If there was a competition for the smallest camcorder packaging, the Panasonic HM-TA1 would win hands down. Its box is so tiny we initially assumed someone had sent us the wrong product. Inside, however, we found Panasonic's first flirtation with the pocket camcorder form factor, along with an equally small selection of accessories. We have the greatest of respect for many of Panasonic's offerings at the mid-range and high end of the market, including the excellent HDC-SD600 and HDC-SD60, so we were interested to find out how the company would fare with a product that costs just £130 and is a mere fraction of the size of its pricier stablemates.
You've been iFramed
Unlike other models in Panasonic's high-definition camcorder range, the HM-TA1 doesn't use the widely accepted AVCHD recording format. Instead, it favours an MPEG-4 AVC/H.264 variant, recording MP4 files at 1080p, 720p or 480p resolutions, all at 30 frames per second. It can also record in the iFrame format (as favoured by Apple's iMovie) at 540p/30fps. A single 1/4.1-type MOS sensor handles all the image-capturing duties. Its native resolution is 5 megapixels, but with interpolation it's possible to bump up the detail to 8 megapixels.
The lens is a fixed-focus affair with a digital-only zoom. Optical image stabilisation is also absent, though a less effective electronic alternative is available. It has no storage of its own -- you'll need to acquire a decent-sized SD card to store all your video and photos. USB and standard-definition AV output are the only connection types available. Why Panasonic didn't include an HDMI socket, however, is completely beyond us. HDMI is the de facto TV connection these days, and its absence means the HM-TA1 can't actually play back video in high definition on a big screen without some kind of SD card-supporting intermediary device, such as a PC or Blu-ray player.
There are plenty of other omissions, but these are easier to forgive and more in keeping with other pocket camcorders. The 51mm (2-inch) display on the rear of the unit is a little small, for example, and you won't find many options in the HM-TA1's menus. There are no manual settings to play with and, apart from a handy video lamp, the unit is fairly bereft of anything resembling flashy extras.
The HM-TA1's designers have clearly focused on making the device as light and pocketable as possible. It's roughly the size, shape and weight of candybar mobile handsets circa 2003. Apart from a trio of flimsy flaps that feel like they're ready to fall off without much argument, there's nothing particularly offensive about its build quality. It is a little plasticky and underwhelming, however, even if you decide to go for one of the non-standard-issue colours that are available.
Getting the full picture?
The promise of 'full' 1080p high definition at such a low cost may sound appealing but, performance-wise, the HM-TA1's other technical limitations help to put things in perspective a little. The 30fps frame rate is a little low, for example. Most mainstream camcorders offer 50 or 60fps and this provides visibly smoother video. The small image sensor, fixed lens and non-AVCHD recording format all conspire to lower picture quality further. In practice, this means the video picture can look a little noisy, particularly if you move the camera too fast, digitally zoom into your subject or shoot indoors in low light. The HM-TA1 also suffers from the rolling shutter distortion phenomenon that affects a great many digital video devices, though this seems to be less obvious when the camera is set to 720p rather than full-fat 1080p.
Photo performance is passable. In good, even light, snaps are crisp, colourful and detailed enough for most casual users. Indoors, shots can look grainy, blurry and dark, depending on the available light. The surprisingly powerful front-mounted LED lamp can help a little with close-up subjects, but don't expect it to magically illuminate a darkened room.
Plug and play back
While the HM-TA1 might struggle to compete with still and video cameras further up Panasonic's own food chain, it fares considerably better when compared directly with similar products from other manufacturers. Picture-wise, the quality of the HM-TA1 actually sets it among the better models in its price range, despite its low frame rate. It shares the Flip Video's built-in USB terminal, for example, and can be used as a webcam for Skype and video chat. Like the JVC Picsio, the HM-TA1 has a handy on-board app for editing and sharing your footage. Plug the unit into a broadband-connected PC and you're ready to upload clips straight to YouTube or Facebook, easy as pie. Menus and controls are all refreshingly uncomplicated, too.
Simplicity is probably the Panasonic HM-TA1's defining feature. It might not be able to bring Panasonic's high-end quality to the low end of the market but, as a pocket cam, it conducts itself well and is extremely easy to use. If you can live with its limitations, the HM-TA1 makes a great travel companion. Its lack of HDMI output, however, is a major oversight.
Edited by Emma Bayly