A three-sensor, 1080p camcorder with 10.6-megapixel still-photo capability and a 12x optical zoom lens is something that's likely to pique the interest of many semi-professionals. Additional bonuses include 80GB of on-board storage and room for more via an SD/SDHC memory card slot. But can the Panasonic HDC-HS200 really justify its price tag of around £770?
Panasonic has, for many years, used a three-image sensor system to bolster picture quality in its higher-end consumer camcorders -- a trick once restricted to professional video equipment. The HDC-HS200 sees Panasonic swapping its usual CCD sensors for three 1/4.1-inch, high-resolution CMOS sensors, in a bid to improve image quality. Combined with the high-quality Leica Dicomar optics, the result is truly excellent video. Colours are deep and resonant but realistic, while levels of contrast are satisfying and detail is razor-sharp.
The HDC-HS200 also performs remarkably well in interior lighting conditions, retaining plenty of detail and colour fidelity without introducing too much grain. This camcorder handles motion well, too, partly thanks to the advanced optical image stabiliser employed to keep things steady.
Fast-reacting automatic functions (exposure and focus, for example) ensure that point-and-shoot users are rarely left with an unsightly blur. An 'intelligent auto' feature, meanwhile, cleverly switches to an appropriate exposure mode depending on what you point the lens at. Manual controls, should you wish to use them, are also available via the pleasantly simple and intuitive touchscreen interface.
Still photographs can be taken either during filming or in the dedicated photo mode. A number of picture sizes and ratios are available, although the highest-quality settings can only be selected when in photo mode. Interpolation helps boost the HDC-HS200's native resolution to 10.6-megapixels and the results aren't too far from those you might expect from a stand-alone digital camera.
Given that it features a whopping 80GB built-in hard drive, it's no surprise that the HDC-HS200 is on the bulky side. It's not massive or particularly uncomfortable to use, but it's certainly chubbier and heavier than many models that only use memory cards.
Oddly, the HDC-HS200 is completely incapable of recording standard-definition video. That's a sign of the times perhaps, but, nonetheless, it's slightly annoying if you're running out of storage space or want to make a low-resolution video for YouTube.
More of a potential deal-breaker for enthusiasts and semi-professionals, though, is the fact that most of the HDC-HS200's features (such as the aforementioned intelligent auto mode, for example) are suited to casual, rather than advanced, users.
A number of disappointing design choices and feature omissions may further alienate the target market. The top-mounted 5.1-channel microphone, for example, points upwards and isn't ideally placed for capturing decent audio, particularly if you're filming outside on a windy day. There's no external microphone socket either, which means it's almost impossible to record high-quality audio. Not only that, but there's no headphone socket, manual focus ring, viewfinder or accessory shoe.
These omissions, while acceptable in a lower-end unit, will almost certainly make semi-professionals think twice. The fact that most of the missing features are included on the model up from this one, the HDC-HS300, for roughly £130 more makes us wonder about the HDC-HS200's relevance.
Excellent picture quality aside, it's hard to see quite who the Panasonic HDC-HS200 will appeal to. Those tempted by the high-end performance might well be put off by the missing high-end features, while casual users will undoubtedly be put off by the high-end cost. It's a shame, as the HDC-HS200 is very nearly a great camcorder.
Edited by Charles Kloet