camcorders

Panasonic HDC-TM90 Review

The Panasonic HDC-TM90 leads Panasonic's mid-range camcorders in packaging features and performance.

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Introduction

The Panasonic TM90 is a single 1/4.1’’ chip HD camcorder leading Panasonic’s 2011 mid-range consumer lineup. This MSRP $599.99 camcorder offers 1080/60p video recording, a 21x optical zoom lens, and 16GB of built-in flash memory to go along with SDHC/SDXC compatibility. It inherits many of the features of last year’s middle and high-end models, bringing 1080/60p video quality to Panasonic’s consumer line.

Design & Usability

Mostly reliable design, punctuated by a few unfortunate flaws

With no viewfinder, the Panasonic TM90 relies entirely on its 3-inch touchscreen LCD for framing, control, and menu navigation. It’s a bright LCD that sits flush with the body of the camera when closed, but isn’t incredibly high resolution with just a 230k-dot display. It’s generally quite responsive to touch control, and just large enough that the lack of either a viewfinder and physical menu and navigation buttons is not a huge concern. Panasonic includes a plastic stylus with the TM90, though we never found it necessary. Like most LCDs of this type the screen isn’t totally visible in bright light, but it has full rotational capability so finding a workable angle isn’t difficult.

The Panasonic TM90 includes four ports on the inside control panel of the camera: mini-HDMI, multi A/V, USB, and a 3.5mm audio input terminal. The mini-HDMI is a standard port, while the USB port should work with the included cable and most mini-USB cables. The A/V multi cable included with the TM90 can be used to connect the camera via either component or composite connections, as well. On the right side of the camera, located behind a swiveling panel, is the input for using the AC adapter to charge the battery or operate the camera without draining battery power.

One of the nicer additions to the TM90, compared to most consumer cameras, is the cold shoe port located above the rear battery compartment. It provides no power, but it makes using many external mics and lights a breeze. There is also 16GB of built-in flash memory for recording, and the camcorder supports SD/SDHC/SDXC cards.

Panasonic has not only decided to keep the abysmal power button from last year’s HS60, but tucked it into the least accessible corner of the panel as well.

The TM90 has a fairly typical flimsy Velcro-and-leather hand strap. It’s not incredibly comfortable for a $500+ camera, but it gets the job done. The body is mostly smooth plastic, though the right side of the camera has a grooved pattern that offers more stability. Panasonic has not only decided to keep the abysmal power button from last year’s HS60, but tucked it into the least accessible corner of the panel, right next to the LCD. The TM90 then uses that same awful button design for the auto/manual, image stabilization, and 1080/60p switches, so your frustration at a button requiring three attempts to press isn’t limited simply to turning the camera on and off any more. Maybe next year Panasonic can just go all out and use a “ballpoint pen” reset button for every function on the camera.

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Features

Like many of Panasonic's mid-range camcorders, the HDC-TM90 comes equipped with a standard feature set.

The TM90, like several other Panasonic models, makes use of their 1080/60p recording mode, though the AVCHD standard does not support 1080/60p. Sony is also beginning to release cameras capable of shooting in 1080/60p, though, so it’s becoming more accepted. The camera also has options for recording in AVCHD 1080/60i and iFrame 540/30p formats for easier editing. The 1080/60p video is one of the main reasons to buy this camera—it’s noticeably superior to the 60i footage—but because this is a non-standard format there are some extra steps you’re going to have to take later on.

The 3D conversion lens that can be used with the TM90 is a fixed focal length, with a 35mm equivalent focal length of 58mm and an aperture of f/3.2. It weighs 193 grams, according to Panasonic, so it’s going to unbalance the camera somewhat. Shooting 3D in this method will require more light than typical 2D shooting, so you’ll want to make sure there’s plenty of light available.

Recording 3D video with the TM90 does take away a good measure of the camera’s feature set.

