Panasonic pioneered the rugged, waterproof camcorder with the SDR-SW20, calling upon its years of experience in making technology as resistant to rough treatment as possible.
But now most manufacturers have waterproof models, so Panasonic's rugged camcorders are no longer unique in themselves. They still have the wealth of the company's experience behind them. The Panasonic HX-WA3 is the direct successor to the Panasonic HX-WA2, released about this time last year, but it's more of an evolution than some of Panasonic's 2013 models.
For a start, the Panasonic WA3's sensor has a virtually identical specification to the WA2's. But it was already a commendably large 1/2.33in CMOS with 14.4Mpixels. This provides the same 11.9Mpixels in 16:9 mode and 14.3Mpixels in 4:3 mode — much more than is needed by the top Full HD shooting format used.
The base optical zoom remains 5x, but Panasonic has mildly improved the iZoom. This is quoted as 18x, but you can't go seamlessly all the way from 1x to 18x. Instead, you can zoom to 9x, then a button at the top of the camcorder rear doubles the magnification electronically.
This isn't a digital zoom, but instead uses the considerable extra sensor resolution, cropping into the frame. The maximum zoom also drops to 12x when the Active image stabilisation mode is enabled, which also uses extra sensor pixels. This enhanced mode provides more pronounced stabilisation, particularly if you are shooting when walking.
There are quite a few video format options available. Unlike most of Panasonic's other camcorders, AVCHD isn't employed, although footage is still recorded as H.264 MPEG-4, but in standard MP4 files. There are six options. For HD, you can choose between interlaced 1080/60i or progressive 1080/30p, 720/60p and 720/30p. For standard definition you can use 480/30p or iFrame, which is 540/30p. There's no 25 frames per second option, however.
Still image settings range from 640 x 480 to 16Mpixel shots with a resolution of 4,608 x 3,456, and you can choose between 16:9 and 4:3 formats. You can also select a variety of huge 180-degree or 360-degree panoramic shots, with resolutions up to 1,280 x 14,400. A single SDXC-compatible SD card slot is provided for storage, with a 16GB card enough for around two hours of footage at the top 17Mbits/sec video data rate.
Like the WA2 and a few of Panasonic's other previous models, the Panasonic HX-WA3 uses the upright pistol-grip camcorder format, rather than the traditional HandyCam style. Virtually all features are controlled with your thumb, since the LCD is not a touch screen. This makes sense, as a touch screen would be a liability if you do plan to shoot underwater, and you will definitely want a hand free in these conditions too.
As with the WA2, the waterproofing is excellent, and this is one area where the Panasonic HX-WA3 shows marked improvement. Thanks to the double-locking door covering the SD card slot, battery, micro USB and micro HDMI ports, the WA3 is even tougher than its predecessor. Waterproofing is to IPX8 standard, so the Panasonic HX-WA3 will withstand depths of up to 5m, increased from 3m for the WA2. Dustproofing conforms to IP6X standard, and Panasonic also claims the WA3 can withstand freezing temperatures down to -10C.