Panasonic HC-W850M Camcorder Review

The Panasonic HC-W850M Camcorder has an interesting gimmick, but it’s one that’s not quite enough to carry it into “must buy” territory.

Panasonic HC-W850M Camcorder: On the plus side

The HC-W850M is Panasonic’s latest high definition camcorder, and from a technical perspective it hits the points you’d expect it to hit, with a 12.76MP sensor sitting behind a F1.8 lens with 20x optical zoom and up to 1500x zoom via digital interpolation. Storage is either via the internal 16GB of memory or SD card. All fairly standard stuff in a relatively lightweight 361gm body sans battery.
That’s not going to be enough for most people to splurge on a new camcorder, so the Camcorder has an extra trick up its sleeve. Or to be more accurate, an extra lens. A small rotary lens that sits on the side of the flip-out LCD display, and pops slowly into life when you rotate it outwards. It’s a 5.27MP lens, which suggests that it’s much lower quality than the primary lens sensor. It’s not actually the case, though, as the primary sensor sells itself with its 12.76MP sensor, but its effective sensor quality is actually only 6.03MP.
The central idea is that you could use it to record your facial expressions while looking at a suitable tourist scene, or gain an additional angle on a given scene, because you’re not simply limited to using it in a rear-facing capacity. It can be flipped entirely forwards to give a small window view of whatever you’re looking at tilted to whatever angle you’ve got the screen tilted at.
Video quality is quite good from the main lens, with solid audio pickup from the microphone. In order to sell, camcorders need to be relatively simple to use, and on this score the Panasonic HC-W850M Camcorder performs admirably with a simple touchscreen interface and very few actual button controls aside from an optional manual control dial located on the front side of the camcorder.

Panasonic HC-W850M Camcorder: On the minus side

There are some issues with the HC-W850M. The secondary lens certainly works, but it’s very much a fixed mode lens. You can adjust variables for white balance and focus on the primary lens, but not on the secondary one, which means your inset videos are highly likely to have a different contrast to your main picture.
When recording with the second lens, there’s a pause of a second or so while it gets focus and comes on, which could lead to the odd missed shot. It’s also a little fiddly to flip the lens out without getting your fingers in the way, and because you’re likely to be holding it up in front of your face, getting a flattering angle on yourself is actually quite tricky. I’m not the world’s most photogenic man, but the secondary lens on the Panasonic HC-W850M Camcorder mostly made things worse in this regard.
While the Panasonic HC-W850M Camcorder does have two lenses, when it’s recording it only does so to a single file, which means if you do use the secondary lens, its picture is permanently embedded in the finished file. That means if you do use it, you’re always talking about a small section of your image that you can’t remove, even if you work out that the front facing lens actually captured what you wanted. Fixing this with dual video feeds that then were mixed in camera would involve higher data rates for recording and use a bit more internal storage space — but it’d be a genuine benefit.

Panasonic HC-W850M Camcorder: Pricing

Panasonic publishes an RRP for the Panasonic HC-W850M Camcorder of $1,199, although several online stores have it (at the time of writing) around $100 cheaper than that.

Panasonic HC-W850M Camcorder: Fat Duck Verdict

There’s all sorts of ways to assess the Panasonic HC-W850M Camcorder.
There’s the obvious point that the prevalence of smartphones has put a rather serious dent in the camcorder market, because most of us are capable of capturing video in some form or another, although the lenses and zoom capabilities of most smartphones leave a lot to be desired. Still, for a significant segment of the market, a smartphone is “good enough”.
It’s hard to criticise the camcorder for its basic recording facilities, because in most respects it’s an entirely capable device. If you’re happy with the limitations of smartphone videography then it’s most solidly not for you, but if you do want a camcorder that can capture quite satisfactory video, the Panasonic HC-W850M Camcorder works well.
Working well might not be enough, however, especially at this price point. The camcorder has an interesting point of differentiation, but I’m struck by the fact that the limitations within that point of differentiation quickly become apparent.
You can change settings on the primary lens, but not the secondary one, which means in many situations there’s going to be stark contrast between the captured image and the inset one. Once captured, the image is stuck there forever. While in the early testing phases I used the inset lens a lot just to see what it could do, over time I started using it less and less, simply because I couldn’t find enough scenes where I genuinely wanted to. It’s relatively trivial to do inset video if you’re willing to shoot from two camcorders at once, or even one if you don’t need on the spot reactions to events in your video from a postproduction point of view, which further erodes the Panasonic HC-W850M Camcorder’s value proposition.
That throws it rather sharply into “gimmick” territory, and on that basis I wouldn’t pay any extra for the Panasonic HC-W850M Camcorder. If you can pick it up at a price point similar to single lens camcorders it would be a fine buy, but on the face of it, you’d be paying for a feature that you’re not likely to use all that much.

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