Pros: Impressive feature set, very high video quality, great ergonomics, excellent optical stabilization.
Cons: Slightly below average battery life, poor still image quality, accessories availability should be better.
Full HD resolution is not "brand new" for compact video cameras. However, not all manufacturers have worked out the requirements of the higher resolution. In the days of lower resolution, processor and memory requirements were minimal and perhaps most importantly, just about any lens could give satisfactory results (except when true professional quality was required). Full high definition resolution is high enough to bring out some of the limitations of many of these older lenses, and of course demands much more memory and processing power. It also requires more precise controls to assist the handling of the camera as small errors in technique are even more visible. I've tested many Full HD consumer video cameras from different manufacturers that seem to have a little trouble keeping up with these demands. The Panasonic HDC-TM300 is the first to not reveal its limitations so easily.
This is not a comprehensive list, but here are the main features of the TM-300:
- 1920 x 1080 Full-HD Recording
- Records in High-Resolution AVCHD Format
- 32 GB Built-in IC Memory With Relay Recording Mode
- Built-in SD / SDHC Memory Card Drive
- 3MOS Camera System (3 x 3.05 Megapixels)
- HD Advanced Pure Color Engine
- 12x Variable Speed Zoom Leica Dicomar Lens
- Touch Screen Operation With Quick Menu, Rec and Zoom Buttons
- Manual Ring For Focus, Zoom and Exposure Settings
- 10.6 Megapixel Still Picture Recording
- iA (Intelligent Auto) Mode
- AF/ AE Tracking
- Advanced Optical Image Stabilizer (O.I.S.)
- Face Detection Function
- Intelligent Contrast Control
- Intelligent Scene Selector
- On-Screen Assist
- Advanced 5.1-Channel Surround Sound, Zoom Microphone, Focus Microphone
- Large 2.7-inch Wide-Screen LCD With Wide Viewing Angle and Power LCD Extra
- Mic Input and Headphone Jack
- Intelligent Shooting Selection Playback
- High-Speed Burst Shooting at 60 Frames per Second
- Pre-Rec Function
- Composition Guide Lines
- Time Lapse Record
Included in the box are: instruction manual, Windows software on CD, remote control, standard lithium ion battery, battery charger, shoe adapter, stylus pen, USB cable, AV cable, component cable, AC cable, and a DC cable. The lens cap is a retractable type, which is built into the camera.
As of Winter 2009, the HDC-TM300 is selling from reputable online vendors for $1050 - $1300 (US).
The HDC-TM300 shines in the ergonomics department. In fact, no other compact video camera that I tested felt as comfortable in my hand or as intuitive to operate. The contoured right side is free of controls and seams, making it easy to grip. The included strap easily adjusts to accommodate any size hand. There are three ways to operate the zoom lens: 1) the oversized lever on the top of the camera, which is designed to be controlled with your right thumb, 2) the control buttons below the fold out LCD screen, and 3) the control ring (or, "multi manual ring" as Panasonic calls it) near the front of the lens. All of these controls are well-designed and a breeze to use. The top zoom lever is very responsive in that a light push causes slow zooming and a harder push causes rapid zooming. In either case, the zoom motion is quite smooth with no discernable jerks. I save the control ring for manual focus, but the average consumer likely won't need to manual focus often with this camcorder, except in very low light. Speaking of the control ring...
The primary ergonomic feature that sold me on this camcorder is this extremely well-dampened and very easy-to-operate control ring. I often find myself shooting in extreme conditions that don't allow for reliable autofocus. As such, I frequently need to manual focus. No compact camcorder offers better manual focus control than the Panasonic HDC-TM300. In fact, no other even comes close. Only Minolta and Leica camera lenses offer dampening as smooth as this with no play, and that means manual focus can be precisely obtained. Bravo Panasonic. The Sony HDR-CX520V and Canon HF S11 "equivalent" camcorders are nowhere near equivalent in this regard. Most of the time, I keep the camcorder set to autofocus but when I need manual focus, I just touch the "manual focus" button near the control ring and let my fingers take over. The LCD screen enlarges the central area, allowing me to more precisely determine the focus. When I don't need it, the control ring reverts back to zoom control. This is a great design.
