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Panasonic doesn't have such a high-profile in the IP camera market as specialist vendors such as Axis Communications but it has traditionally offered an extensive range of products. Up until now it has kept its focus primarily on indoor surveillance for its lower end products but the BB-HCM531 signals a move into the great outdoors.
Panasonic claims the camera is splash-resistant which in reality doesn't mean much at all. The only industry standard measurement worth anything is the IP (Ingress Protection) scale which clearly defines what a product can cope with in terms of intrusion of foreign bodies such as moisture and the BB-HCM531 does not have such a rating. Consequently, if you're going to stick it outside be careful where you put it. Temperature shouldn't be such an issue as it is rated down to -20ºC.
For external use the camera comes with a small cover, which fits on the back to protect the power, audio and network connections. The cover has a rubber seal and you get a lump of foam to wrap round the cables where they exit the cover and a roll of self-bonding tape to wrap round the cover and cables. It's hardly elegant but it appears to work and is a lot cheaper than buying an external protective dome. You also get a sunshade which slots over the back of the cover and camera body and is screwed in place.
An important feature for outdoor use is support for the 802.3af PoE (Power over Ethernet) specification enabling the camera to be powered over a standard Ethernet cable from a compliant switch. We certainly had no problems with it connected to the lab's HP ProCurve 2626-PWR PoE switch. Note that if you don't have a suitable switch available Panasonic's power adapter is an optional extra. Alternatively, you could go for a single-port PoE injector such as a PowerDsine 3001, which costs around £40.
Featurewise, the BB-HCM531 has a lot going for it as its golf ball lens offers pan and tilt functions with a horizontal range of 60º either side of the home position, while vertical movement covers 65º. You get a 10x digital zoom and although this is no substitute for an optical zoom we found image deterioration wasn't as bad as many other cameras we've tested. The top resolution is 640 x 480 pixels, the camera supports both MPEG-4 and M-JPEG compression and the top frame rate is a very usable 30fps at all resolutions.