Panasonic HX-A500 action camera review
Panasonic is tackling the action camera and wearable trend in one go, with its HX-A500 action camera - the follow-up to 2013's HX-A100.
This time around the headline is that it's ready for the future, offering 4K video capture from the off, as well as bringing a host of enhancements over the previous model. The inclusion of a screen is an obvious advancement compared to its predecessor.
With GoPro having a grip on the action camera segment - it's the go-to device for sports fans, motoring enthusiasts and all-round adrenaline junkies - Panasonic is offering something distinctly different and that starts with design. But can it stand out in this rapidly expanding market?
Are two pieces better than one?
There are two parts to the HX-A500. There's the brains of the outfit in the main body, which is connected to the cylindrical camera unit via a cable that's approximately 70cm long.
The immediate observation is that you'll have to accommodate both parts whatever you're doing. If you're riding your bike and have the camera on your helmet, that's no problem. You can strap the main body to your arm, or in the top of your backpack.
But when you come to mount the camera on your handlebars, or want to capture something on a track day from a car, it becomes a little more difficult because you have both parts to attach somewhere. Plus you've got to consciously make sure the cable isn't poking out as to be caught by some random tree, passer by or whatever else.
This is where one-piece models like the GoPro Hero excel, as you simply move it from one place to the next using the range of mounts: it's often just a case of unclipping in one place and clipping into the other.
In the box the HX-A500 comes with a head mount and an armband, so this is very much a personal camera approach. There is a weight advantage, as when the camera - which weighs just 31g - is attached to your helmet, it's barely noticeable. Strapping the 128g main body to your arm isn't a hardship either and as long as you're happy to tighten that strap enough to stop it moving about.
It's comfortable to wear - we've taken it running, riding and zorbing and as a personal camera we've found that once in place, you really don't notice it much. Having that cable doesn't get in the way when tucked away. The head mount works pretty well, but for real security you'll need the headstrap around the front. It might not be the prettiest arrangement, so you'll just have to style it out.
There's another two-piece advantage: it's easy to hand hold for filming and you can easily preview what you're doing on the built-in screen, making it easy to capture from high or low angles.
There's a 1.5-inch display on the rear of the HX-A500's main body. This display is small, but it's vibrant and detailed enough to show you what's going on. With 115,200 dots it's not anywhere near the HD resolutions of capture - but it's sharp enough to make out the menus and, perhaps most importantly, it's visible even in bright conditions.
There are three controls on the rear below the display. There's the power button, record, and finally a clickable navigation controller. This has shortcuts to an info screen, Wi-Fi (for remote control), preview playback and lock, to disable the button functions to avoid accidental presses.
A single click of the navigation controller takes you through the menus proper, after which you'll use it to move up and down through the options.
There's also NFC for one-touch connection to a compatible device, such as an Android smartphone, so long as it has the Panasonic Image App on it to control your camera. This provides an easy way to change the settings, rather than doing it on the device camera itself, as you have much more screen real estate on your phone to see what's what.
The app isn't as well designed as the GoPro app and the user interface could do with some updating to add appeal, but it works well enough whether you're using it for remote control or playback of your captured footage.
The shooting mode will determine the options you get. In normal shooting you can have 4K at 25 frames per second (fps), or 1920 x 1080 at 50fps. Switch to slow motion and you get the option of 1280 x 720 at 100fps, or 848 x 480 at 200fps.
Aside from video capture with all those options, you can also capture at various intervals to produce a time lapse - and there's the option for stills shooting too. In stills mode you can opt for a "standard" or "wide" lens, the former losing much of the distortion common to action cameras.
When it comes to capture, the thing to remember is that the writing on the barrel of the camera needs to be more or less straight and level. That will ensure that the cylindrical camera is level to start with in its mount.
Beginning capture is simply a case of pressing the record button once. A beep will confirm and capture will begin. It is stopped in the same way, offering a better solution than the Toshiba Camileo X-Sport, which needs a press to wake it up, then another to initiate recording.
The quality of the video captured is very good - this is where the Panasonic really excels. The colours are realistic and there's loads of detail on display. The 50fps Full HD mode provides great results, with nice smooth capture for faster-moving action. Capturing at around 25Mbps, it's not the highest data rate we've seen from an action cam (GoPro is typically 30Mbps), but we love the results.
You can also capture at that headline 4K resolution, at 25fps, which gives you approx 50Mbps (variable). That means plenty of detail, although it might not be the best for capturing faster action. The results look stunning, however, if you have a UHD to watch them on.
Impressively the audio is good too. Where others suffer from being stuffed into a waterproof case, the A500 copes better because the body itself is water resistant. It might only work to 3m deep, but it gives you clean audio because the mic isn't instantly muffled by the casing.
It's good at capturing the voice of the person wearing the camera - as well as heavy breathing noises which is something to consider - although you'll lose some of that quality if the camera gets wet, as the mic gets a bit blocked.
There's also image stabilisation and auto levelling. We found the image stabilisation to be really effective, leading to nice smooth results when things get a little rougher and you can run wearing the A500 without the jolting that sometimes affects cameras.
Low light performance is pretty good too. There's image noise that appears, which you'd expect, but it isn't too detrimental to the final image. We also found that the A500 was quick to adjust to different lighting conditions, so moving from light to dark is handled well.
The battery in the A500 is built in, so it can't be swapped on long days, which is something of a limitation. It charges via Micro-USB, with the port and the microSD card slot sitting under a secure locking flap on the side. That's an essential, and you'll want a large capacity card if you intend to record 4K or just lots of footage.
The battery life will give you about two hours of capture before you start getting warnings, depending on what you're doing and what settings you're using. Although it doesn't sound long, that's fairly typical of this type of device, and longer than GoPro - but the lack of changeable battery is a limitation.
Overall, the thing that impresses about the Panasonic HX-A500 is the quality of its results. Although the 4K option is nice to have - and will no doubt be of interest to many, if not the main attraction to buy - it's the 1080/50p setting that we suspect will get the most use. And it's here that the A500 excels.
We like the wearable nature of the camera. It's practical and comfortable, but it does have some limitations when it comes to using the A500 in different roles. As a personal camera it's excellent, but it lacks the versatility that a more conventional design offers.
That might be something of a sticking point given the high £380 price. If you're only after first-person action, then the Panasonic HX-A500 delivers by the bucketload. If you want diversity, you'll be better off sticking to the already established, and physically smaller, GoPro design.