High-end digital camcorders are a pretty tough sell these days. With a bit of practice and the right apps, prosumers can use their iPhone 6 or other high-end Android or Windows Phone smartphone to record video. Seeing the results of these recordings is pretty mind-blowing and it is all because the processors and lenses of these camera components are highly advanced. Even slow-motion video recording is a possibility with a smartphone. Camcorders still have the obvious advantages like easier handling, tripod mounting and far better zooming capabilities but manufacturers like Panasonic are pressured to make their products come with more advanced tech for a cheaper price. Panasonic is banking on affordable 4K recording with the Panasonic HC-VX870.
Panasonic didn’t pour out any new tricks when designing the HC-VX870. It is fairly light for a prosumer camcorder with its 353-gram weight. On the right of the camcorder, you will find a pretty comfortable strap and a small panel covering the DC input. Opening up the screen door reveals a micro-HDMI port, a USB 2.0 port and dedicated jacks for A/V and mic. There are also a few physical buttons including a playback toggle, level shot button, Wi-Fi button and power button. The door is equipped with a standard 3-inch touchscreen display with a 460,800-dot resolution just like its predecessor. The highly useful Multi Manuel Dial makes a return to this camcorder and can still be found on the bottom portion of the lens. Pressing this dial changes the mode to manual where you can pick a particular manual setting you wish to adjust using the touchscreen and rotate the dial to adjust. The controls on the top and back are similar to the buttons you find on any standard camcorder.
4K is the main highlight of the Panasonic HC-VX870 and while it may not seem like a fresh new feature since Panasonic has launched 4K camcorders in the past, it is great to see the advanced format get some love in a fairly affordable package too. With the exception of the pricier Panasonic HC-WX970, the other new camcorders that launched alongside do not have 4K support. Plus, the 4K support on the HC-VX870 comes with very few compromises. 4K resolution is all about detail with 4 times the resolution of 1080p. The results are noticeable on a 4K display although 4K is still useful even if you do not own one. Taking the extra step of downconverting a 4K video to 1080p produces a video with better picture quality than a video natively recorded at 1080p. 4K videos are also an ideal medium to work with if you wish to extract 8-megapixel frames or zoom into specific areas of a video by cropping without losing detail.
No matter what resolution you pick, you can still enjoy 20x optical zoom from the Leica Dicomar Lens as it is fully optimized for 4K and the focus speed is quick. Intelligent zoom still doubles that limitation to 40x in case you wish to go closer to the subject without a huge blow to picture quality but 4K video is restricted to 25x max. The Panasonic HC-VX870 employs the same HYBRID OIS 5-Axis image stabilization technology as Panasonic’s older models.
The HC-VX870 is billed as a successor to last year’s HC-W850 model. However, the Panasonic HC-VX870 doesn’t have the second rotatable camera found on the side of the display. This is because the HC-VX870 takes a different approach to the whole “Twin Camera” idea. This approach actually embraces the current smartphone landscape while competing with it. The camcorder wants to make the smartphone the secondary camera for picture-in-picture recording. This opens up a lot more possibilities since the camcorder can link to the smartphone through Wi-Fi. You can take a video of one scene while someone else with a smartphone can record a distant angle and have it appear as a picture-in-picture on the main video all in real time. You can also turn on the “Narration Mode” if you like if you want the microphone to emphasize on capturing your voice clearly when you speak. This new feature works well with both iOS and Android devices although it is best to have a flagship model such as the iPhone 6 or Samsung Galaxy S5.
Since the Twin Camera feature is provided by the same mobile app that other Panasonic Wi-Fi-equipped camcorders rely on, you also get the rest of the neat networking features on the Panasonic HC-VX870 including the remote view and shooting features where your smartphone can act as a remote control for your camcorder. It is also possible to stream live broadcasts to Ustream or use it as a baby monitor. NFC is onboard this camcorder too for easy pairing with NFC-equipped smartphones. It is also worth noting that this camcorder still works with the Remote Pan Tilt Cradle accessory which is good for those that wish to upgrade from an older model. Sold separately, this accessory can keep the camcorder in place and can accept pan and tilt commands from smartphones via Wi-Fi.
The HC-VX870 is also amongst the first Panasonic consumer camcorders with HDR video support. Enthusiasts with midrange or high-end camcorders often have to do some extra post-processing to deal with underexposed areas or shadowy subjects depending on the shooting conditions. But HDR prevents such problems from happening by recording the video at different exposures and combining them all in a special way to get highly balanced results.
Panasonic didn’t shake up the design formula of its camcorders and it probably won’t anytime soon. But the Panasonic HC-VX870 is a great upgrade for anybody looking for a camcorder that is capable of shooting 4K video. Because of its $899 price tag, you should be able to buy both this camcorder and a decent 4K TV for under $2,000. But if you plan on shooting lots of 4K video, you should consider getting a 64 GB or 128 GB SDXC card to deal with the huge file sizes.
Update: There is a newer model > Panasonic HC-VX981K