Panasonic has further augmented the optical zoom with iZoom. Since there are more sensor pixels than are required for Full HD, the iZoom can crop into the frame without loss of resolution. This allows the DC3 to offer up to 7.5x iZoom. This can be further enhanced with a button called W-Range, which crops into the frame in one go to provide a 15x iZoom, well beyond even the Samsung S4 Zoom smartphone.
The button to engage the W-Range option sits subtly at the top of the controls on the rear of the camcorder. Its abrupt operation is a little odd, but the 15x zoom certainly gives you a good reason to buy a separate camcorder rather than rely on your phone. There is also Active Image Stabilisation available to smooth out handheld shooting, although this is an electronic system rather than optical.
Turning on the Active mode reduces the iZoom available to 6x (or 12x in W-Range mode), too, because it also crops into the sensor to provide spare pixels round the edge for motion compensation. We also noticed that it darkens the image slightly in low light, presumably because of the reduced sensor area being used for picking up the image. So although the stabilisation it provides for shooting whilst walking is reasonably effective, you won't want to leave it on all the time.
Unlike Panasonic's mainstream camcorders, the DC3 isn't packed with manual settings and features. There is a selection of creative effects available, including a faux tilt-shift Miniature mode, One Point Colour that pulls out one hue and leaves everything else monochromatic, an Old Movie setting, time-lapse, an image ghosting effect ideal for recreating 1970s Top of the Pops visuals, fake fish-eye and HDR, plus soft skin, black and white, sepiatone, vivid and a general soft focus.
The Intelligent Auto setting will attempt to set an appropriate scene mode for you, but you can also choose manually between 12 options, covering all the usual favourites. There's a panorama mode for still photography, which stitches a sweeping series of shots into one huge wide or long image that is either 14,400 x 720 or 1,280 x 14,400 pixels. You can set white balance manually or use one of the presets, and set ISO between 50 and 1,600. There's manual and macro mode focusing, too. But Panasonic's usual range of manual settings are not available.
In good lighting, the DC3 shoots colourful video with a good level of detail. There is little sign of artefacts in Full HD footage, as the data rate is reasonably high. Despite the large sensor, low light performance isn't perfect, but it is good for a camcorder costing under £125. In our 100W ceiling bulb test, the DC3 managed to maintain a decent level of colour, but the image is quite dark and there are patches of discoloured grain. It's still a better performance than most camcorders this price can muster.
Should I buy the Panasonic HX-DC3?
The Panasonic HX-DC3 certainly produces better-quality video than any smartphone we have tested, and also most candy-bar models. It has some limitations compared to budget mainstream models, such as Panasonic's own HC-V210, both in terms of the extent of its zoom and its range of settings. But the overall performance belies its keen sub-£125 price, making this camcorder great value if your smartphone isn't recording your memories with sufficient video quality.
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The Panasonic HX-DC3 provides better image quality and features than you might expect for under £125, which makes it a good alternative upgrade to a smartphone if you need a little bit more than it can offer.