Review: Panasonic HDC-TM300 HD Camcorder

Two-hundred-dollar pocket cams might advertise themselves as “HD” capable, but don’t believe the hype: They typically yield 720p clips better suited to YouTube than the boob tube.

Not so with Panasonic’s new HDC-TM300, which shoots in “Full HD,” marketing speak for 1080p — aka 1080 x 1920 resolution with progressive-scan video. Translation? Stunning Blu-ray-level video that should more than lives up to the most critical expectations of prosumers and video enthusiasts.

As you’d expect given its $1,300 price tag, this sucker is loaded with features. A multicoated Leica Dicomar lens delivers light to three — count ‘em, three — photon-sucking, quarter-inch CMOS chips. The image processor tackles light from each chip individually, resulting in dazzling true-to-life colors.

Want to shoot up close? It’s got a great macro feature too. Colors are bright, vivid and true to life. Moving images looked great and didn’t have any blurring or noise. When we shot falling water — which can often introduce noise into a shot — it came out looking fluid and refreshing.

On the outside, the highly responsive 12x optical zoom does a remarkable job tracking movement. Even better, it features optical image stabilization: Gyroscopic sensors keep the picture truly stabilized, rather than cutting off the edges of the screen to present a non-jittery image. Put simply, you lose the shake, not the data.

The 2.7-inch touchscreen LCD shows up well in bright daylight, and is terrifically sensitive to the wanderings of our fingers. Menus are straightforward too — we were able to dive right in without suffering a RTFM breakdown.

The auto-focus tracking feature is straight out of the future: Tap a subject on the LCD, and the camera automatically keeps it in focus as your target moves about the shot. The 5.1 surround system has five built-in microphones and a zoom mic, to let you capture surround up close, or drill in on distant shots.

But the highlight of this shooter is the high-def footage. Not only does the phenomenal zoom reel in distant objects, but thanks to the triple sensors and quality lens, it nails far-off details perfectly. The architectural features of distant buildings we shot in downtown San Francisco showed up like we were standing on the window ledge — not in a park three blocks away.

It’s not all perfect, however. Although it had far less digital detritus than you’ll find in most consumer camcorders, we did notice artifacts during fast pans and also in reflective whites when shooting in bright daylight. Yet overall the picture was stunning, and unlike many other HD camcorders, when we played back the footage on a large HDTV it actually looked, you know, high def.

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