camcorders

Panasonic HM-TA20 Review

Panasonic tries once more to produce a waterproof ultracompact camcorder, and based on how patient you are, you may like it.

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Introduction

The HM-TA20 is Panasonic’s newest attempt at a waterproof ultracompact camcorder. The model did a decent job in our performance tests, but it didn’t handle all that well and it was surprisingly difficult to use.

The camcorder is available in blue or orange and currently retails for just under $200.

Design & Usability

Ease of use is an important part of the HM-TA20, as is the case for all ultracompact camcorders.

With this model, you aren’t getting the best image quality, but with that sacrifice you should get a more portable and simpler device. Compared to similar pocket-cams, the HM-TA20 is a bit more complicated than the norm. It has a few extra features, a bulkier design, and more confusing interface than your average ultracompact model. Part of this complication stems from the fact that it is waterproof (hence the complex locking system for the port covers), but we also think Panasonic couldn’t help itself from adding extra features to the TA20. Panasonic is, after all, one of the leaders in the camcorder industry, and the company is known for having lots of controls and features on its traditional camcorders.

The HM-TA20 would benefit from a slightly simpler design. The various record mode options in the menu system are confusing, and the presence of a low light mode and digital effects menu further complicate things. Why not set the low light mode to kick in automatically instead? We’re sure there are people out there who will want this kind of control, but there’s probably an equal number of users who will find themselves confused and overwhelmed by the HM-TA20.

The HM-TA20 would benefit from a slightly simpler design.

The Panasonic HM-TA20 has a rugged and durable design, as any waterproof camcorder should, but we were upset by its lack of grip and odd flattened-out shape. Starting with the waterproof function, which allows the TA20 to be used at depths up to 10 feet (3 meters), we noticed that the camcorder’s various port covers all have locking mechanisms and rubber inserts to keep water out of these important areas. The two actual port covers did a decent job here, but the sliding cover on the bottom of the camcorder that protects the memory card slot was not well designed. Sliding this cover open, we accidentally pushed some water into the memory card slot area—not much, but some—which is not something that should be this easy to do.

We also found the camcorder retained quite a bit of liquid even after we took it out of the water and dried it off. This was especially true for the area around the start/stop record button on the back of the camcorder (water would drip out of this area the few times we pressed the button even after drying the camcorder off).

he camcorder retained quite a bit of liquid even after we took it out of the water and dried it off.

The Panasonic HM-TA20 weighs 155g with an SD card loaded in its memory card slot. That may sound light to those used to dealing with traditional camcorders, but it is close to average for an ultracompact model—especially when compared to other waterproof camcorders. The TA20 is only 10g heavier than the Kodak PlaySport Zx5, and the dimensions of the two camcorders are nearly the same give or take a few millimeters. But the Zx5 has a more shapely design that fits better into the palm, so it looks a bit more compact than the TA20 even though it isn’t all that much smaller. The hard numbers for the TA20 are: 64.3 × 112.6 × 17.7mm (2.5 × 4.4 × 0.7 inches).

Like many camcorders of its class, the HM-TA20 has a fixed lens. This means the lens has no moving parts, hence a fixed aperture and focal length (as you can see from the table below). The TA20’s fixed aperture of f/2.8 isn’t all that wide, but the camcorder did a decent job in our low light tests regardless. A fixed lens also means no optical zoom for the camcorder, so don’t get fooled by Panasonic’s specs that talk about a 4x zoom (it’s digital, not optical).

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Features

The HM-TA20 has no manual controls, so 95% of your shooting will involve the camcorder’s iA or Intelligent Auto mode.

This is the default mode on the camcorder, and its features are similar to the iA mode found on Panasonic’s other consumer camcorders. The only other recording mode besides iA is the night mode, which you must activate manually from the menu system.

The instruction manual claims there are six automatic scene modes, but we rarely saw the camcorder select any of these modes.

According to Panasonic, when the HM-TA20 is in record mode its iA setting will automatically select a scene mode appropriate to the shooting conditions. This scene mode is selected by just pointing the camcorder at your subject, but in our testing we rarely saw the TA20 automatically select any mode other than the regular iA setting. The instruction manual claims there are six automatic scene modes: Portrait, Scenery, Spotlight, Night Portrait, Night Scenery, and Macro. Like we said, however, we rarely saw the camcorder select any of these modes, and most of them we never saw at all.

Loaded on the TA20 itself is an editing program called HD Writer PE 2.0. The PE probably stands for “pocket edition” as this software is the same program that came on last year’s TA1, although it has been updated to version 2.0.

The HM-TA20 records Full HD video using a compression system based on the MPEG-4 codec. It does not use AVCHD compression, which is the norm for more traditional HD camcorders (and is also based on MPEG-4). The basic MPEG-4 compression used by the HM-TA20 allows for smaller file sizes than the bulky AVCHD, which is why it is commonly used on ultracompact camcorders like the TA20.

