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Is the Panasonic HX-A500 truly the world’s first wearable 4K camcorder, as Panasonic claims? It’s a fascinating question that really hinges on how you view the latest upgraded compact version of the GoPro, the HERO3+, which is clearly the Panasonic’s archrival. However, there is no doubt that the HX-A500 is ingenious in design and capable of outstanding results. This lightweight two-piece device consists of a small microphone-shaped capture unit with a fixed-focus 3.4mm f/2.8 semi-fisheye lens on the front (with a minimum focus distance of about 20"), tethered by a stout, non-removable 28-inch-long fiber optic cable to a separate cell-phone-sized power/control unit. Unlike its competitors, it’s specifically designed to be worn on the body. The camcorder uses a 12.76MP 1/2.3” BSI MOS sensor and provides shutter speeds of 1/30-1/12,000-second when shooting video. The camera unit itself measures a tad over 1" in diameter and is 2.7" long; the chunky little control/power unit is 2.3 x 3.7 x 1.1", and the entire outfit weighs a mere 5.6 ounces. The genius inherent in the device is that the image-capture component is so small and lightweight it can be mounted practically anywhere, and Panasonic offers a range of cleverly designed dedicated accessories to provide a wide array of mounting options.
By far, the most effective way to wear the HX-A500 is to use the accessory Head Mount VW-HMA100, a well-designed accessory headband with a secure, adjustable click-in camera clip on a ball head that lets you orient the camcorder in a variety of positions, such as pointing forward in your line of sight or rearward to capture whatever's gaining on you. The band itself is fully adjustable to fit any size head securely and it offers a rubber strap in the front for added security. When using the Head Mount, it’s best to slide the power/control unit into another cool accessory, the Multi Case VW-HLA500, a fabric armband case that looks like a cell-phone protector, has a window for accessing the controls and viewing the 1.5" 115k-dot LCD, and comes with two robust hook-and-loop fastener straps for securing the unit around your arm. Both these accessories are bundled with the standard HX-A500 kit, so it’s wearable for creating videos and capturing still images—right out of the box.
Before shooting with the HX-A500, you’ve got to charge the 1450mAh Lithium-polymer battery, built into the power/control unit via the mini USB port, which is located in a hinged compartment on the unit's right side. Also in this compartment is a microSD card slot, and Panasonic strongly recommends using a high-capacity, high-speed Class 10 or UHS-I memory card when shooting Ultra HD 4K video (3840 x 2160) at 30 fps. Those files are huge, and the throughput rate is stupendous. Maximum continuous recordable time at that setting is 1 hour 20 minutes, or 40 minutes “actual recording time” with a “normal” amount of starting and stopping.
"An extensive range of Wi-Fi settings enables you to do many things, including using your smartphone as a remote control and remote viewfinder."
When you begin to record and navigate through the various recording settings, you have a choice of Normal Shooting (for video), Slow Motion, Loop Recording, or Picture Recording (for shooting still images). I chose Normal Shooting (video at 4K, 30p) for the most part, but I did shoot one slow-motion clip and a handful of still images at the maximum 16MP resolution, just to eyeball the performance. If you scroll down to Pixels/Frame Rate, you have a choice of 3840 x 2160 (4K) at 30p, 1920 x 1080 (Full HD) at 60p, Full HD at 30p, 1280 x 720 at 60p or 30p, and 848 x 480 at 30p. Additionally, to help with recording, Level Shot (automatic horizon correction) and digital image stabilization settings are available at lower resolutions, but not for 4K video. Other settings include Color Night Recording (down to an impressive claimed 1 Lux!) Mic On/Off, and Wind Cut, which I turned on when shooting video with the unit mounted on my car or motorcycle.
An extensive range of Wi-Fi settings enables you to do many things, including using your smartphone as a remote control and remote viewfinder—a good thing, since the LCD in the power unit automatically turns off after about 30 seconds, to conserve battery power. To pair your smartphone with the HX-A500, you have to download the free Panasonic Image App, enable your phone’s Wi-Fi, and enter and the supplied password each time you connect the two devices; but it’s easy, quick, and intuitive and works like a charm. In any case, the ability to view continuously, and start and stop capture while shooting video or stills, is well worth any slight inconvenience. I did not try Live Cast Setup or Wireless Network Mode Setup, which enable you to select your destination, e-mail images and videos, save them in Ustream, and even adjust image quality. However, it’s clear that easy and comprehensive sharing is definitely one of the big pluses of the HX-A500, which also offers Near Field Connectivity (NFC).
As mentioned, you can use your smartphone as a remote control to start and stop your video and view continuously in real time what you’re capturing. This works well when the camera is mounted remotely on a tripod, car window, handlebars, etc., but if you’re using the headband while viewing with your smartphone, your hands and the phone are likely to appear at the bottom of the frame—remember, the semi-fisheye lens covers an ultra-wide 160 degrees! The workaround: The built-in interval timer will work as a self-timer in still image mode, so set the time to 3, 5, 10, 30 or 60 seconds, press the Record button, and the unit will take pictures at the set interval until you press the record button again, and will beep each time a picture is taken. I also messed up some otherwise excellent videos by having the connector cable dangling in the frame (one of the downsides of using a cable-connected, two-unit system with the viewfinder turned off) and positioning the Wind Jammer VW-WJA100 (which reduces road and wind noise when the unit is mounted on a vehicle) too close to the lens of the camera unit, resulting in annoying little frizzy hairs waving in a corner of the resulting video.
Shooting movies with the Panasonic HX-A500 is a lot of fun, and the results are visually spectacular. All the 4K videos I shot show exquisite detail and resolution far surpassing conventional Full HD 1080p and I could see the difference even on my computer’s 25-inch monitor. The camera’s exposure system performed much better than I expected, delivering accurate exposures outdoors in bright light, indoors in low light, and commendable results even in severely backlit situations. The slow-motion sequence I shot in a local coffee house came out very well and looks suitably comical, and the best 16MP, 16:9 still images I captured look comparable to what you’d get with a high-end point-and-shoot camera. I was particularly impressed with how well this rig performed when mounted to the mirror stalk of my motorcycle using the Video Camera Mount for Handlebar RP-CMC10. In my estimation, the built-in monaural mic delivered good sound quality and above-average sensitivity, but it’s not up to the sensational level of the unit’s video capture. Without the Wind Jammer, the road noise from the all-weather tires on my car dominated the video I shot, and installing it cured the problem almost completely, so I’d definitely recommend this cute little fuzzy accessory for anyone who plans to mount the unit on a vehicle.
I’m sure some stealthy types will come up with some more discreet wearable shooting options than walking around with a headband and a camera unit poking out from just above their left ear. In its present configuration, you may rest assured you will be noticed and, while you’re not likely to have any problem at the local street fair or little league game, I wouldn’t recommend wearing the HX-A500 at the casino or nightclub, or even at your local sports bar unless you know the people really well. For the record, the HX-A500 is IPX8 compliant, which means that it’s waterproof (when closed and set to shooting position) to a depth of 10 feet for 30 minutes, which should be great for pool and snorkeling use or when shooting in the rain or snow (skiing), and it’s IPX5 compliant, which means it’s dustproof. Oh yes, I should mention that the camcorder has one notable technological ace in the hole over the GoPro HERO3—it can capture 4K video at 30 fps rather than 15 or 12 fps, which, if you’re a high-end video shooter, is a very big deal indeed. Would I personally buy the Panasonic HX-A500? Given its breathtaking video performance and it’s relatively modest price: in a heartbeat.
Road trip: Watch this sample video that Josh Taylor shot while he tested the Panasonic HX-A500, to see what this camcorder can do.