Recording 3D video with the TM90 does take away a good measure of the camera’s feature set: still picture recording, zoom functionality, intelligent auto mode, manual adjustments to the picture and shutter/iris control, hybrid optical image stabilization (normal optical IS is still functional), autofocus/exposure tracking, guide lines, scene modes, the zoom microphone, and tele macro are all unavailable when shooting 3D. The 3D videos are also not high definition, as the camera is recording two images side-by-side with a single sensor. The resultant 3D video can be viewed on the LCD, but only in 2D. In order to view the images in 3D they must be played on a compatible 3D television. The camera can switch between 3D and 2D playback automatically, and 3D videos can be played in single-screen 2D through the menu. If you play a 3D video back on a non-3D compatible television without adjusting this setting, the images will be displayed side-by-side. All videos shot in 3D are played back with a gray frame.

Auto Ground-Directional Standby simply pauses the camera’s recording if it detects that it is upside-down or if it its pointed at something directly above or below you. It’s meant to try and preserve data in case of a drop or to prevent wasted recording if you lower the camera from a shooting position and forget to hit stop.

Performance

The mid-range HDC-TM90 is a commendable performer.

We found the TM90 excelled in reproducing accurate colors in video testing, with an average color error of just 3.52. The camera’s videos also had an accurate saturation level, so it’s tough to find fault here, as these are all big improvements over last year’s mid-range Panasonic camcorders.

The Panasonic TM90’s motion results were quite good, with little in the way of trailing and ghosting affecting the resultant video.

Like other models from Panasonic, there are not any color modes. Instead, users are offered the option to make small adjustments to color, sharpness, exposure, and white balance (this is different from the white balance settings that are also included). Making adjustments to the color option primarily impacts saturation, with users able to create videos with either very muted or vibrant colors.

As for low light shooting, the TM90 did slightly better than the HS60 model from Panasonic that we tested last year, despite the fact that the TM90 actually has a slightly smaller aperture at the telephoto end.

The Panasonic TM90’s motion results were quite good, with little in the way of trailing and ghosting affecting the resultant video. This follows in the footsteps of last year’s Panasonic SD600, which also featured the 1080/60p mode in a camera for under $1000. In our testing we found that there was almost no difference in the motion results of the TM900/TM700 and the TM90 using this mode.

The TM90 produced very pleasing results with its lauded 1080/60p mode, and its stabilization feature is a great improvement from last year's. The Panasonic TM90 offers no shortage of frame rate and resolution options to users, with the ability to record in Panasonic’s 1080/60p, AVCHD 1080/60i, and iFrame 960×540p formats. Unsurprisingly, we found that the 1080/60p format produced the sharpest results.

Conclusion

While Panasonic’s mid-range consumer camcorder lineup is perhaps a little too congested, the TM90 and SD90 are at the top of that group.

The TM90 combines a compact body design and 28mm wide-angle lens with a 21x optical zoom, 1080/60p recording, optional 3D capability, 1/4.1’’ CMOS sensor, and 3-inch touchscreen LCD. Altogether, it’s an impressive package that is fairly affordable when you consider its performance in our testing. We found the TM90 to be very capable, recording crisp motion with above-average sharpness and accurate color rendition. Saturation was nearly perfect, placing the TM90 among the better scoring mid-range consumer camcorders we have looked at this year.

Altogether, it’s an impressive package that is fairly affordable.

The TM90 (and SD90, by extension) brings down many of the features of the much more expensive Panasonic models, chief among them the 28 Mbps 1080/60p recording mode that debuted in the TM700 last year. The videos in 1080/60p looked crisper, with better motion reproduction and sharper images than those shot in 17 Mbps 1080/60i. One headache: the 1080/60p is not officially a part of the AVCHD format, so your options for editing and archiving are going to be limited, but it’s a feature that most consumer cameras simply don’t offer at any price.

The camera is not without its quirks, however. Compared to last year’s models, the TM90 has quadrupled the camera’s use of the small embedded buttons that sit flush with the body and offer no tactile feedback. These indented devils are so frustrating to use, we half expected to see an apology listed under the layout diagrams in the manual. Nevertheless, the TM90 performs impressively on the whole. The camera scored well in the majority of our tests, with Panasonic offering big improvements to image stabilization and low light noise processing over last year’s models.

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