June 14, 2010

Panasonic HDC-TM700 Camcorder
True 1080/60p And More In Hand
$999.00 MSRP

By David A. Saraceno

It is unusual when marketing hype matches reality; more so when “full HD” is the primary selling point.  After spending ten days evaluating Panasonic’s recently released HDC-TM700, I’ve had a change of heart -- due in part to one new and one improved selling point.  The 3MOS 1/4-inch cam is a half step faster than previous versions, and produces surprisingly good footage in challenging low light situations.  But the most impressive new feature is a 1080/60p (28 mbits/s) record mode that delivers footage rivaling camcorders costing thousands more.   Panasonic delivers on some, but not all, of its additional claims, and the TM700 would benefit from a remake of its operational ergonomics.  But still this is an impressive package at $999.00 MSRP.

What’s In The Box.  The camera is bundled with the basics to start shooting immediately.  Included are mini-USB cable to transfer file based media, AC adapter, stylus pen to control touch screen LCD, remote control with battery, integrated component/composite AV cable, AC/DC cable, small lens hood, custom shoe adapter, PC-only software (HD Writer AE 2.1), battery and charger.  No SDHC card is provided, but 32 GB/s of flash memory is available to record internally.  Additional accessories such as mini HDMI cable, larger capacity battery, external microphone, and beefier lens hood can be purchased.

The package ships with a printed, fully illustrated manual, and is covered by a standard 90 day labor and one (1) year limited parts warranty.

Weight and Size.  The TM700 weighs .84 pounds sans battery and measures 2.59”x2.71”x5.43”.  A 12x optical zoom, 3-1/4.1” 3MOS sensor, 3.0-inch touch sensitive LCD screen, extendable color EVF, built-in Dolby 5.1 microphone, component and HDMI video ports, and a VW-VBG130 Lithium-ion battery complete the package. 

The main power button located behind the LCD toggles on the cam.  Thereafter, opening the LCD or extending the EVF powers the cam on and off.  A large switch puts the cam into video, still photo and playback modes.   In addition to internal memory, you can record to single SDHC card.  The manual details record times for AVCHD spec and 1080/60p modes. The 90 minute stock battery recharges in about 155 minutes.

The HDC-TM700‘s f/1.5 (46mm) 12x optical zoom Leica Dicomor lens extends an additional 6x using an “Intelligent Zoom” feature.  As indicated before, it is about one half stop faster than previous models.  One 1/4”-20 tripod mount screw is available.

Ergonomics.  The TM700 is controlled by mechanical buttons and a dual screen touch menu system accessed by separate buttons on the LCD.  Unfortunately, some of the mechanical buttons are awkwardly placed.   For example, the Camera Function button located forward of the LCD screen is difficult to use if the screen is rotated 45 degrees.  On/off and 1080/60p buttons, and AV ports can only be accessed when the LCD screen is extended.

A hinged plastic door under the LCD protects the HDMI, component, and USB ports, and provides access to a single SDHC slot.  iA/Manual and O.I.S. buttons, zoom rocker, photo shot button, 3-way mode switch, and record buttons are conveniently located.  The accessory shoe door is positioned on the right side of the lens barrel above the microphone and headphone terminals. 

The automatic/manual (iA/Manual) button sets the video record mode for the cam.  In automatic mode, the TM700 sets and adjusts white balance focus, aperture and shutter speed.  Manual controls to adjust focus, white balance, shutter and aperture/iris are available via the touch screen LCD, or using the Camera Function button in tandem with the focus ring. 

Manual white balance settings range from full sunlight to two indoor settings optimized for incandescent and fluorescent lighting to a low light setting for more demanding indoor shots.  The TM700 also supports manual white balance using a white/grey source.  The cam’s large diameter focus ring controls focus in the manual mode.  A touch activated focus assist is available using the LCD.

Camera Function Button.  The Camera Function button toggles access to focus, white balance, shutter, and iris settings.  When pushed, the camera enters its manual mode, and the lens ring is used to adjust the four parameters.  Setting each parameter requires some practice, because the adjusted setting sometimes does not “take.”  A dedicated enter command would be helpful.

Low Light Sensitivity.  We obtained crisp, clean footage in good light in automatic and manual modes, particularly when shooting 1080/60p.  Our subjective view is that the 60p mode exceeded similarly shot footage using the cam’s highest quality AVCHD spec 17 mbits/s HA 1080/60i mode.  We also tested the cam’s improved low light sensitivity in a demanding environment -- a chandelier lit ballroom with one spotlight.  We were impressed with the results, but not overwhelmed.  Companies who regularly shoot in low light would be better served by larger sensor camcorders.  However, for occasional low light shoots or B-roll, the TM700 produces acceptable results.

1080/60p, AVCHD, and Macintosh Editing Issues.   AVCHD spec footage (HA, HG, HX, HE) presented no transcode issues using an Intel Mac, and FCP 6.0.x or later.  However, 1080/60p and HA, HG, HX, or HE footage recorded to the same card or to internal memory cannot be log and transferred into Final Cut Pro.  Final Cut does not see a valid AVCHD hierarchy to log and transfer.  Accordingly, do not mix 1080/60p footage on the same card with AVCHD spec footage.  Capture AVCHD spec only, or 1080/60p exclusively to internal memory or the SDHC card, but not both to the same card or internally.  Use a third party utility like ClipWrap2 or Toast 9/10 to transcode 1080/60p footage to ProRes, then have Final Cut automatically set the sequence.

Because AVCHD footage is heavily compressed, a transcode to an editing format significantly increases file size and bit rate.  For example, 1080/60i HA footage converted to ProRes 422 produces a 140.63 mbits/s data rate.  A 1080/60p converted clip produces a data stream of 278.24 mbits/s.  Data sizes correlate to data rates.  As to quality, in my view, 17 mbits/s AVCHD compliant 1080/60i is noticeably less crisp and vibrant than1080/60p footage.

The cam’s “copy” function converts 60p footage to AVCHD 60i spec footage to facilitate a log and transfer.  In addition, AVCHD spec SDHC cards played using the SDHC slot of our Panasonic blu ray set top.  60p footage did not.

I also tested native 60p files with Adobe Premiere CS5 using a 64-bit Snow Leopard boot, and a Quadro FX 4800 with Mercury Playback Engine.  The files played natively at full resolution and frame rate.   Nice.

Thoughts.  Build quality is clearly directed to the consumer or prosumer with a target price point in mind.  Ergonomically there are issues, although none are deal breakers.  These shortcomings are overcome by a simple and intuitive dual touch screen menu system, Camera Function button, extensive manual controls, excellent iA/Manual mode, and generous internal flash memory capacity. 

But the true selling point of this cam is its unique ability to deliver stunning 1080/60p footage in a 28 mbits/s video stream.  The crisp, clean, vibrant video exceeds what I’ve seen from camcorders in this price range, and approaches the quality of more expensive camcorders. There are some necessary workarounds to transcode these native video files into a proxy codec for editing in Final Cut Pro, but the end product is worth the effort.

Copyright ©2010 David A. Saraceno

David A. Saraceno is a motion graphics artist located in Spokane, Washington. He runs a video blog and review site called secondchairvideo that provides up to date information on most things Final Cut Pro and video related.  He has written for DV Magazine, AV Video, MacHome Journal, and several state and national legal technology magazines. David moderates several forums on 2-pop.com, is active on the Apple Support Discussions forum for their Pro Applications, ranked as among the highest contributor as a Level IV in the pro apps forums, and contributes at dvxuser.com.


This article first appeared on lafcpug and is reprinted here with permission.

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