Speaking of great design, Panasonic included an electronic viewfinder on this model. For experienced shooters, enough said. For amateur users, let me explain the benefits. First, it allows you to compose in bright daylight conditions when it is difficult to use the LCD. Second, it allows you to close the LCD when discretion is required. Third, it extends the battery life slightly. Fourth, it keeps the unit more compact for shooting in tight quarters because the LCD screen can be kept in the closed position. I could go on and on about the benefits of a viewfinder but I'll sum it up by saying I will never buy a camcorder that doesn't have one. Unfortunately, neither the HDR-CX520V nor the Canon HF S11 have viewfiners. The HDC-TM300's viewfinder could certainly benefit from having higher resolution, but at least there's something there for those difficult shooting situations.
The touchscreen LCD is easily viewable in all but bright sunlight conditions. The touchscreen control actually works very well and although Panasonic recommends using the included stylus pen to operate the touchscreen, I have no trouble working it with my slightly larger than average hands. The screen can be calibrated to your particular touch, making it even easier to use, although I did not need to do so. The menus are intuitive and after spending an evening with the instruction manual, I can quickly locate any control I need. I highly recommend spending an evening with the instruction manual and camcorder in-hand so you know what you're doing when a moment worth capturing arrives.
Although this camera is capable of professional quality video, it is ultimately designed as an advanced amateur / aspiring filmmaker camera. To this end, Panasonic thought it best to also include an "Intelligent Auto Mode" that automatically detects whether you're shooting portraits, landscapes, macros, etc. I always keep this mode set to the off position to allow for more precise manual control, but my brief experience with it left me with the impression that it will work well for the majority of users who are interested in documenting soccer games, pets, flowers, and other everyday type shooting.
The HDC-TM300's battery life is okay, but certainly not award winning. Three CMOS sensors and an always-on image stabilization system require 7.2 volts, which is a bit higher than most consumer camcorders. As such, I usually only get about one and half hours out of the included battery, and sometimes a little less. For $100, the next larger battery gets me three hours of recording. For around $225, you can have the ultimate in camcorder shooting longevity with a 5400 milliamp battery that allows for over eight hours of continuous record time. This battery is large enough that a separate adapter and battery holder are required. I own all three batteries and find myself using the three hour battery the most as it offers the best compromise of portability and shooting time.
The HDC-TM300 includes 32 gigabytes of built-in flash memory. This means you probably won't need a SDHC memory card but if you do a lot of continuous recording, it's a good idea to have one. Panasonic does not include one, so you'll need to purchase one separately. The LCD screen must be opened to access the SDHC memory card slot. This model accepts Class 4 and higher speed memory cards. I've been using only Class 6 memory cards and I've had no problems whatsoever. In the record menu, you can choose which memory to use, internal or external. The built-in memory is good for four hours of Full HD recording at the maximum possible quality setting. If you're willing to sacrifice a little quality, you can still record at Full HD for eight hours at what Panasonic calls "normal" quality. This setting is probably suitable for most casual shooters, but serious filmmakers will want to sacrifice the allowable time and get all the quality they can. You can choose to have the camera relay record from the internal memory to a SDHC memory card. This allows for continuous, uninterrupted shooting beyond the capacity of the internal memory. Sony is now offerring 64 GB of internal memory on the HDR-CX520V, but the HDC-TM300's relay recording made this less enticing to me.
