Panasonic's HC-V700M is no looker, but delivers great value
When I pulled the HC-V700M out of its box, I was underwhelmed—this dowdy dark gray model has only slightly more sex appeal than a boiled potato. But I found this camcorder generally easy to use, it shoots exceptional video, and comes with a lot of well-implemented extras. Panasonic didn’t get everything right with this model, as I'll discuss below. But it got enough right to make this camcorder a very good value for Panasonic’s direct online price of $540, and a compelling value for Amazon.com’s $462 price.
Stubby, you’ve got talent
Measuring 4.2-by-2.7-by-2.5 inches, and weighing 11 ounces, the HC-V700M is too plump to fit into pants pockets and most jacket pockets. But it’s compact and light for a traditional camcorder, and, looking around the unit, I saw that Panasonic consistently went the extra mile. The lens cover snaps open and shut when you turn the device on and off. You get both a light for shooting video and a flash for still shots. The camcorder comes with a generous 16GB of internal memory plus a slot that accepts SDXC (up to 64GB) memory cards. It’s also one of the most affordable models I’ve seen to offer RGB as well as composite video output. RGB, also called component video, can offer better color quality than composite video.
The HC-V700M even comes with a couple of prosumer elements: A jack for an external microphone and a hot-shoe mount (using the supplied adapter). Panasonic offers an optional 10-watt video light (VW-LDC103, $108) that pops into the hot-shoe. That said, the built-in video light and flash work exceptionally well. Shooting in total darkness, I captured clean crisp video and still shots of place names on a wall map from as far away as 10 feet.
The HC-V700M offers more than the usual set of video recording formats. It’s one of the first mainstream models to let you shoot in Full HD (1920-by-1080) at 60 progressive frames per second, up from the previous progressive-frame limit of 30. You also get the choice of four levels of AVCHD 1080/60i at bitrates ranging from five to 17 Mbps. Panasonic also includes iFrame, for people partial to shooting in Apple’s home-grown video format.
Very good video, so-so stills
The HC-V700M delivers exceptional video quality. In our formal tests, our jurors ranked it near the top for the camcorders we’ve tested recently; I also got excellent results in my home tests. I shot video in a typical video format, AVCHD 1080/60i at 17Mbps. For the full-light test, I shot the video in late afternoon with the sun behind me. At the 60i resolution in full light, the HC-V700M’s video quality was clearly a cut above the pack. Colors appeared realistic with little or no oversaturation, I saw hardly any blurring during fast panning, and the auto-focus worked very quickly.
For my low-light tests, I shot the video shortly after sunset, with plenty of ambient light remaining. On many camcorders, even this mildly diminished light can seriously hamper video quality, but the HC-V700M’s footage still looked very good, with only slightly paler colors and little blurring during panning. The auto-focus tracked as nimbly as it did in full light.
The optical image stabilizer (OIS) deserves special mention. It works really well, even at the 46x zoom setting. Normally at such high zoom, objects shake and dart around, but on this camcorder with OIS turned on they appeared remarkably stable with little "ghosting" (inappropriate motion blur).
One of the few areas where the HC-V700M stumbles: still shots. Shooting at the 6.1MP setting, pictures came out plenty sharp, but a few colors were oversaturated and inaccurate, such as light blue printing out as aquamarine. Worst of all is the blue hue where we should see white, an exposure problem Panasonic needs to fix.
Manual controls you can use—really
This camcorder comes with manual controls, such as those for setting shutter speed, focus, and white balance. To my surprise, they are actually practical to use. Most other consumer models include manual controls, but often they’re stuffed so deep into the menus they’re basically useless. On the HC-V700M, however, I found these screen-based controls almost as easy to use as physical controls and buttons.
The 3-inch touchscreen responds well to my finger-tap. Navigating the menu system felt a little strange at first, but I quickly cottoned to it. On most models’ screens, you swipe a finger across the panel to bring up commands arrayed in a row along the panel bottom. On this screen, however, you first tap an icon in the lower left corner of the screen to pop up a menu column. This placement makes a lot of sense. My left hand’s holding that outside edge of the panel anyway, so it’s a breeze to swing my index finger or thumb over to tap icons.
Too much tappity-tap
To be sure, I’m not in love with all aspects of this camcorder’s handling. It’s easy to dive into the menus, but you still have to scroll through as many as four menu columns to select the function you want, and even then you sometimes still have to drill down. Also, I wish Panasonic included the option to save videos and still-shots in the same folder. Many people shoot both video and still-shots, forcing the user to tap her way to a new folder each time she wants switch between video and photo playback and preview.
Finally, switching between record and playback is a bit of a pain. Video Record is located at the middle setting of a slider switch; I kept overshooting when pushing the switch in either direction.
Battery bonks too soon
Besides disappointing still-shots and a few ergonomic hiccups, my only other beef is with the unit’s 1790mAh lithium-ion battery. The HC-V700M conked out after only an hour and 25 minutes in our rundown tests. The good news is that the battery recharged almost as quickly, so if you buy a second battery pack ($72) and a stand-alone battery charger ($63), you’ll get near continuous operation.
The supplied video editing software, HD Writer AE 4.0, works only in Windows, but I had no problem importing photos into iPhoto ’09 and all video formats into iMovie ’11, except for those shot in the new 1080/60p format, which iMovie doesn’t recognize.
Macworld’s buying advice
Panasonic’s HC-V700M is an uncommonly good value in a compact camcorder. If you don’t plan to shoot a lot of stills and can live with relatively short battery life, put this model on your short list. Even if you kick in an extra $117 for the extended-life VW-VBK360 battery, which doubles your recording time to nearly three hours, the price is right.
[Bryan Hastings is a freelance writer based in the San Francisco Bay Area.]