Perhaps you're a closet Kubrick. Maybe you like to drive a manual rather than an automatic? Or perhaps you just have to have the best of the best, even if that means paying a rather large sum of money for the privilege. In any of these cases, the Panasonic HDC-HS700 camcorder should be at the top of your wish list. It costs a frankly alarming amount of cash (£840), but your investment will get you one of the finest consumer video products money can buy.
Okay, let's quickly get all the bad things out of the way first. The Panasonic HDC-HS700 is quite heavy and very expensive. There, that wasn't too hard, was it?
In fact, even the weight aspect isn't that much of a negative issue. Sure, 450g is certainly much heavier than the average modern camcorder, but the HS700 is solidly built and not overbalanced in any way. It's actually very comfortable to hold and, if anything, the extra weight helps to reduce shakiness during recording. On the flip side, you won't be slipping this one snugly into your pocket anytime soon, unless you happen to be endowed with unfeasibly large pockets, of course. As for the other bad thing -- well, you'll need pretty deep pockets for that too.
The HS700 is the jewel in Panasonic's camcorder crown -- or at least it was until the pesky 3D-capable HDC-SDT750 came along and usurped it. For those who are happy to stick with two dimensions, however, the HS700 has a spec list that would give even the most high-functioning of camcorders deep inadequacy issues.
At the front end, you'll find a high-quality wide-angle Leica Dicomar lens. Somewhere in the HS700's innards lurk three of Panasonic's 1/4-inch MOS image sensors, providing a total of 9 million pixels between them to play with. The camcorder offers two types of filming mode. 'Normal' video can be recorded at 1080i, 50 frames per second (fps) in AVCHD-standard high definition, with a top bit rate of 17Mbps.
Pressing a button on the side of the unit sets the device to a completely separate video mode that can deliver 1080p recordings at 50fps with a bit rate of 28Mbps. The reason you can't just select the 1080p mode from the normal picture-settings menu is that, while Panasonic's implementation of progressive 1080-line/50fps video is based on the AVCHD specification, it effectively exceeds the limitations imposed by the AVCHD standard, and is therefore not truly compliant with it. What this means in practical terms is that you might run into compatibility problems if you try to play back raw HS700 1080p files on other AVCHD devices. Play the files straight off the camera or edit them first and you should be fine.
The icing on the cake for many enthusiasts will be the HS700's manual options. Not only are there lots of settings to choose from, they're also supremely easy to access and manipulate due to the combination of the touchscreen and lens-ring controls. With a couple of button presses, it's possible to take precise control over focus, shutter, iris, and more using the lens ring. Models like Canon's Legria HF S21 provide a similar option in the shape of a separate manual dial that sits just under the lens. But for anybody who's ever used an SLR or a professional video or film camera, 'proper' lens-ring control just feels so right.
Sprinkled on top of all that, you have yet more high-end goodness in the shape of built-in Dolby 5.1-channel audio recording, external microphone input, headphone monitoring, a 12x optical zoom, 14-megapixel still photos, HDMI output, a highly effective optical image stabiliser, accessory shoe, 3-inch LCD display and a separate viewfinder.
And there's one more thing. The HDC-HS700 also happens to have 240GB of built-in storage. That's nearly a quarter of a terabyte. The large internal hard disk accounts for a good deal of the device's weight, but you'll need it if you're going to make use of the camera's top video setting. You may even find yourself sneaking yet more storage into the device's SDXC-compatible card bay.
When you put it all together, what does all this cutting-edge technology add up to? In our tests, the HDC-HS700 provided some of the most stunning footage we've ever seen from a home video device. Colours are rich but not over-saturated and the detail visible at the 1080/50p setting is quite stunning. In fact, the picture was so good we had to play it back on several different HD TV sets, just in case one of the displays wasn't good enough to do the footage justice.
Even the non-progressive video modes provide excellent quality footage, and the HDC-HS700 performs exceptionally well under low-light conditions. While the photo mode probably won't encourage you to eBay your SLR, it's still capable of much better results than the average video cam.
To be fair, the price of the Panasonic HDC-HS700 has fallen dramatically since its launch. But if 840 whole British pounds is just too much, you could consider one of the other 700-series models instead. The HDC-TM700 is very similar to the HS700 in all respects, other than that it comes with 32GB of internal flash memory instead of a hard disk and now retails for about £780 online. The HDC-SD700, meanwhile, comes with no on-board storage of its own and costs even less, at around £640.
If you're even considering investing in a Panasonic 700-series camcorder, it's very likely you're the sort of person who's going to use it for filming at the highest settings. And for that, you're going to need all the storage you can get. The SD700 might effectively be the same model without the hard drive, and it's certainly attractively priced, but it will cost you more than the difference in price to add the equivalent in storage.
Don't get us wrong -- we wouldn't recommend the HDC-HS700 to everyone. But for those who can afford it and will make full use of all it offers, Panasonic's heavyweight is easily one of the best camcorders on the market at the moment.
Edited by Emma Bayly