At around £850, the Panasonic HDC-TM700 probably sits some way outside the fiscal comfort zone of most potential buyers. For enthusiasts, however, it boasts an enviable array of the latest must-have features, not least of which are its 1080/50p high-definition video and 14.2-mexapixel stills. So, is it worth the asking price?
If there's one thing missing from many so-called 'Full HD' camcorders, it's proper, progressive, 1080p-recording capability. We're just now starting to see it creep in at the high end, and the HDC-TM700 is one of three new Panasonic camcorders that offer it. Previous flagship models, such as last year's HDC-TM300, have included a 25-frames-per-second, progressive 'digital cinema' mode, but this was usually little more than a gimmick. The big difference here is that the HDC-TM700 can record full, progressive 1080-line frames at a smooth rate of 50 frames per second, which is close to professional standards.
The HDC-TM700 can also record in a range of different 1080i modes but, unlike these, the 1080/50p setting is selected via its own stand-alone button on the side of the unit, rather than through the image-quality menu. Recording AVCHD files in this mode also eats up storage space like there's no tomorrow, so, thankfully, the HDC-TM700 has plenty of options in that regard. For starters, there's 32GB of internal memory to work with. The SD, SDHC and SDXC-compatible memory-card slot can handle up to 64GB of further storage and the camcorder will automatically switch from internal to external memory as you record, should you run out of space at an inconvenient juncture.
Image-recording duties are handled by three relatively large (1/4.1-inch) CMOS sensors, each with a 3.05-megapixel resolution. Combined, these sensors provide the means to capture extremely high-resolution photos, as well as HD movies. The still pictures aren't bad-looking either, thanks, in part, to the 35mm wide-angle Leica Dicomar lens and its 12x optical zoom, although you probably won't want to put your digital SLR on eBay just yet.
As you may have already ascertained, the HDC-TM700 is pitched directly at video enthusiasts, rather than casual point-and-shooters, and this is reflected in the camcorder's selection of manual controls. In manual mode, key settings such as focus, white balance, shutter speed and aperture can all be controlled via either the touch-sensitive screen or the 'camera function' button and the lens ring, which also doubles up as a manual zoom ring.
An external microphone input, colour viewfinder, accessory shoe (placed on the side so as not to interfere with the top-mounted, 5.1-channel surround-sound microphone) and a highly effective optical image stabiliser flesh out the HDC-TM700's prosumer credentials. While it's a shame that there's no A/V input, a full selection of analogue and digital output connections are available, including HDMI, USB and component/composite video.
If you do happen to shoot from the hip, then you'll find the auto functions are all very reliable. In particular, the programmable face-recognition feature is worth experimenting with. It's also worth mentioning that the HDC-TM700 is light, comfortable to operate and pleasantly, if soberly, designed.
We've noticed a tendency in some previous Panasonic camcorders to exaggerate strong colours, and this is something that the HDC-TM700 can also be guilty of, particularly with the progressive setting -- the 1080i modes seem to be less affected by this issue for some reason.
This isn't the only problem with shooting at 1080/50p, either. We found that the raw MTS files we had recorded in the progressive mode didn't always play back satisfactorily, depending on the equipment we used. Plug the camcorder directly into an HD-ready TV via HDMI, for example, and everything looks great, with crisp edges, smooth motion and zero glitches. Transfer the footage to play it on a PC or other compatible device, however, and you may well be treated to choppy playback and the appearance of strange artefacts.
Part of the problem is the high bit rate that the 50p mode records at (28Mbps). But even a quad-core Windows 7 PC with 8GB of memory and a powerful graphics card struggled to play back our test files smoothly. Transferring the footage to a PlayStation 3 console with its famous Cell processor and Full HD support gave us even worse results. Pans, zooms and practically any on-screen movement were rendered as a spluttering, stuttering mess.
Interestingly, certain PC-based media-player applications seemed to handle the files better than others. Nero Showtime, for instance, played our progressive footage with virtually no problems, while Windows Media Player and VLC both chugged through it like they were suffering from the video equivalent of a coughing fit. Presumably, the problem lies in the AVCHD codec and, specifically, the way it's decoded in a particular media player. As such, this is a situation that could well improve as new media-player software is released. In the unlikely event that you're happy just playing back your footage on the camcorder itself, you should never encounter the problem.
We should also point out that we had no problem playing back the footage we shot at any of the HDC-TM700's 1080i settings, either on our test PC or PS3. In fact, at the highest 1080i bit-rate setting (17Mbps), footage was nigh-on exceptional, with rich, balanced colours and a phenomenal level of detail.
There's no denying that £850 is a sizeable wad of cash to pony up for a camcorder, but the Panasonic HDC-TM700 certainly delivers on the feature front. It's a shame, then, that the fun is spoiled by a couple of potentially crippling problems. Technically speaking, the progressive-playback issue isn't a fault of the camcorder itself, so we haven't marked it down for that. But prospective buyers interested in the HDC-TM700's 1080/50p video will need to ensure that their playback and editing hardware and software is up to the task of handling the camcorder's raw footage.
Edited by Charles Kloet