The Panasonic HM-TA1 is a simple, but elegant HD pocket camcorder. Although it’s missing most of the bells and whistles of more-expensive video cameras, the TA1 is able to handle most higher-end functions seamlessly with ease and grace.
The video quality is excellent. I shot my footage at the camera's highest resolution, 1920 x 1080p. There was no noticeable pixelation or any artifacts on my monitor when viewed at full resolution. This camera pretty much runs in automatic-everything mode, but seemed to be capable of handling automatic iris, exposure, shutter speed and white balance to a degree where I had totally forgotten that I was not setting any of these features manually.
Low-Light Picture Quality
The low-light capabilities on the HM-TA1 HD pocket camcorder are acceptable. In addition to the camera automatically opening the iris and boosting the gain in low-light situations, it also has a “light” button that you can press, which activates a tiny LED lamp next to the lens. The manual says to avoid getting the light closer than six feet to the subject because it is very bright. After testing it, the light will make you squint, but is not enough light an entire room. However, I did test the camera in extremely low-light situations, and the LED did perform satisfactory to light people or objects within six feet of the camera.
Ease of Use
The Panasonic HM-TA1 is an extremely easy HD video camera to use. For the most part, all you do is power it up. The only things you can change other the date and time are the recording mode and whether or not you need to turn on the LED light. Like the Flip camcorders, the TA1 has a built in USB connector which allows you to plug it into the computer without have to use a separate USB cable. It also has a USB extension cable in the box in case you will be using the HM-TA1 as a web camera (one of its intended features, in fact).
I also need to mention that this camera has one of the best autofocus features I have ever seen. It does have a face detection mode, but I shot very fast moving sports footage and most of the shots were either in sharp focus or slightly soft focus. Out of 60 takes, not once did I have a single shot completely out of focus.
There are not many special features on the Panasonic HM-TA1, but one of the most interesting features is the ability to use it as a web camera for Skype video chats. Theoretically, just about any camera with a USB or Firewire connection can be used as a web camera, but Panasonic specifically guarantees it for Skype, should your computer meet the require specifications. I tested it with Skype on a Macintosh and the camera and microphone did function properly.
However, when comparing the quality of the image to the built-in iSight camera on my MacBook Pro, the TA1 had a brighter image, but the iSight had a cleaner image. This is likely due to the fact that the TA1 does not capture images in HD when using it as a web camera. And although every camera should function as a web camera, when I tried to use it with Apple’s iChat, I could not get it to work. (Note: When using the HM-TA1 as a web camera, the LCD screen is deactivated.)
Audio on the HM-TA1 is just OK. There are no manual audio-level controls or an external microphone jack. The camcorder is able to maintain an even recording level, but there is a significant level of hum and hiss from the auto gain keeping the audio levels hot.
I was not able to access the footage directly from a card reader on a Macintosh, but I was able to plug the camcorder directly into the computer, which then allowed me drag and drop access to the MPEG-4 movie files which could immediately be played back on my computer, as long as I had the right codecs installed. To edit the footage, I imported into iMovie, which transcoded the footage to 1080p Apple Intermediate movie files.
Apple users also have the option to record footage in the iFrame record mode. The iFrame mode essentially captures the footage at half the resolution of 1080p, and if you have QuickTime Pro installed, you can capture the regular 1080p footage on your Mac in iMovie quite easily. Windows users should have a much easier time of editing video footage.
In a crowded field of pocket camcorders, the HM-TA1 is one more solid option. No feature particularly stands out as a blockbuster, but it's a well-rounded shooter at a fair price and easy enough to use for the casual-shooting target crowd. If you're looking for a Flip-type camcorder, the TA1 is worth some consideration.
Christopher C. Odom is an award-winning writer, director, producer and author who earned his Master of Fine Arts in screenwriting from the University of California, Los Angeles. His work has been nationally televised and screened in cities worldwide, including Tel Aviv, Berlin and Cannes.