There aren't too many camcorders out there that can be described as unlike any other camcorder, but the Panasonic W850 may just fit the bill. That's because it's not a camcorder—it's two. The W850 has a secondary lens to record picture-in-picture footage from two different vantage points simultaneously, without any editing.
But as with any other camcorder toting an unusual selling feature—we have to ask, is this camcorder only about that—or can it live up to our expectations for video quality and usability? With manual shooting, a front control dial and an improved sensor over older models like the Panasonic V720, it certainly has potential on paper. We spent some time on a Panasonic W850 review to find out how it really performs.
Panasonic W850 Review: Body & Design
The Panasonic W850 is a compact camcorder that fits comfortably in one hand. There's a hand strap at the left and a flip out LCD screen at the right. At the edge of the screen is the second camcorder, which is turned on simply by flipping it out. It can record what is directly behind the camera (i.e. the operator), any angle to the left of the screen or what's in front just by turning the small camera. It's an interesting feature and the design makes it easy to use.
The secondary camera is built into the side of the LCD screen on the Panasonic W850.
At the front of the camera is a small control dial that you can operate with your left hand, using it to scroll through different menu options, for example. At the top of the camera is a dedicated button for taking still photos and a zoom toggle, and at the back a record button. Ideally, the record button should be easily accessible with the thumb, but my small hands had a hard time reaching the record button without causing too much camera shake. Where the LCD screen flips out from the body of the camera, there's an on/off button and a playback button.
The bulk of the navigation is done through the touchscreen. There's a quick menu on the left edge of the screen that you can slide through for settings like zoom, mode and manual settings. If the settings you want aren't there, there's a full menu too. The menu is organized well, but like most touchscreen camcorders, the screen isn't very accurate and can make anyone feel like they have fat fingers. The control wheel in front does help some, since it scrolls through the options for you, but expect a few errors in accessing the right options through the touchscreen.
The W850 doesn't have any built-in memory and has only a single SD card slot. With such big files (50 Mbps), you'll want to pick up a large, Class 10 card to go with the camcorder. It would be nice if a camcorder at this price point and with this much image quality had built-in memory, but that's not the case.
Panasonic W850: User Experience and Performance
While the W850 has a secondary camera built-in, the main camera is designed to be more than just your average budget camcorder. Along with the intelligent auto and scene modes (including interesting options like night mode with infrared), the W850 is equipped with manual modes for more creative control over the video.
There's also a handful of advanced options inside the menu, like backlight compensation, that serious users will appreciate. Turning the backlight compensation on made a significant difference in tough shooting scenarios (like recording inside a pavilion). The footage wasn't perfect all the time, but compared to the same shot with backlight compensation off, there's a significant improvement in video quality. The backlight compensation performs well and it's a nice feature for a camcorder at this level.
For dark shots, a video light is also available and turns on automatically in the preset modes. Again, it's a feature not found on budget cameras, and a nice addition for a camcorder that's not professional, but certainly more high end than the basic consumer camcorder.
The Panasonic W850 starts up fast and is ready to record in seconds. The W850 processes videos quickly and playback is fast as well. I certainly didn't miss any shots from a lack of speed on the camcorder's part.
Most of the attention was directed to the W850's main camera, but the secondary camera is a pretty neat feature. It turns on just by flipping the camera out from the screen, and it's ready to shoot. The second camera can capture the videographer, or turn to the front to capture a wide angle view as you use the main camcorder's zoom.
While the secondary camera is a unique feature, it's not up to par with the performance of the main camcorder. Backlighting is an issue when you have it pointed back at yourself on a bright, sunny day, and it doesn't have the resolution or features of the main lens and sensor. It'd be nice if the footage could also be recorded separately from the second camera, but that option isn't available on this model. Most of the time, since the camera is recording for a small corner of the screen, it's not a big issue, but certainly worth mentioning.
Panasonic W850: Video Quality
With a 1/2.3” backlit sensor, footage from the W850 is quite sharp compared to most consumer camcorders. The footage is colorful and detailed while edges are sharp.
The f1.8-3.6 lens is bright for the category and allows for decent performance even when the lighting isn't the best. There's a 20x optical zoom inside that bright lens, and performance at the far end of that range is also solid. I did detect a bit of a stop-start motion as the camera zoomed, however, and footage wasn't quite smooth enough when transitioning to that closer zoom.
Transitions are generally smooth and quick for the category. Overall, the W850 refocused easily, though there were a few instances where the focus wasn't spot on, including some trouble at a fireworks show (in both automatic mode and firework mode).
Both MP4 and AVCHD file formats are available. It's great to have both options, and the MP4 can record at up to 50 Mbps. Beware that such big files will stop and start during playback if your computer isn't fast enough, but that's hardly a strike against the W850.
With a 5.1 channel zoom mic, the W850 picks up sounds very well. Actually, in some instances the background noise was a bit too loud, but I'd take that over sub par volume any day.
Panasonic W850: Conclusion
While sometimes unusual features are simply gimmicks, the Panasonic W850 is a solid camcorder and the twin camera does add value. The large sensor, bright lens and advanced settings make the W850 a bit above the performance of your typical mainstream camera. It's certainly not a perfect camcorder, but performs well for the price and is an all around good buy. We'd like to see some built-in memory and the quality of the second camera could be improved, but the W850 is an excellent option.
Comparing the W850 to other cameras, this model seems to sit at a good price point. The Sony PJ810 has a smaller sensor and not as much zoom, but also packs in 32 GB of built-in memory where the W850 has none and has a projector instead of a second camera. And the PJ810 sits at a price just above a grand. The Canon Vixia HF G30 has a similar sized sensor, optical zoom and manual modes, but records only up to 35 Mbps in AVCHD and sits at around $900 on sale. Compare it to the other options on the market, the $799 list price on the W850 makes it look even more attractive.