Panasonic regularly graces the top of our Recommended list for premium camcorders, but its budget models haven't been quite so all conquering. They're good, but not usually priced as keenly as their competitors. The Panasonic HC-V500 arrives with a street price somewhere between £250 and £300, which on the face of it puts this model in the same category as predecessors. But this time it does have a few features that justify that extra cost and place it ahead of budget devices costing around £200.
The base specification is not particularly exciting. There's a small 1/5.8in CMOS with just 1.5Mpixels - not enough to match the resolution of the Full HD format it shoots. However, this is what Panasonic calls a High Sensitivity sensor, which essentially means it's a back-side illuminated CMOS, providing potential benefits when shooting in low light.
Footage can be grabbed at up to 1080p (Full HD with 50 progressive frames per second) with a bitrate of 28Mbits/sec, and there's a discrete button to enable this mode. Unlike the previous generation, the 50p mode doesn't switch to MP4 but still records an AVCHD MTS file. However, strangely the top non-50p recording mode runs at just 17Mbits/sec, not the 24Mbits/sec possible from the AVCHD format. Footage is recorded to SD memory card, with around 1.25 hours of footage fitting on a 16GB at the top 28Mbits/sec data rate.
However, where the V500 does place itself a cut above the budget level is in image stabilisation. Most camcorders costing around the £250 mark or less will rely on an electronic form of image stabilisation. But Panasonic has endowed the V500 with its latest Hybrid OIS system, which compensates for roll as well as movement in the X and Y axis. In Panasonic's higher-end camcorders, this is the most effective image stabilisation system currently on the market, and it's equally good in the V500.
The zoom factor is pretty commendable, too. The lens itself provides a 38x factor, but this translates to a 42x optical zoom. Panasonic has also enabled an iZoom, which boosts the factor to 50x. This presumably crops into the sensor slightly as with similar provisions elsewhere, rather than magnifying the image electronically as with digital zooms. However, this technique works best when the sensor has surplus pixels, and the V500's CMOS already lacks the native resolution for Full HD. So we're not convinced the iZoom is such a useful feature here, and the real 42x optical zoom is already sufficient on its own.
As this is a budget camcorder, it's no surprise that the V500 lacks enthusiast features like an accessory shoe or minijacks for headphones or an external microphone. There are also only discrete buttons for a few major options, like switching to manual from Intelligent Auto, enabling the image stabilisation system, and choosing the 1080/50p recording setting. But it does have more user-configurable settings than you would expect within the touch-screen menu. Even in Intelligent Auto (iA) mode, there's a full range of scene modes available, including all the usual suspects, although iA does a decent job of detecting conditions and selecting scene modes automatically.