The HC-V550 is Panasonic's latest mid-range camcorder, and is the update to the Panasonic HC-V520 from almost exactly a year ago. The basic specification hasn't changed much. Like its predecessor, the HC-V550 is based around a rather standard 1/5.8-inch back-side illuminated CMOS with 2.51Mpixels, although only 2.2Mpixels are used when shooting video. But there are a few feature tweaks and improvements that make it a worthwhile replacement - and one significant bundled accessory in the shape of the pan-tilt-zoom cradle.
ROUND-UP: Best Camcorders
Video is recorded in what is becoming Panasonic's standard array of resolution options, with both AVCHD 2.0 and standard MP4 formats available. Unlike the Panasonic HC-W850, there is no 50Mbits/sec MP4 option, so 28Mbits/sec is the top data rate at Full HD resolution and 50 frames /sec, in both formats. In MP4 mode, there are also 720p and 960 x 540 iFrame options. Still image resolutions max out at 4,224 x 2,376, which clearly involves quite a lot of interpolation.
The HC-V550 has a decidedly healthy 62x optical zoom, which drops to 61x with the Level Shot Function enabled and 59x with Active Mode OIS. But Panasonic pushes this even further via the Intelligent Zoom option, to a staggering 90x, 10x more than the HC-V520. Normally, this kind of zoom manages to avoid loss of resolution by having more sensor pixels than required for the video resolution, and cropping into the frame, rather than the traditional digital zoom that merely magnifies detail that wasn't there in the first place.
But the HC-V550 has less than 10 per cent surplus pixels, so the iZoom will lose some resolution. In our testing, the 90x zoom is still viable, but it's not as clear as a true optical zoom. Turn on the digital zoom, though, and the HC-V550 promises a ridiculous 3000x factor, which you will never be able to use, as it turns the subject matter into an abstract painting.
Although this is a small camcorder, Panasonic justifies the price with the premium optical image stabilisation, which also benefits from an Active mode where the hybrid system uses extra sensor pixels to provide more powerful stabilisation. You can lock the OIS too, and a Level Shot feature corrects for mild tilting when shooting hand held. In our testing, the OIS proved extremely effective.
READ MORE: Camcorder Reviews
As we have come to expect from almost all of Panasonic's camcorders, there is a comprehensive range of manual settings available, although these can only be controlled via the touch screen. So you won't want to use them as readily as with the HC-W850. The Intelligent Auto mode is designed to do everything for you, sensing conditions and selecting an appropriate scene mode.
But you can also switch to IA , which reveals a simple brightness control, as well as colour configuration between red and blue. Then there are the 11 scene modes, which cover the usual options such as sports and portrait. There is a small selection of advanced creative effects available, including a faux tilt-shift miniature mode, 8mm movie, a silent movie option complete with fake scratches, and time lapse.
Full manual mode, however, provides the complete array of settings. You can focus manually, but also configure shutter from 1/50th to 1/8,000th, aperture from F16 to F1.8, and then add on up to 18dB of gain on top of a fully open iris. You can also choose between sunny, cloudy, and two indoor white balance presets, as well as manual configuration.
One thing this camcorder doesn't have is a slow motion capability, which is available on the HC-W850. In its place there's a Loop mode, which will come in handy if you want to use your camcorder to keep permanent track of your driving, for example.