The Panasonic HC-W850 is an adventurous new camcorder that attempts to provide a unique second lens feature no other manufacturer can offer, called Twin Camera. The conventional camcorder business is clearly feeling the heat from increasingly capable smartphone video capabilities, which are eroding the bottom end of the market. So we are starting to see increasingly imaginative new designs, such as the Canon Legria Mini and the plethora of rugged action cameras that have appeared in the last couple of years. Twin Camera is clearly Panasonic's other answer to attracting new camcorder buyers.
With Twin Camera, Panasonic is hoping to create a need where there wasn't any before. The basic concept is that the HC-W850 incorporates two lenses and two sensors, so you can capture two views of the scene at once, with the second superimposed as a picture-in-picture within the first. The main CMOS is a sizeable 1/2.3-inch back-side illuminated sensor with 12.76Mpixels, while the secondary one has an also decent 1/4-inch size and 5.27Mpixels.
The secondary lens assembly sits on the edge of the flip-out LCD, and rotates, so can be pointed in a completely different direction to the primary lens. The main idea behind the second lens is to record yourself whilst recording others: your reaction to Baby's first words or steps, your face as you narrate a tour round a location, and so on. Other uses are a little more tenuous, but there is room for creative ideas with the flexible orientation of the lens.
Both video frames are mixed in-camera and recorded together, so you can't separate them out at a later stage, or reposition the smaller frame. In fact, there are only two options for the secondary frame – large and small – which is rather a limitation. If you rotate the lens all the way round to point into the LCD panel, this turns off the secondary frame entirely. The secondary lens has fixed focus and zoom, and doesn't have the image stabilisation and enhancement options of the primary imaging system.
The main lens has a healthy 20x optical zoom, and 50x Intelligent Zoom, which uses surplus CMOS pixels so doesn't reduce image detail, although it will affect light sensitivity as a smaller surface area of the chip is being used. The HC-W850 uses surplus pixels for its Hybrid OIS image stabilisation as well, as this combines optical with electronic methods to make one of the best stabilisation systems we have tested.
Footage can be recorded in either AVCHD 2.0 or iFrame / MP4 format. The AVCHD 2.0 options range up to 1080/50p at 28Mbits per second, while MP4 tops out at the same resolution and frame rate but 50Mbits per second, as well as offering a couple of 720p options and the 960 x 540 iFrame mode. There's a single SD card slot on the bottom of the camcorder, with support for SDXC media. A 16GB SDHC card would be enough for a little under 45 minutes of footage at the MP4 50Mbits per second data rate.
Aside from the second-lens gimmick, this is a decidedly high-end camcorder. While it only has a single CMOS on the main lens, it's relatively large, and there are plenty of manual settings available. The HC-W850 doesn't have the lens ring of Panasonic's usual flagship models. This feature is in fact notably absent from the entire 2014 range. But it does still have an adjustment dial next to the lens, which performs these functions almost as well.