Cameras for outdoor activities are all the rage these days. It's a segment that, while not invented by GoPro, has certainly been popularised by that company. These days though, the uses for rugged technology that can produce great quality pictures while undergoing extreme environmental stresses, which would finish off anything else are numerous.
Panasonic's HX-A100 is the firm's first foray into wearable camcorders. It's no stranger to rugged products, and it makes some class-leading stuff, so we were excited to try out the HX-A100 and see what it had to offer that perhaps the GoPro does not.
The A100 is rather well designed, we think. It's a departure from the GoPro method, and it keeps the camera section separate from the recorder section. This is an interesting idea that does open up some new avenues, and also some frustrations.
The camera section is small, and is tied to the recorder with a fixed cable. This can't be removed or replaced, which is a little worrying as it could break and render the whole device useless. Cables are always a bit of a problem in this regard, and we always like to see that devices have a method of easy replacement if a component goes wrong. Still, that's quite unlikely to happen, and the cable is thick, well insulated and feels like it will survive a lot of use.
The record sections is quite simple. There are five buttons on the front, which are for power, video recording, still capture, Wi-Fi and locking the device. On the right-hand side, there's a switch which enables you to unlock a compartment within which the microSD slot and USB connector live. And that's pretty much all there is on the surface of the device.
In the pack you get a headband, which is used to wear the camera section, and there's also an armband which you would use to hold the recorder section while you're doing whatever it is you happen to be doing with this camera.
There is a reason that the camera stabilisation system, Steadicam, has been such a success, and it's not just down to the images that lack camera shake - although it's part of it. The best bit, is that it gives us a kind of camera shot that is close to the real human experience of seeing.
For example, when we walk, we don't have jarring shake with each step, which is one reason the Steadicam gives such pleasing results. But the other area that it scores, is giving us a shot that reminds us of the height and feel that we see day to day. Garrett Brown, inventor of Steadicam and its operator on The Shining, explained that this is why people like Stanley Kubrick loved the results, because when he shot in low mode, it reminded us of being a child, and that helps produce more empathy, and horror.
Here, with the head-mount, the Panasonic does the same thing, it gives you a view that's nearly identical to what you see as you go about your life. It's actually enormously pleasing to watch, and even though footage isn't Steadicam smooth, having it attached to your head does give it more stability than any hand-held camera.
Along with being visually pleasing, the head mount means you don't have to worry about where you point the camera: just look that way, and you'll get a shot of what you want. It does take a little thought, because you need to remember not to randomly look at things that catch your eye, or it can be disconcerting to watch. One of the things we tested the camera with was a car journey, and watching the footage back was surprisingly pleasing.
Video and still quality
Given some good light, the picture quality of video from the A100 is actually very good. We think it's not quite up to GoPro Hero 3 standard, but it's still solid enough. But it's quite a bit softer than you would get on some of the rival cameras, and for some that will be a problem.
Like the early GoPro cameras, indoor light sensitivity is also pretty bad. What you tend to get is quite washed-out colours with lots of noise. This is a problem when light levels fall, but give it enough ambient light and results are watchable. But really, this isn't a camera for indoors, and if you need to record stuff inside, get one of Panasonic's other cameras that have near-professional levels of gain.
Where video pretty much always remains watchable though, stills are a whole other level of not very good. Detail is almost non-existent here, and drop light levels to the point where no dedicated compact camera would struggle, and they really fall apart. See our sample image, it's a mess.
As with all these small, sports cameras, sound is an issue.
Go fast on a bike, say, and you'll get loads of wind noise. Put it in a quieter environment, and the wind noise goes, but you get lots of handling noise when you move or touch any part of the camera. It's a bit annoying, but not unique to this camera at all.
The good news is that dialogue, when recorded, is really clear. It lacks low-end punch, but the quality and clarity is very good. This means that it will record conversations well, and we can see that being quite a nice use for this little setup. Think Peep Show - the Channel 4 programme, not the seedy Soho clubs - and you could make something quite entertaining.
There's no real way to replace the on-board audio though, short of recording on another device, then dubbing it later and spending ages getting the sync right.
Wi-Fi and the app
Astute readers will notice that there is no screen on the A100. To get around this, Panasonic has an app that allows you to use a smartphone as a screen. We found it worked well, and for the purposes of remote controlling the camera, it's simple to use, and gives you everything you need to get the camera set-up.
Having said that, it's actually surprising how little you need the app. Put the camera on, using the head mount, and you'll find that it automatically frames the same things you're looking at - which stands to reason. You need to watch the angle of the camera, because it can be changed, as can the rotation, so it's important to make sure it's not recording at 90 degrees or something before you go and do some once-in-a-lifetime activity.
At times, the connection of the app can be a little bit of a pain. You need to connect your phone to the camcorder's own Wi-Fi network, and then start the app, or it simply won't work. But once it's connected, we found the range surprisingly good and the connection stable.
Good slow-motion mode
One of the things we do like is the reasonably hassle-free way you can switch the camera to slow-mo mode. It does involve using the app - but then most advanced features do - but once you've done it there's nothing else to do. You don't need to mess about in post production slowing the footage down, it is simply converted by the camera from 50p down to 25p, and in so doing reduces the speed by 50 per cent.
The big problem we found was that it does this at the expense of a bit of picture sharpness. Outside in daylight, we don't think this will be a big deal, but inside it shows up quite noticeably. As this feature is more than likely going to be used by people doing sports, we think the picture quality will be much less of an issue overall. Certainly, the quality of the slow motion is so good, you can forgive the quality loss.
The big problem with the A100 is its lack of removable battery. This would have been a simple fix for Panasonic, but the firm has opted for an internal cell that isn't user serviceable.
Battery life, however, is good enough. We used it in various modes for more than two hours and had no problems. We also recorded solidly for over 45 minutes, and still had enough charge to mess around with it at the end of the day.
The problem, of course, comes if you're away from reliable power, doing something extreme, or in the cold where batteries don't last as long. It's forgivable to some extent, as Panasonic has cleverly opted for USB recharging, which means you can recharge from anything from a laptop to a portable phone charging pack.
The HX-A100 is a tough camcorder to score. There are a few little things about it we don't like. We'd love to be able to swap the battery, and the picture quality is a little on the soft side, with too much noise in less than perfect conditions.
On the other hand, it's a really well thought-out product. The view you get is so ideal for extreme sports, but also has uses in other types of production. It gives you a human perspective, and can produce footage with more impact because you can relate to it.
Overall, we think it's solid though, and it's not desperately overpriced considering the competition.