We’ve seen a lot of gimmicks tacked on to pocket cams before. Manufacturers try 3D capture, rotating lenses, and trendy filters to make their shooters stand out from the pack. But how about a gimmick that’s actually useful, one that you might actually call a feature? That’s what you get with Panasonic’s TA20. This rugged little camcorder is made to take some abuse and keep on shooting. It isn't the first pocket camcorder to boast a tough build, but it does look promising. Read on to see how it fares.
Durability is important for any camcorder, but it’s especially helpful for a pocket cam to survive some drops. Pocket cams are meant to be whipped out of a pocket or purse for a quick shot. Sometimes, you whip a little too hard and the camcorder takes a spill. This is not a problem for the TA20. It's rated to survive falls from as high as 5 feet onto plywood without suffering any functional effects. During testing, I dropped the TA20 several times from right around the 5-foot mark. It landed on its corners, front, back, lens, and touchscreen, but nothing broke or even rattled. There was no effect on function and no interruption in recording or playback. Not everyone is looking for a camcorder to take out hiking or whitewater rafting, but everyone can appreciate a camcorder that forgives a few drops.
But if you do plan on recording your next rafting trip, this can handle it, too. Too often “waterproof” ends up meaning “water resistant” or “it will survive some light splashing” but in this case, the TA20 is rated for depths up to 10 feet. I didn’t test the camcorder that deep down, but when completely immersed in a tub of water, the TA20 performed without interruption and was still very easy to operate. The only drawback while shooting under water was that glare and refraction made the touchscreen impossible to see from wide angles. But as long as you keep the camcorder directly in front of you, there is no issue.
On top of being waterproof the TA20 is also fairly foolproof. The USB, HDMI, and SD/SDHC/SDXC card doors all have latches and locks. If any of the doors are unlatched or unlocked (not ready to go for a dive), you’ll see a red warning square on the screen. The gaskets inside each of these doors were tight and thick. While a very few (tiny) water droplets made it inside the doors, none made it past the gaskets. While I didn’t take the TA20 anywhere especially dusty, its ability to keep out water should speak for its ability to stay dust-free.
It’s also worth noting that all these durability features don’t make the TA20 into some ugly, rubber-coated monster. The metal casing and hard plastic edges still look sleek, and the build feels as solid and professional as a pocket-cam can.
On top of shooting full HD video, the TA20 also takes 8 megapixel stills. That’s 3 more megapixels than most other pocket cams on the market. Pushing a resolution this high makes shooting stills a real feature rather than just just a tacked on extra as it is with a lot of pocket cams.
The TA20’s audio quality is also fairly impressive. The camcorder records stereo sound in Linear PCM format. It also allows to you to record just sound, for memos or voice-overs. I was impressed by how crisp, full, and loud recorded sound was during playback. There's also a headphone jack for monitoring and reviewing sound.
The TA20 also features two options for recording in low light. The Night View mode reduces the frame rate by half (in effect decreasing the shutter speed) thus allowing twice as much light to enter. The image is not as smooth, but it is noticeably brighter. The other nighttime option is a built-in LED light. This light is bright and effective at close ranges but, like most on-camera lights, it looks very much like a spotlight.
Finally, importing and sharing was easy with built-in software for PC and simple access through iMovie for Mac. It would be nice to see some built in memory on the TA20, but plenty of pocket cams ship without internal storage.
The Touch Screen
I was excited to be trying out a touchscreen pocket cam, especially one with a screen as large as the TA20’s. Unfortunately, it was a disappointing experience. While the screen is certainly bright and easy to understand, it is decidedly sluggish and unresponsive. I found myself tapping icons two or three times before it did what I wanted. Even worse, the icons would often become semi-highlighted even when they weren't actually triggered. This left me staring at the screen expecting something to happen.
Zooming by touch (the only way you can on the TA20) yielded shaky, hesitant, and often incomplete zooms. While menus were easy to navigate to, they weren't any more responsive than general commands, and the review menu controls were small and downright confusing. Overall, the touch-screen interface has a ton of potential -- it just needs to work a lot better.
While the TA20 does shoot in full HD, the actual quality of the image is rather grainy and fine details blur together even in full light. In low light, the image remained fairly clear but only very bright colors came through in playback. Also, for a camera that is built to be active, there was very dramatic blurring and bending with fast motion. Finally, the Electrical Image Stabilizer seemed to have very little effect and nearly every shot suffered from constant, small shakes. It is just a pocket camcorder, but the quality is a bit disappointing.
The Bottom Line
A highly durable camcorder is good for everyone. Whether or not you live an active, outdoorsy lifestyle, a simple camcorder that can survive some drops or a trip to the beach will make you happy. The TA20 may not give you the best picture you can get for $200, but its rugged, stress-free nature is well worth the price.