Panasonic's pair of top-of-the-prosumer-line high-definition camcorders -- the £850 flash-based HDC-TM300 and £900 hard-drive-based HDC-HS300 -- in many ways vastly improve over older models like the HDC-HS100 and HDC-SD100. Panasonic has jettisoned most of what we disliked about those models, including the too-low-resolution CMOS sensors and connector placement, and retained everything we liked, notably the breadth of manual controls and eye-level viewfinder. While the company has replaced the awkward ring-based manual operation with an equally awkward touchscreen, the improvement in video quality and performance makes these camcorders a far better bet.
The two models incorporate the same 12x zoom f1.8-2.8 lens as the HS100 and SD100, as well as the same trio of 1/4.1-inch 3-megapixel 3MOS sensors, with an effective resolution of 2.07 megapixels each, for 16:9 video. The real 3 megapixels for the pre-downsampled AVCHD video finally breaks the resolution barrier -- normally, three-chip systems use lower-than-HD-resolution sensors, which don't seem to produce terribly sharp HD video.
Because of the different recording media, the camcorders have slightly different designs. But they have the same feature sets and should have identical video quality. As such, for the purposes of this review, we ran our standard video tests on only the TM300. The highest video quality they offer is at a 1,920x1,080-pixel resolution, at 30 frames per second, at 17Mbps. At those settings, you can record about 8 minutes of video per gigabyte of storage space. The next level down, 13Mbps, records about 10 minutes of video per gigabyte.
The TM300 and HS300 share the same higher-end features as the HS100 -- a manual focus ring, electronic viewfinder, accessory shoe and microphone input. The HS300 has a 120GB hard disk, while the TM300 records to SD cards or the built-in 32GB of memory. They both include the optical image stabilisation and 'intelligent automatic' features of the older versions.
Weighing just over 450g, with dimensions of 71 by 71 by 140mm, the TM300 is the lightest of the pair, but is larger than competitors like the Canon Legria HF S10. It's comfortable to hold, especially thanks to the slight upward curve towards the back that makes the zoom switch and photo button easier to reach. The earlier models had a toggle to switch between the LCD and EVF. With this one, you pull out the EVF to enable it, which is a more pleasing and utilitarian design.
In contrast to the older models, only the optical image stabiliser button lives inside the LCD recess, and most of the controls have been replaced by a hybrid button and touchscreen interface. Within the recess, under hard covers, are all but one connector -- AV, component video out, mini HDMI and USB -- and the SD card slot. In an interesting design move, Panasonic has added an accessory shoe to the TM300, but put it in the side rather than the top -- a more practical location, given how far your hand covers the top. Mic and headphone jacks are on the front right side, beneath the flash and adjacent to the shoe.