The Panasonic HDC-TM40 is a highly compact camcorder with onboard storage at a competitive price point. Running you only $399.99 (MSRP), the TM40 is not without its share of drawbacks, but it's a good entry-level camcorder with better performance than the low price tag would imply.
Capable of shooting HD video at 1920 x 1080 (60i), the TM40 sports Panasonic's token Intelligent Auto shooting mode, Optical Image Stabilization (OIS), and shoots 2.1-megapixel stills. For those looking to find out more about this affordable and low-profile camcorder, read on.
BUILD AND DESIGN
The HDC-TM40 is one of a two-camera line, the other being the HDC-SD40, with the primary difference between the two being that the TM40 possesses 16GB of flash storage. This is a most welcome feature, as built-in storage is always convenient. Sweetening the deal is the fact that it is flash storage, thus eliminating any concerns about the added weight that often comes with HDD storage in camcorders.
Indeed, the TM40 is exceptionally light, weighing in at only 169 grams (0.37 pounds) without the battery. Measuring 2.03 x 2.26 x 4.27 inches, the TM40 has a very compact form factor that reminds me very much of the Panasonic HDC-SD80, which we previously reviewed. The combination of small size and incredibly light weight makes for one of the most attractive features of the TM40.
The setup of the buttons and controls are pretty standard and sensible, with the record button located on the back end of the camera (along with the battery) and with the zoom controls, quick photo button, and playback/shoot switch located on the top of the camera.
On the front, of course, is the lens, which has a manual shutter (the switch is located on the right side towards the front of the camera), along with the built-in microphone and light.
The right side of the camera is devoid of any buttons or features, save for the DC in and Velcro hand strap, while the bottom only features a quarter-inch tripod mount.
The rest of the controls are found on the left side behind the flip-out 2.7-inch LCD screen, including switches for Intelligent Auto/manual, OIS, light/delete, and power. Ports for mini HDMI, USB, AV, and SD cards are also found here.
Ergonomics and Controls
For someone like me -- in other words, someone with miniscule hands -- the form factor of the TM40 is a dream. It's very compact and lightweight, with a slight curvature in the frame on the right side where your hand slips under the Velcro strap. I find it very comfortable to hold.
The buttons and controls are, for the most part, well-placed and within reach; the record button on the back can be easily pressed with your thumb, and the zoom can be adjusted with your fingers that rest on the top of the camera. The manual lens cover is probably the only exception, the switch for which not only feels a bit antiquated, but is also miniscule and located in an inconvenient position near the front of the camera on the edge of the lens frame. I can sort of flip it with my pinky, but not comfortably since it has some resistance when being pushed up or down. It's nothing major, it's just a little bit of a hassle to have to reach around with your other hand to flip the tiny switch.
Though the TM40 does not sport a touchscreen, I think this is probably for the best as the 2.7-inch screen would probably be a little small to comfortably use touchscreen controls. That being said, I don't think Panasonic implemented the most graceful alternative, providing users with a four-way directional pad with miniscule buttons in addition to Enter and Menu buttons. They're quite small and hardly raised, so using them isn't terribly comfortable either, but the touchscreen probably would have been worse.
Menus and Modes
Per Panasonic's typical setup, the menus are broken down into record setup, picture setup, camera set up (for options like date, time, display brightness, etc.), and media select (since this model can record on either built-in or card storage).
Instead of the information icon that is found on some of the other Panasonic models -- which explains some of the more complicated jargon and options found in the menus when the user taps on it -- an explanation of the highlighted feature is automatically scrolled along the bottom of the screen. I think this was a particularly smart and user-friendly move, one that makes it about as easy as humanly possible for users to decipher some of the language in the menus.
For the most part, new users who are planning on utilizing the Intelligent Auto setting (which automatically adjusts certain shooting elements like white balance, focus, and shutter speed) will probably have little reason to sift through the menus. For those who want to get their hands dirty, though, the breakdown of the video menu is as follows:
The picture settings menu is far more brief, consisting of only:
The manual controls for video shooting offer a few more options, albeit in a rather clunky manner; in order to utilize the manual controls, you have to scroll through five pages of on-screen options, which are navigated and selected using the arrow keys. On a screen so small and with some of the settings getting a bit complicated as you engage and modify the various options, it's easy to get tripped up while navigating the menu.
The options that the manual controls grant you include a telemacro mode, guidelines, pre-record settings, fade, backlight compensation, soft skin mode, intelligent contrast, and color night record. Other features include:
It's to be expected that with such a diminutive size, the TM40 sports a relatively smaller LCD screen, which is 2.7 inches wide. Some people, my editor included, feel that three inches is the minimum threshold for camcorder screens, but I don't mind the loss of 0.3 inches here, especially since it means I can subsequently hold a slightly smaller device. As mentioned, the display is not a touchscreen, a responsible decision on Panasonic's part that saves me the embarrassment of pressing the wrong on-screen buttons with my chubby fingers.