No photos can be taken during recording, which is a feature found on most traditional camcorders.

You can take photos with the Panasonic HM-TA20, but you must do so by switching the camcorder to its dedicated still image mode. That means no photos can be taken during recording, which is a feature found on most traditional camcorders. In the dedicated photo mode you can take photos at four different resolution options: 3264 × 2448 (8 megapixels), 1920 × 1080 (2 megapixels), 1600 × 1200 (2 megapixels), or 640 × 480 (0.3 megapixels). There’s also a self-timer function on the camcorder that can be used to take photos on a delayed setting.

If you’ve been reading this review, you should probably know by now that the HM-TA20 is a waterproof camcorder. The camcorder says so right on the front of its body (waterproof is written in italics), and on the right side of the camcorder you’ll see the text: 3m/10ft WATERPROOF and 1.5m/5ft SHOCKPROOF. This waterproof depth of 3 meters or 10 feet is fairly standard for an ultracompact camcorder that is classified as waterproof. The Kodak PlaySport Zx5 and JVC GC-WP10 can both carry this depth threshold as well.

Comparable Products

Before you buy the Panasonic HM-TA20, take a look at these other camcorders.

Performance

Problems with sharpness and motion, but otherwise decent results

The HM-TA20 managed a fairly steep color error in our bright light testing; it essentially lacks good color accuracy. It was slightly worse than the color error we measured on last year’s Panasonic HM-TA1, but it is better than the other two camcorders we compared it to. A traditional HD camcorder in the $300 – $500 price range would generally yield much better results in this test than the HM-TA20.

A traditional HD camcorder in the $300 – $500 price range would generally yield much better results in this test than the HM-TA20.

We never expect top-notch color accuracy with ultracompact or budget camcorders, mainly because those camcorders rarely offer a manual white balance feature. Using auto white balance, cheap camcorders tend to have difficulty producing accurate colors under certain indoor lights—like the tungsten bulbs we use for our bright light test. Taking this into consideration, the TA20’s color accuracy numbers aren’t all that bad.

The HM-TA20 was able to record a decent video image without requiring all that much illumination. It was a better low light sensitivity than we usually see for a consumer camcorder. These ultracompact models often need less light than the larger, more traditional HD camcorders. This is due to the fact that cheap, pocket cams often have fixed lenses, which means the apertures for the lens are consistently set at a very wide f-stop. These models also tend to have low light settings such as slow shutters that kick in automatically—without the ability to turn them off. Anyway, the point is the HM-TA20 is able to record fairly bright video without much light.

The camcorder had a drop in sharpness whenever we shot subjects in motion.

Using the TA20’s highest-quality record mode (1920 × 1080 Full HD) produced video that was decently sharp, but had some significant problems. We saw more artifacting than we noticed from the competition, and there was a lot of interference in our motion test. While many of the images we pulled from the TA20’s video tests looked rather sharp, we noticed the camcorder had a drop in sharpness whenever we shot subjects in motion (or moved the camcorder while recording).

Conclusion

It’s hard to come clean with our true feelings about the Panasonic HM-TA20. We love its rugged, adventuresome design, but we can’t call it a triumph.

Despite appearances, the TA20 doesn’t have the best grip due to its rigid design, and we did find its memory card slot area wasn’t as protected from water as we would have liked it to be. We also weren’t crazy about the camcorder’s menu system and touchscreen interface, both of which had some confusing elements (particularly for beginners).

With ultracompact camcorders we put emphasis on ease of use and portability; the TA20 was not the best model in either of these areas.

The TA20 performed admirably in our video testing, and there were certain categories (like color accuracy) where it was a bit ahead of the pack. But with ultracompact camcorders we like to put emphasis on ease of use and portability, and the TA20 was not the best model in either of these areas. Its wide, rectangular design, while still very compact, made the camcorder more difficult to slip in and out of a pocket than the Kodak PlaySport Zx5. We should give kudos to Panasonic for including a small tripod with the camcorder, however, and we do like the fact that the TA20 can stand upright on its own (that’s where the wide bottom comes in handy).

There’s not much out there to compare it to at the is point, so the TA20 is currently one of the better waterproof camcorders we’ve reviewed.

When we reviewed the HM-TA1 last year, we came away disappointed with Panasonic’s lack of ingenuity with the product. There was nothing special about the TA1 to set it apart from the rest of the ultracompact camcorder class. The same could be said about the TA20, but at least Panasonic tried a bit harder this time. The external mic jack and improved USB arm are welcomed additions on the TA20, and the recycled features like the built-in video light, dedicated audio record mode, and iFrame recording options do help elevate the camcorder’s stature. Because there’s not much out there to compare it to at the is point, the TA20 is currently one of the better waterproof camcorders we’ve reviewed. It isn’t quite as good as the Kodak PlaySport Zx5 or Zx3, but it is definitely better than the GE DV1 and the JVC GC-WP10.

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