Well, everything sounds good so far but of course a video camera is only as good as its video quality. One of Panasonic's best business moves was establishing a partnership with Leica. Without question, Leica consistently makes the best lenses in the world. Their sharpness, contrast, and distortion control are unrivaled. When I saw the Leica label on the HDC-TM300, I knew it would not be a slouch optically. Indeed, this is the sharpest compact camcorder I've tested. Sony's new G lens camcorders are also quite sharp, but neither they nor Canon can best this fine Panasonic. Distortion is extremely well controlled and only slightly noticeable when shooting objects with a lot of right angles, such as buildings. Color rendition is also quite good at default settings, although some adjustment is sometimes needed in post processing to bring out all the Leica glass has to offer. I'm often amazed at the tonal range of this lens, especially in the mid-tone region. Highlights can still be clipped in very bright areas of a high contrast scene, but the Intelligent Contrast Control does help reduce this problem somewhat. Motion trailing and other artifacts associated with moving objects are occasionally noticeable, but never really to objectionable levels. Both the Sony HDR-CX520V and Canon HF S11 also had some motion trailing, and I could never really convince myself that they had more or less than this Panasonic. In my opinion, they all control it pretty well. Where the Panasonic pulls ahead of the competition again is with its lowlight performance. I was enticed by Sony's backlit CMOS sensor in the HDR-CX520V because this technology noticeably reduces sensor noise (or, "grain") in low light shooting situations. For that reason alone, I would recommend considering one the Sony HDR-CX520V and related camcorders. However, even a backlit CMOS sensor can't quite keep up with the three CMOS sensor design for minimizing noise. This noise is still present in dimly lit indoor scenes, as it will with any camcorder, but Panasonic seems to do the best job of controlling it. This Panasonic was also produced a brighter image with slightly less noise than the Canon HF S11 in low light conditions, but the Canon is certainly no slouch.
Put it all together and the HDC-TM300 has the best overall video quality of any compact model as of the time of this writing.
Perhaps the weakest aspect of this otherwise outstanding camcorder is the poor photo quality. Yes, it's 10 megapixels, but the watercolor appearance of the image (probably due to noise suppression, or the noise itself) is clearly visible even when viewing at 75% on a computer monitor. A decent 3 X 5 inch print in good lighting conditions is possible, but don't count on it for much more. This problem is not unique to this camcorder; most video cameras take poor photographs, and most still cameras capture poor video. I didn't buy this camcorder for photos, so it's hard for me to criticize it too much in this aspect.
Shaky video is usually not desirable, and most manufacturers (except Sanyo as of this writing) have added optical image stabilization to the video cameras. Optical image stabilization is far superior to software stabilization as it actually stabilizes the lens elements or the sensor to reduce picture shake. Software stabilization only increases sensitivity, resulting in grainier images. Panasonic's OIS is one of the best optical image stabilizers I've used in digital still cameras, and they've incorporated it into the HDC-TM300. It won't stabilize violent shaking, but it makes most hand-held video much smoother, even in the case of bumpy car rides. It is noticeably better at stabilizing the image than any of the current Canon compact video cameras, and nearly equal to comparable Sony video cameras.
The AVCHD format is one of the newer codecs on the scene. As such, software support has been spotty until very recently. However, I've imported video directly from the HDC-TM300 to iMovie 08, iMovie HD, and iMovie 09 with no problems whatsoever. The file size increases dramatically when importing, so be prepared to have a lot of storage space available. Otherwise, Macs and Panasonics seem to get along quite well.
Panasonic includes dedicated software for Windows users. In my brief experience with it, I found it more slow and cumbersome than iMovie 09, while also lacking some of the best features of iMovie 09. If you do a lot of video work and you're serious enough to buy this camcorder, do yourself a favor and get a Mac. You won't regret it.
Panasonic offers several optional accessories for the TM-300, including a DVD burner, several extended life batteries, and extended warranties. The accessories line-up is not as deep as Sony's, which includes underwater housings, camcorder cases, etc. However, what accessories are not made by Panasonic are usually offered by third party manufacturers. I've also noticed that the accessories that are offered by Panasonic are sometimes hard to find in stock and are usually only available from speciality stores. So, to summarize, I'd like to see Panasonic expand its accessories line-up to give consumers a non-third party option, while also making their accessories more readily available.
The HDC-TM300 is top-of-the-line in the world of compact Full HD camcorders, and will likely remain there for awhile. It is simple enough for a novice to obtain excellent results, but ultimately designed for the more advanced user who wants excellent video quality combined with good manual control. Its best competition is Sony's newest line of backlit CMOS camcorders with G lenses, which tend to be a little less expensive for a slight loss in image quality and manual control. Ultimately, this Panasonic does what it is advertised to do and is unlikely to disappoint even demanding users.
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