The HX-A500E is Panasonic's first 4K action camera. It can't claim to be the world's first 4K action camera overall, as that accolade was grabbed by GoPro's HERO3 Black Edition, quickly followed by the HERO3 Black Edition. However, whilst the HERO 3 Black Edition drops to a frame rate below regular TV in 4K mode, the Panasonic HX-A500E doesn't, and that's not the only way it breaks the GoPro action camera mould.
The primary difference from the action camera norm is the way the HX-A500E is divided into two portions, as we reported in our first impressions preview. On one end of an umbilical cable is a fixed lens, sensor and mono microphone assembly, whilst the other contains the recording system, which houses a 1.5-inch LCD screen and three control buttons, including a joystick for navigating the menu. Storage and connectivity is found here also.
The door covering the Micro SD card slot and Micro USB port slides into place and then has a separate switch to lock it shut. This allows the whole package to be rugged to international standards. The HX-A500E is waterproof to 3m and IPX8 standard, as well as dustproof to IP5X. There's no particular standard for impact resitance, although the camcorder is sturdily constructed, with a thick plastic panel over the LCD screen. This 1.5-inch display turns itself off automatically after a short period of non-use, which is a handy power-saving feature.
SEE ALSO: GoPro HERO3 Black Edition
The headline 4K recording format is 3,840 x 2,160 at 25 progressive frames per second, which is essentially four times the resolution of Full HD. Technically, this is called Ultra HD, rather than 4K, since the latter is natively 4,096 x 2,160, with a 19:10 aspect ratio. But even mentioning this feels a little like splitting hairs. The HX-A500E's 4K mode runs at a hefty 72Mbits per second, which is well into broadcast territory, and means you can fit just under an hour of footage on a 32GB Micro SD card.
Below the top resolution, there are also options to shoot both Full HD (1,920 x 1,080) and 720p (1,280 x 720) at 50 or 25 progressive frames per second, as well as 848 x 480 at 25 progressive frames per second. The latter is usually called WVGA, and is a widescreen 16:9 aspect version of VGA, with a data rate of 4.5Mbits per second. So there are recording options for every situation, and the HX-A500E can capture stills at up to 5,376 x 3,024, which is beyond the resolution of the sensor so clearly involves some interpolation.
You can also choose between standard and wide fields of view, but only for the resolutions below Ultra HD. This provides approximately a 160-degree field of view but causes significant distortion to the image.
The distortion might not make the HX-A500E so popular with the most professional end of the market, although here even GoPros have their weaknesses, with professionals often modifying them with less distorting lenses, at the expense of a narrower field of view.
The HX-A500E is based on a 1/2.3-inch BSI CMOS with 12.76Mpixels, which is slightly larger than the GoPro Black Edition's. This provides 9.03Mpixels when shooting video, and 8.34Mpixels for still images. It's a relatively large sensor for an action camera, and promises a noise-free image with good low light abilities.
It also allows the HX-A500E to offer image stabilisation and a level shot function, although this isn't optical, but digital, and only available at 1080p25 shooting mode or below. It's still welcome where most other action cameras don't have this facility at all.
Because of its unusual configuration compared to most of the action cameras we have reviewed before, apart from Dogcam's MiniDVR HD, the bundled mountings are also somewhat novel.
The recorder portion goes into a pouch that is designed to strap to your arm like your MP3 player when you're out running. The lens snaps into a head strap, which includes a sprung metal portion and a rubberised strip at the front. It's not the most attractive or unobtrusive of arrangements, but it does give you quite a bit more control over where the camera is pointing than most helmet mountings.
The HX-A500E's menu does offer some useful settings. Aside from configuring the recording mode, angle of view, image stabilisation and level shot functions already mentioned, you can configure white balance. There are auto, daylight, cloudy and two indoor settings, as well as the user setting, which you can also set manually.
There's backlight compensation available, a colour night view mode, and you can also turn the microphone off as well as enable a wind cut mode. Slow motion is available, as well as a loop recording option where the oldest files are replaced with new ones when storage is full.
Like any self-respecting action camera, the HX-A500E comes with built-in Wi-Fi. This can operate in the now-familiar way where the camcorder becomes an access point that you connect your mobile device to (so no Internet connection at the same time), after which you can load up the Panasonic Image App for control. This is available for iOS and Android. However, it's also possible to connect the camcorder and mobile device via an existing access point.
The app lets you view what the camera is seeing and also toggle record. You can change the recording format, as well as switching between normal mode, slow motion and loop recording. You can alter the white balance settings, turn on the mic and wind noise reduction, plus backlight compensation and colour night record, so pretty much all the settings are available.
There are some very limited editing and photo collage abilities too. The latter lets you arrange up to five photos into a preset frame, whilst the former lets you grab sections of clips and stitch them together to create new compositions.
All of this would be moot if the HX-A500E produced the poor video quality often found in action cameras. But Panasonic hasn't skimped on this area. The 4K mode is much more than a gimmick, and produces great levels of detail as well as rich, accurate colour. The lesser resolutions maintain the colour fidelity, although naturally lose the fine detail.
As mentioned before, the wide angle of view option does significantly distort the image, and there is a level of distortion even without it, although this is routinely an issue with action cameras, as you do want to catch as much of the periphery as possible when you're not able concentrate on pointing the camera precisely. The HX-A500E also belies its format in low light, with a bright picture maintained to low levels. Performance is particularly commendable here for an action camera.
The Panasonic HX-A500E is a serious action camera contender. Where there is a significant divide between consumer and professional in the mainstream camcorder market, action cameras readily cross over, with GoPros used extensively in the recent Need For Speed movie, for example. Alongside this, there's little doubt that 4K is coming.
Where 3D has failed dismally amongst consumers, primarily because people don't want to sit in their living rooms wearing 3D glasses, 4K could well be different, since it is simply a direct resolution improvement over HD. So Panasonic's HX-A500E is a canny move, providing great image quality and useful features in a format that is flexible and easy to use, although the price is currently around £80 more than the GoPro HERO3 Black Edition, so the latter still has the edge on value.
The Panasonic HX-A500E lays down the gauntlet to GoPro, with capable 4K shooting in a rugged, feature-rich action camera format.