Being late to a niche category that suddenly rises in popularity has its consequences. The action camera market is a pretty good example because it started with a couple of relatively unknown companies with one clear winner claiming a huge chunk of market share. That company isn’t a juggernaut like Sony or Panasonic but GoPro. But Panasonic and other companies aren’t going to let GoPro have all the fun. There is plenty of room for innovation and improvements after all and the Panasonic HX-A500 symbolizes that.
The HX-A500 takes a different design approach than most other action cameras. It consists of two components that together look more like a throwback to older gadgets rather than something cutting edge. But it isn’t a bad thing because the approach focuses on usability and the Panasonic HX-A500 is pretty user friendly. The main component is basically a control unit that has the look and feel of an old MP3 player. This component has a small full-color LCD display which you can use to preview recorded videos. It is accompanied by a joystick and a few buttons so you can navigate the onscreen menu. There is an available micro-USB port for charging and a microSD slot which must be used for video or photo storage. It is attached to a 70cm umbilical cable which links the main unit to the lens unit. As awkward as it sounds, this configuration adds an interesting new dimension to the usability. With the lens as its own compact part, you can better aim the lens while having close access to the live preview. But depending on your configuration, you might have difficulty positioning both components since there is no way to make the cable longer. The battery isn’t removable either but on the upside, both parts are solidly built with waterproofing and dustproofing in mind. No case is required to take the camera for a dip but make sure you don’t go deeper than 3 meters for more than 30 minutes.
Support for recording 4K video serves as the main highlight of the HX-A500. This means nothing for people without a 4K TV or monitor but could be a big deal later on as all the popular manufacturers are making the technology more mainstream by making them more affordable. With little to no 4K videos right now, your best bet in appreciating those fancy displays is to make videos yourself. Of course, the quality of the video must be good and the 4K quality looks great. 72 Mbits per second is all you really need to know although it means too that the video will take up more space. On a 32 GB microSD card, you can have about an hour worth of 4K video and pretty much nothing else. There are several other competing models that have 4K support too but the Panasonic HX-A500 can achieve that resolution at a smooth 30p. To cram more video footage in a microSD card, you can opt for 1080p or 720p video which still looks good and you have 50 or 25 frames per second to choose from. These are also the preferred video resolutions if you want 160 degrees worth of coverage.
The HX-A500 also comes equipped with an image stabilizer for reduced blurring and can help level your shot. You can also snap 12-megapixel photos as well though the image quality isn’t as good as today’s flagship smartphones.
Lastly, the Panasonic HX-A500 has built-in Wi-Fi so you can link the camcorder up with smartphones. Devices running iOS and Android are supported although the NFC functionality makes it effortlessly simple to connect an NFC-enabled Android device. While it is most practical to use the main unit for controlling purposes, smartphones in general have larger screens making them more appropriate if you want a more detailed live view. The Panasonic Image App provides this functionality and offers some remote control features too. This app also doubles as a basic editor where you can make highlights out of certain parts of your video. Real-time broadcasting can be done with the HX-A500 as well.
The Panasonic HX-A500 might not be better than the popular action cameras in every possible aspect but it does manage to stand out carrying a few unique advantages along the way. Once you have figured out a proper way to use the 2-part system, you could find yourself easily recording high-quality video due to its very light weight. Plus, 4K video recording is miles better than the 3D gimmicks of the past because you get very detailed videos in this mode with excellent color accuracy and even decent low-light performance. The fact that it uses a fixed lens is its real limitation and using the wide field of view can lead to some distorting results. But the HX-A500 is still a pretty strong contender especially with its aggressive $349 price tag.
Update: There is a newer model > Panasonic HX-A1