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Every non-broadcast prosumer camera from Canon, Sony, and JVC has gone from 3-chip to single-chip CMOS. Not that it’s a bad thing. Simplifying sensor design reduces manufacturing complexity and lowers the cost of ownership for imaging enthusiasts. But by reserving 3-sensor builds for premium cameras, there are increasingly fewer options for the budget-conscious videographer or indie filmmaker. Panasonic stands alone as the champion of the low-cost 3-chip. Here’s their latest and greatest --
So what’s the big deal with 3-chip cameras anyway? Are they that much better? To put it simply: YES. By recording primary color readings of red, green, and blue to separate chips, the 3-sensor design produces the highest quality and most precise colors possible. Single-chip cameras often interpolate missing RGB information -- lowering color accuracy and degrading the overall resolution. For this reason, you won’t find one professional camcorder in the field that’s not a 3-chip.
I bought my first AVCHD cam back in 2006. The format was still new, but offered some nice advantages over the dominant HDV format. I chose the Panasonic HDC-SD1 because it was the lightest thing on the market (about 1 pound) with manual exposure controls and a mic input. Using 3x ¼” CCDs (the largest on a consumer camcorder at the time) the cam recorded 1440x1080 interlaced video on SD/SDHC memory cards. At $1500, this little guy was a low cost companion to my Sony FX1. Fast-forward 3 years and Panasonic is still committed to building lightweight, prosumer 3-chip camcorders. They’ve come a long way since the SD1 -- features have beefed up while the cost of ownership has significantly gone down.
The all-new HDC-TM700K and HDC-HS700K record 1920x1080 HD video progressively -- no goofy interlacing here. There’s even a 60 frames per second mode which makes capturing action and practical slow motion silky smooth. Like the SD1, the cameras sport a stereo mic input. Audio can be monitored through a headphone port.
Today’s prosumer Panasonics employ 3 CMOS sensors. These are similar in design to those from the pro-grade HMC-40. Therefore, you can expect better low light sensitivity and improvements in the signal-to-noise ratio. Both cameras offer a similar 24Mbps bit-rate. In my tests, the TM700K produced a nearly identical file to that of the HMC-40.
The killer feature? A 35mm equivalent wide angle Leica Dicomar lens. This is actually wider than what you get with the higher-priced pro HD cams (including the HMC-40). The wider field of view allows you to fit more of your subject in the frame -- even in tight spaces. This is great for everything from stage performances to narrative landscapes.
The only difference between the TM700K and HS700K is internal memory. The former utilizes 32GB of internal flash storage (the most durable recording medium) while the latter employs a 240GB Hard Drive for longer recording times. Both models are expandable with SD, SDHC, or new SDXC memory cards.
My only gripe with the units (and this is true of every camera in this class) was battery life. The included brick was drained on the TM700K after a little more than an hour; the HS700K didn’t even last 60 minutes. If you’re shooting an event like a wedding or stage performance, be sure and pick up a Panasonic VW-VBG260 Battery. This bad boy will give you over 3.5 hours of recording time with either camera.
The bottom line: If you’re an event shooter, documentarian, or narrative filmmaker, a 3-chip camcorder can really make your footage stand out in a crowd. Larger sensor ENG cameras are great, but not affordable for everyone. Panasonic is the only game in town offering 3x ¼” sensors at such a ridiculously good price. In fact, the prices are so low you’ll have to visit the B&H site to see them. Check out the solid-state TM700K here and the HDD HS700K here.