The screen is 230,400 dots, looking decently sharp, and handles glare respectably. For better or for worse, the screen reliably depicts the video that you're shooting, revealing shooting elements like the camera's tendency to rapidly adjust the white balance on the fly. And for the especially finicky types, brightness and color settings for the screen can be tinkered with in the menus.
The TM40 has a pretty stock set of features when it comes to shooting, including an auto focus option, which works quite well. Other standard features like auto exposure and face framing are also present here, but don't expect any revolutionary options.
Despite the small and lightweight battery pack, the battery life of the TM40 is great. After having the camera for a little over a week, during which it was probably on (either in standby, playback, or shooting) for a total of two hours and change -- I shot about 6 or 7 videos at an average length of 2 minutes apiece, along with a couple dozen photos -- I was still left with two bars remaining in the on-screen meter. The 1790 mAh battery back in the TM40 is nothing to sneeze at, and allows the camera to be ultra portable without sacrificing longevity.
Shooting is extremely user friendly, as the TM40 features Panasonic's Intelligent Auto setting, which is basically a dummy mode that handles important aspects like focus, exposure, and white balance for you. For the most part, Intelligent Auto makes for some easy recording with solid video quality.
The one issue I have with the automatic shooting assistance is the white balance, which is remarkably and uncomfortably evident as it adjusts on the fly. Colors drastically shift and change as various definitions of "white" come in and out of the shot; even shooting in my cubicle, I could see that the walls looked white until I got my computer screen in the picture and the whites were picked up from that. At the point, the previously-white walls of my cubicle noticeably warped into a yellow-brown color as the camera adjusted to the whites on the screen, a transition that did not happen smoothly and was so vastly different than the original that it was quite unsettling.
The optical 16.8x zoom on the TM40 looks fine, but in the grand scheme of things, it's not very long. Even the SD80, which has roughly the same form factor, was packing a 37x optical zoom; I would have liked to see something slightly longer from the TM40. Unfortunately, this particular camcorder is not equipped with Panasonic's excellent Intelligent Zoom to help maintain quality while adding a view more Xs, instead only offering 50x and 100x digital zoom capabilities.
The TM40 does have Optical Image Stabilization (OIS), which performs well as always. Used to keep shots steady, the OIS is most useful when used in conjunction with the zoom, allowing you to take steady far-off shots with minimal blur and shakiness.
Video, Audio, and Still Quality
The TM40 is equipped with a 1.5-megapixel, 1/5.8-inch MOS sensor. Shooting in AVCHD, the maximum resolution is 1920 x 1080/60i and it looks pretty good, especially when viewed via HDMI on a larger screen (the computer I use typically has trouble with the AVCHD video and quality tends to suffer). Low light situations are handled very well, but the colors tend to be a little muted, as the overall video occasionally appears grayish and flat.
The quality of the TM40's onboard mic is actually not bad at all, though it does not have zoom mic capabilities. No major loss, in my opinion, as I have failed to detect any noticeable performance from zoom mics on other Panasonic models. But if you're looking to plug in something a little more advanced, you're out of luck as the camera does not have an external mic jack.
As was expected, the photo quality of the TM40 is mediocre at best. Colors are bland, the photos are always dark (regardless of lighting), and nothing looks particularly sharp; with a maximum still resolution of 2.1 megapixels, I wasn't really expecting much out of it anyway. It is worth noting that the TM40 does not have a dedicated photo mode, though; rather, stills are just taken by pressing the photo button while in video mode.
Operation and Extras
In the box with the TM40 is an AC adapter and cable, AV cables, a USB cable for file transfer, a user's manual, and a CD containing Panasonic's HD Writer LE 1.0 software. Not-so-mysteriously absent is an HDMI cable, which is a rarely included with camcorders these days, but is still an annoying omission nonetheless.
For all you Mac users out there, the TM40 is capable of shooting in iFrame in addition to its AVCHD format. For the Windows users that are using their PCs to manage the AVCHD files, the included software will be necessary to import the files without them becoming corrupted, in a manner of speaking. Doing a straight drag and drop of the MTS2 files shot by the camera and then playing them on the computer causes them to develop a "window shade" effect in which lines and screen tearing abound.
Thankfully, the included software is as user-friendly as always, being both incredibly straightforward and bare bones. It's good for little more than light editing and extracting the files, but it gets the job done.
For what it is and at such a low price point, the Panasonic HDC-TM40 is a great little camera. Though it's short on features (namely Intelligent Zoom, a touchscreen, and a mic jack), it shoots good quality video and has a very comfortable, compact, and lightweight form factor. Tack on some good battery life and you've got a camera that's ready for on-the-go shooting for extended periods of time.
There are certainly other drawbacks to this camcorder, like the shallow optical zoom and the still shots that look like garbage. But as long as consumers buy the TM40 knowing what to expect -- an affordable, user-friendly camcorder that comes in a small package -- I think they will walk away satisfied with their purchase.