Most handheld digital camcorders made by the top manufacturers haven’t been so innovative lately. Every year, entry-level and midrange models would get a few extra features and some hardware upgrades while the high-end models would get all the future-proofing treatment and other highly sophisticated technologies to keep these high-priced models appealing. With the video industry heading towards the next big mainstream resolution – 4K, it should be no surprise that high-end models are boasting this kind of support. The question is, where will camcorders go from there? This product category should not stand still as there are smartphones that keep on improving their built-in cameras and even wearable cameras that boast more versatility than ever before. Panasonic already makes some fantastic high-end camcorders that outperform most of the other gadgets that have video recording as a secondary feature so the company decided to unleash its innovation on the Panasonic HC-W850 – the newest member of the upper-midrange lineup.
Like the HC-V750, which launched alongside this product, the Panasonic HC-W850 is fully black all over the body making it look a bit better than the older HC-V720 camcorder. But it is quite easy to notice something a little bit different about the whole design which makes this model worthy to be in its own W-series and that is the secondary camera found on the side of the pop out display panel. Because of where the extra camera lens is positioned, the dimensions of the Panasonic HC-W850 is the same as the HC-V750 and the W850 weighs just a tiny bit more than the V750. Another welcome addition is the customizable function dial found on the bottom right of the lens where you can bind it to your preferred manual setting. For instance, you can have that dial adjust the sharpness or shutter speed. Other controls include the iris, exposure, white balance and color saturation.
Unfortunately, Panasonic didn’t bother with improving the actual screen itself. It is a typical 3-inch LCD screen and the resistive touchscreen can give you some accuracy issues when trying to navigate through the menus. Although the HC-W850 is far from an entry-level model in terms of features, it still remains as a relatively simple camcorder to use. You just slide your hand into the comfortable strap and you have the essential functions like zoom and record within reach.
While a bit limited in function, the secondary camera is a true innovation that no other manufacturer has thought of before. The striking thing about this secondary f/2.2 lens is its ability to spin in place so you can have it capture video at an angle or rotate it all the way to the back so the camera faces you. The only thing that this camera can do is record a separate video stream while you are actively recording using the main camera. This separate video stream has a smaller window that is superimposed on top of your footage so you get that picture-in-picture effect. You can move this stream to any of the four corners of your video and that is just about it.
It would have been a killer feature if Panasonic allowed the secondary camera to record this separate stream and save it on to its own file but it looks like this particular model isn’t ready for that. Still, there are 3 main ways you can put this feature to good use on the Panasonic HC-W850. By tilting this lens to the far left, you can stay focused on the main subject while displaying any subjects on the left in the smaller window. It is also possible to face this lens in parallel to the main lens to have a second window showing off a wide angle view while you can let the main lens zoom into the subject. Finally, you can have the lens face you so you can have a video selfie while recording just about anything. The last example is actually quite similar to the smartphones that are capable of recording video using the front and back cameras but in much higher video quality.
The HC-W850 also has solid integration with Android and iOS smartphones and tablets which somewhat makes up for the mediocre touchscreen performance on the camcorder. Once you downloaded the Panasonic Image App, you can pretty much tinker with every electronic aspect of the camera. The app connects the device to the camcorder via Wi-Fi so you can see the viewfinder from afar including the secondary video camera should you wish to use it. It is also possible to review any videos and photos currently stored in the camcorder’s memory card and optionally share it to Facebook, YouTube or other social networking sites if the Panasonic HC-W850 is connected to the Internet. Another great feature is its ability to live stream footage to Ustream so other people can simply head to the Ustream link and watch live.
Having a mobile app serve as a remote viewfinder is nothing new and it allows a camcorder to serve as a basic surveillance system and even baby monitor. But Panasonic is more focused on this concept by equipping the HC-W850 and other models with a dedicated baby monitor feature that can not only monitor the baby but also listen to sounds such as the baby waking up so you are immediately notified. You can also talk to the mobile device through the app and your voice will come out of the camcorder.
A couple of the other noteworthy improvements over the older V720 model include better low light sensitivity and a higher 50 Mbps bitrate for the MP4 format so you should be able to record higher quality Web-friendly video. The microphone has also been improved to better mask ambient noise through a special design called Wind Shield. Exclusive to the Panasonic HC-W850 is a special IR-LED lighting functionality that enables the Night Mode feature which literally lets you capture footage as if you were using night vision goggles.
The Panasonic HC-W850 may not be the most powerful camcorder that $799 can buy but it is definitely one of the most feature-rich cameras which should suit a more general audience looking to do a lot more than what their expensive smartphone or iPhone can do. The secondary video camera is very cool and the minor improvements over last year’s model is more than welcome.
Update: There is a newer model > Panasonic HC-WX970