens ring; it had just the right amount of sensitivity for fine-tuning and slow zooming. Users can select the lens ring setting by pressing the camera function button on the LCD side of the device. The lens ring defaults to zoom control when the TM700 is set to Intelligent Auto.

Shooting Performance
The TM700 has two OIS settings, standard for run-of-the-mill camera shaking and active mode for bigger bumps. Both work extremely well to reduce video jitters. As I mentioned before, the Intelligent Auto system does an admirable job of accurately gauging shooting conditions and adjusting exposure and white balance accordingly. If it’s off, changing the scene setting only requires a few menu clicks. You can also manually adjust white balance (shifting to warmer or cooler), iris, shutter speed and focus through the lens ring. The 12x zoom impressed too, both with the quick zoom of the toggle and slow zoom of the lens ring.

Panasonic reps were very excited about the new 18x “Intelligent Zoom” feature, which is a digital zoom with the image prettied up to look optical. And for good reason - it works. Check out the stills captured from two clips, first the 12x optical zoom:

12x Optical Zoom

I then moved the camera back a few feet and zoomed in using the 18x Intelligent Zoom:

18x Intelligent Zoom

Without knowing better, I would have believed the TM700 had an 18x optical zoom. I hope Panasonic continues to develop the technology for even deeper “intelligent zooms.”

I have no complaints about the TM700’s auto focus or auto exposure and definitely like the AF/AE Tracking feature. By simply touching an area or moving object (person or pet) on the touchscreen, the TM700 will lock in and adjust the focus and exposure to the object as it or the camera moves. As long as it’s in frame, it will stay in focus.

When shooting, the TM700 flashed a warning on the display claiming “Camera Panning Too Fast” whenever I zipped it from side to side. The warning does not appear on clips, but what it’s trying to prevent does: skewing. Having a CMOS sensor - or in the this case, three CMOS sensors - means the TM700 is prone to skewing or the rolling shutter effect. I tip my hat to Panasonic for including the warning to minimize the problem.

The accessory shoe is located on the side of the device and requires a slide-in adapter (included). At first, it seems like odd placement, but I assume it’s on the side to avoid interfering with the top-mounted on-board microphone. It’s also cold, which means it provides no power.

The on-board 32 GB memory space is good for about 2 hours and 40 minutes of 1080/60p recording and a little more than four hours at the next highest video setting. The TM700 is also SDXC compatible, so you can currently expand the memory by 64 GB (though SDXC cards will soon reach 2TB capacity), provided you want to spend the money for a card. The battery lasted for roughly 1 hour and 45 minutes of continuous shooting.

Video Quality
The 1080/60p footage looks amazing. The action is smooth as silk, sharp as a tack and free of digital artifacts. There is noticeable saturation with some of the more vivid colors, which might turn off some videophiles. Nevertheless, I like a touch of saturation in my clips and I think the colors look great.

Switch to 1080/60i and the video predictably loses a bit of its smoothness and sharpness, and digital artifacts creep in. It still looks great and is some of the best looking video I’ve seen from an HD camcorder, but 1080/60p blows it away. In low light settings, the TM700 also impressed with minimal noise and decent color and sharpness.

While footage looks great on the TM700 LCD or streamed over HDMI to an HDTV, things get messy when importing to an underpowered PC, especially with 1080/60p (28Mbps) footage. Some media players also have trouble with the TM700’s AVCHD codec. I want to be clear that this isn’t a knock on the TM700, just be aware that anything less than a top-of-the-line PC will potentially have trouble dealing with the highest resolution footage.

Sound
The TM700 on-board mic records 5.1 surround sound, but can be set to simple two-channel stereo. It boasts a host of features, including a wind noise canceller and controls for audio levels and bass settings. There is also a “focus mic” feature that boosts audio levels in conjunction with the zoom, increasing the mic’s sensitivity to pick up sounds from far away sources.

As with any high-end device, the TM700 has both a dedicated external mic and headphone jack. Overall, the TM700 has an impressive set of audio features that complement the video quality nicely.

Stills Quality
The TM700 can take 14.2 megapixel JPEG stills, but only through interpolation. The actual megapixel count is 9.15, which is still impressive. You can choose among 16:9, 4:3 and 3:2 aspect ratios and the TM700 has both a timer and smile detection. You can also grab 13.3 megapixel screenshots in video mode and from the footage using the packaged software.

I had high expectations for the TM700 photos because of the device’s Leica Dicomar Lens, and I wasn’t disappointed. I’ve often described camcorder stills as being “just above cell phone quality,” and I’ll call TM700 stills “just below mid-range point-and-shoot.”

Sample Images

Operation and Extras
The TM700 comes packaged with a lens hood, shoe adapter, battery charger, remote control, USB cable, component cable, HD Writer AE software, comprehensive product manual and a round touchscreen stylus. What’s missing? The HDMI cable, of course! Everything else is standard with most camcorders with the exception of the lens hood. It’s a nice extra, but I would have preferred an HDMI cable.

The HD Writer AE software is only Windows compatible, but Mac fans can use iMovie to extract videos as you can’t simply drag and drop files from the TM700 to your computer. The proprietary software is predictably clunky and lame, though it does offer a handful of basic editing controls for cutting clips and adding titles. According to AV forum chatter in May 2010, iMovie has issues with the 1080/60p footage, and may not be able to extract it. I can’t confirm this, but it is worth investigating if you are using an Apple computer.

Extracted video takes the form of an M2TS file, similar to both Canon and Sony camcorder output.

CONCLUSIONS
Simply put, I love what Panasonic has done with the TM700 because it has appeal for different levels of videographer. For pros and videophiles, there are comprehensive manual controls and features. For novices, the TM700 is still accessible with Intelligent Auto and picture control guides. Add fun features like facial recognition and time lapse as well as some of the best video quality I’ve seen and the TM700 seems like a bargain at its $1,000 launch price.


However, there is still room for improvement. I would like to see a larger LCD, more accessible DC input and an HDMI cable included, but these quibbles are minor when compared with everything the TM700 does right.

Bravo Panasonic! Your TM700 earns a coveted “Editor’s Choice” award!

Pros

Cons