Panasonic HDC-TM900 Review
Successor to the lauded HDC-TM700, our 2010 Camcorder of the Year.
The Panasonic HDC-TM900 is the successor to the lauded HDC-TM700, our pick for Camcorder of the Year in 2010. The TM900 offers the same fantastic video performance as its predecessor, particularly with its widely-praised 1080/60p mode, but the new camcorder showed no significant improvement in our video tests. Panasonic didn't improve much in terms of new hardware either, except for incorporating a slightly larger LCD, a few extra touchscreen features, and the ability to record 3D video with the purchase of a lens adapter.
Design & Usability
Nearly identical design to the TM900, except for a slightly larger LCD.
Because it shares the same weight and dimensions as Panasonic’s previous flagship model (the HDC-TM700), the HDC-TM900 doesn’t offer that much new in the way of handling. Sifting through the fine details, however, you will notice some differences. For one, the camcorder has a 1/2-inch larger LCD totaling 3.5 inches. This extra size may not sound like much, but it definitely helps with setting manual controls and making better use of touchscreen functions. Menus are also easier to navigate on the larger touchscreen, and this may be part of the reason Panasonic decided to give its menus a slight redesign on the TM900. On previous models, there was a Function menu that scrolled across the bottom of the screen. This menu has now been moved to the left side of the screen instead. It takes up less space there, but it also feels more cramped, and may be more difficult to access if you have larger-than-average fingers.
As usual, the hand strap on the HDC-TM900 isn’t quite as plush as what you get on Canon models, but it is decent, and the compact size and ergonomic shape of the camcorder makes it simple to grip regardless of the hand strap quality. The TM900's lens ring, a feature pros should love, works great for controlling almost everything (focus, zoom, aperture, shutter speed, white balance, gain), but its proximity to the back of the LCD is a bit disconcerting. You can adjust controls during recording—always a plus—although the lens ring only controls zoom when the camcorder is in auto mode. Unlike some older Panasonic camcorders, you can use the lens ring to set controls when the LCD panel is open or when the viewfinder is in use, either is acceptable.
Most high-end camcorders look daunting and scary upon first glance. They’re often loaded with buttons, dials, rings, and controls that make no sense to the novice user. Thankfully, the touchscreen interface on the TM900 (and most consumer camcorders these days) helps to clean up the surface of the model. This lack of scary buttons makes the TM900 easier to use in a way—nearly everything is run through the touchscreen interface. If you happen to hate touchscreens, which some people undoubtedly do, this is going to be a problem.
Manual controls are strong and plentiful, but the TM900 had a strange problem with autofocus.
The manual controls on the TM900 are fine. Most are adjustable with the lens ring, they can usually be altered during recording, and the options are plentiful. In addition to the popular controls like shutter speed, aperture, focus, white balance, and gain, the TM900 also has a wide selection of miscellaneous options. There's a basic picture adjust function that lets you boost saturation or sharpness, there's a tele macro mode for closeups, and there's even zebra patterns to help with proper exposure adjustment. The camcorder is equipped with a viewfinder, as well as its 3.5-inch LCD, and it comes with 32GB of internal memory and an SD memory card slot. The optical zoom lens is limited to 12x, but that's par for the course with high-end HD camcorders.
What really stood out on the TM900 was the camcorder’s poor auto white balance and finicky autofocus. In simple terms, the TM900 had difficulty providing a fully-focused image when using autofocus. The left side of the frame always appeared slightly blurred, while the right side was very crisp. The issue could be fixed with manual focus, but, even with that, both sides of the frame were never perfectly sharp. This focus issue was noticeable in all of the TM900's record modes, including its high-quality 60p setting.
Excellent video performance, but, again, no major improvement over last year's TM700.
The HDC-TM900 performed well in most of our tests, exhibiting excellent results in color, motion, low light and sharpness performance. That said, as good as the results for the TM900 are, they offer no significant improvement over the TM700. This is not necessarily a bad thing considering that the TM700—and by extension the TM900—is an excellent camcorder, but the lack of significant improvement is a missed opportunity.
There's not much to complain about with the TM900, except for Panasonic's lack of innovation with the camcorder.
The HDC-TM900 (MSRP $1099) is a great camcorder, that much is clear. It captured excellent video in a variety of record modes, and its performance recording 1080/60p HD video was as good as it gets. It has a ton of controls, a solid body design, and its 3D recording option (with the purchase of an optional conversion lens) makes it a cutting-edge product.
Despite all this, the TM900 is still a somewhat disappointing product. Other than adding the 3D capability and increasing the size of the LCD, Panasonic didn’t do much to improve on last year’s HDC-TM700—which was a fantastic camcorder in its own right. Panasonic had the chance to make a great product even better, but, instead, it chose to play it safe and maintain the status quo.
Unless you have a strong urge to record 3D video, there’s not much of a reason to buy the HDC-TM900 over last year’s HDC-TM700. The extra 1/2 inch of LCD real estate isn't intriguing enough, nor is the redesigned menu system. The new processor in the TM900 also didn't make for any improvements in our performance tests, despite Panasonic's claim that it would reduce noise up to 45%. To top it all off, the HDC-TM900 retails for around $100 – $200 more than the TM700 depending where you shop.
At this point in 2011, Canon's new HF G10 is the more impressive camcorder so far, and new flagships from Sony and JVC are on their way to our labs. Panasonic is up for some stiff competition this year, and hopefully it will encourage Panasonic to innovate more in 2012.
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