When Cisco killed off its industry-leading Flip in April, it created a vacancy for a new chief in the cheap, pocket-sized camcorder space, and Panasonic hopes to fill it with the HM-TA20.
Of course, one of the reasons Cisco dumped the Flip is that it's becoming harder to sell consumers on a $200 camcorder that duplicates the movie recording functionality of other devices they may already own, from smartphones and tablets to game machines and dual-function cameras. However, the HM-TA20 provides a couple of good reasons to consider throwing a dedicated video recorder in your purse or messenger bag.
For starters, its body, though phone-sized and shaped, is far more durable than your average mobile. In fact, it's waterproof (as opposed to water resistant) up to three metres, shockproof when dropped from about shoulder height, and completely dustproof, which means there's no concern that grit will get into the body and foul up the optics. Thick port covers for HDMI and USB jacks, as well as the SD memory card slot, are hidden under double-lock doors designed to protect against accidental openings in inclement conditions – though, it's worth noting, I occasionally had a tough time re-locking the USB cover.
And while its video isn't on par with what you can capture with pricier cameras and camcorders, it's undeniably better than those recorded via phones. I shot several 1080p (1920-by-1080, 30 frames-per-second, MP4 format) videos side-by-side with a couple of high-end smartphones and the HM-TA20's results were consistently superior. Low-light images had visibly less grain, while outdoor shots had better balance and more natural colours. Sadly, the device's 8-megapixel photographs are merely passable, and not much better than those shot on my iPhone. Best think of Panasonic's slim shooter as a video machine.
It's a fully automated experience, which means you ought not to go in expecting to adjust anything aside from resolution and zoom, or add more than a few simple effects, such as black-and-white and sepia tone. But that likely won't be a demerit for device's target audience, which one assumes to be active lifestyle enthusiasts looking for a lightweight point-and-shoot solution, and moms and dads who want to keep a camcorder in their bags to capture any unplanned memorable family moments while out and about.
These same people may also find use for Panasonic's HD Writer PE software – stored onboard the camera and installed when you plug it into your PC (Macs not supported) – which lets users upload files to YouTube and Facebook with just a couple of clicks. Of course, uploading media to these sites is pretty easy without any extra help.
The HM-TA20's ability to double as a web camera and facilitate Skype conversations may lure those looking for a multipurpose device.
Unfortunately, the camcorder's turn-ons are matched by its turn-offs.
For starters, there's no onboard memory, which means purchasing and fiddling with memory cards, something Flip owners never had to do. Plus, while the box includes a USB cord, wrist strap, and a flimsy-feeling imitation Joby Gorillapod tripod, it doesn't come with a mini HDMI cable for connecting the camera to a television, which is where most people like to watch their HD video.
And while the HM-TA20's three-inch touch screen is a decent size, its full dimensions are used only for playback. The live view image while recording is inexplicably shrunken and pushed up to the top half of the display, with large virtual buttons for playback, mode selection, menu, and zoom filling the empty space below.
Complicating matters further, touch sensitivity is spotty. My interactions frequently went unregistered or were so slow to be recognized that I found myself tapping the screen with impatience, pining for the good old days of physical buttons and knobs.
The $200 HM-TA20 possesses some noble virtues, particularly its ability to take a lickin' and keep on tickin,' but it's not the heir apparent to the Flip. If it's possible for the category of cheap, pocket-sized camcorders to survive in an era in which lenses and image sensors are embedded in pretty much every mobile device, its new champion will need to be cheaper, require no extra hardware purchases, and sport an instantly alluring interface. Put a durable, $100 shooter with built-in storage, infant-friendly controls, and decent HD image quality in front of consumers, and you'll have a winner. If that's not possible, then perhaps Cisco had the right idea.