Manufacturers have picked up on the importance of the pocket camcorder market quite significantly in the last 2 years. Although there's never been a rush of them in the same way as there's been with netbooks. The steady stream of more and more companies bringing their take on these products to our shelves has proved both that they're here for the while - at least until smartphones get significantly better at the job - and that there's now quite a bit of research to undertake for any would-be consumer. As ever, it's our job to help you separate the wheat from the chaff and that's exactly what we've been up to while putting the Panasonic HM-TA1 through its paces.
Recording at Full 1080p/30fps HD, the HM-TA1 is up against the higher class of video pocketables and the price is a suitable match coming in at same £130 or so as the Flip Ultra HD. Unlike the Flip, the first thing you'll notice about Panasonic's effort is that it isn't made with the same level of care and design that you might find elsewhere. It's far from rickety or tatty, but there are just a few too many bumps and buttons to be pleasing in the hand. It's the difference between something made by Apple and something, well, not.
There are six buttons and a nav-pad on the face when half that number of pressables would have been excessive. And all the ports and connectors are needlessly hidden under an assortment of plastic flaps, but the bit that really jars is the built-in USB connector which sits on a horribly awkward slider mechanism that you're convinced you'll get the knack of eventually. You won't. It will bug you all its life.
If that wasn't enough, the strap that comes in the box to sit around your wrist and stop you dropping the thing on the floor is possibly in the worst position on the whole device. Tethered to the top right corner, it either prevents your hand from freely pressing all the buttons or, if you choose not to use it, there's an excellent chance of it swinging in front of the lens and ruining your shot.
Fortunately, that's where the worst of this gadget ends, because the rest of the Panasonic HM-TA1 is actually rather good. Having established that it's no beauty in its design, it is at least very small and very light. At 53 x 104 x 17.8mm and 91g, it's actually around half as thick and half as heavy as the Flip Ultra HD and that really is as dramatic as it sounds. It feels like carrying a feature phone in your pocket rather than small brick. It even leaves space for other things in there like keys, a wallet or even your actual phone. So, what about the performance?
Both the battery and SD cards are removable and means that you can get virtually limitless hours of recording should you carry spares. Fortunately memory cards get pretty big these days and just the one charge of the HM-TA1 via USB lasts plenty of shooting hours even with the external light turned on. An evening out's heavy usage still saw the meter showing plenty of power left over.
The footage itself is recorded as MP4 and AAC for the audio and it's a standard and slightly frustrating 30fps frame rate which makes fast motion come out a little stylised to put it nicely, but that's as good as you get with most pocket camcorders at the moment. The colours aren't quite what you'd hope either with the likes of the Kodak Zi8 coming out just ahead, but the Panasonic is probably more comparable to the results you'd find on the Flip.
On the plus side, the focus is consistently good with no obvious issues and the F/2.8 aperture lens means you can shoot quite comfortably at surprisingly low light levels. In heavy dusk you don't quite get that same crisp look but it's impressive enough to be getting anything at all. When all is completely dark, there is of course the option of the front light. It's obviously useless for anything more than a metre or so away, but it does make the unshootable shootable in that low-end compact camera with built-in flash kind of way. The short demo video from a dark club shows the difference as the torch is switched on and off. Naturally, there's a much greater effect when the subject is closer.
Given it only has a single microphone, the sound is surprisingly solid with it managing to pick up good levels of detail quite far from the lens even in noisy environments. The only real giveaways are when there's action going on behind, which can come out muffled and bassy as you might expect.
The HM-TA1 is certainly happy enough if you're after stills as well. Naturally, the 4x digital zoom, which you can also use in camcorder mode, isn't worth using. The shutter delay is comparable to a mobile phone. There's also no scene modes and such but, if you can work around all that, you'll pass the results off as coming from a compact camera - certainly in natural light anyway. Indoors you'll start to pick up some noise and low light isn't worth bothering with but, all in all, healthy 8MP stills.
The controls to see you through playback and option settings aren't wildly intuitive, but the menus themselves are simple with aspect ratio changing and resolution options about as deep as things get. The 2-inch screen with its 154k dots is clear and there's also a speaker to listen to sound recordings as you might expect. A headphones jack would have been nice, but there you go.
There are a couple of bonuses that the HM-TA1 offers that you won't see in other pocket camcorders though. The first will appeal to Apple fans, and takes the form of recording into iFrame resolution for ease of slipping straight into your video editor, and the second is that the device will also double as a webcam and offer video calling when connected to your computer via USB over Skype. It's fantastic given the resolution suddenly at your web chat disposal, but it's a huge pity that no one thought to include a stand or clip or even a flat edge to balance the thing on so that you didn't have to hold it or prop it up on a stack of books all the time.
If you're after something cute and sexy in your pocket, then you're barking up the wrong tree here. What the Panasonic HM-TA1 offers is some really good imagining power packed tight into an incredibly convenient and small frame. It's a joy to carry around and it won't let you down, and it has got the inner most issues addressed.
Unfortunately, Panasonic doesn't seem to have brought the usability guys in on this one and there are just too many obvious niggles to make it an absolute winner. All the same though, you'd be a fool not to consider it.