Panasonic has done a great job over the years of staying on the cutting edge of consumer camcorder technology. It has a handful of outstanding 3MOS recorders including the award winning HC-x920, which uses three sensors to capture great footage. But does the success of their previous models mean that they've forgotten about entry level camcorders? Not at all.
The HC-V520 uses a small 1/5.8in CMOS, the same size as in its predecessor the HC-V500 but now the sensor has 2.51Mpixels rather than 1.51Mpixels, and Panasonic is officially calling it back-side illuminated rather than the more ambiuous High Sensitivity. This means that compared to previous sensor types it should slightly more sensitive to light.
The resolution increase is significant because the HC-V520 now has an effective 2.25Mpixels, which is more than required for Full HD, rather than less. So there should be a clear improvement in image detail.
There's a major improvement in optical zoom, too. Not that the HC-V500's 42x optical zoom was poor, but the HC-V520's 62x is even better. Add on the Intelligent Zoom, and this rises even further to 80x. The HC-V520 has the improved version of Hybrid OIS , which now adds Active Mode and the Level Shot function on top of the OIS Lock ability that was already available. The Active Mode improves shooting whilst walking, and Level Shot will indicate when you are accidentally shooting at a slight angle.
The HC-V520 shoots in AVCHD 2.0 format, so offers a top quality setting of Full HD at 50 frames per second and 28Mbits/sec. There is also an iFrame mode that uses a quarter-frame resolution of 960 x 540 and standard MPEG-4 compression. You can grab 10Mpixel stills at a resolution of 4,224 x 2,376, which uses quite a bit of interpolation. A single SDXC-compatible card slot is provided, with a 16GB card providing 75 minutes of video storage at the top quality setting.
There are far fewer provisions for the videomaking enthusiast on the HC-V520 compared to it's rangemates, the HC-V720 and HC-X920. No accessory shoe is provided, and there are no minijacks for an external microphone or heaphones. Unsurprisingly, the viewfinder and lens ring of the HC-X920 are absent too.
You do still get a reasonable selection of buttons to give quick and easy access to features. A button beneath the LCD panel turns on the WiFi features, of which more later, and another cycles through the image stabilisation modes. As with the higher-end models, the iA button now presents five options, which you select via the touch-screen LCD. The standard Intelligent Auto has been joined by iA , which adds a basic exposure control plus red-blue colour adjustment.
There's a generous range of scene modes which should help users to best get the effect they were after. There is also a new Creative Effects section that provides a Miniature Effect, which mimics the appearance of tilt-shift photography, Silent and 8mm movie styles, plus there's a time lapse mode. You can also switch to manual mode, which exposes Panasonic's usual comprehensive array of settings.
The quick menu on the edge of the 3in LCD display provides rapid access to most frequently used functions, including the OIS Lock. In manual mode, an extra column appears, giving you manual focusing, and the ability to set the white balance or choose from the four presets - two for indoor lighting, two for outdoor natural lighting. You can vary the shutter from 1/50th to 1/8,000th of a second, and independently adjust the iris between F16 and F1.8, then add up to 18dB of video gain on top. We suspect most users of a camcorder in this class will never touch these features, but it's great to see them there just in case.
Wi Fi and NFC
Despite its lower-end orientation, the HC-V520 also includes the Wi Fi features added to the HC-X920 and HC-V720. Panasonic has benefited by not being an early adopter here, and has essentially added all the best bits from JVC's and Canon's implementations. So you can connect the camcorder to an existing wireless network, or set it up as its own access point, although this won't provide Internet access. In both cases, a smartphone app for iOS and Android can then provide remote control facilities, although you can't do this with a desktop Web browser. If your Android phone supports NFC, you can simply touch it to the allocated spot on the camcorder body to set up your wireless connection automatically.
The remote control facilities include the ability to operate the zoom and toggle record, but also to set the quality. If the camcorder is connected to a wireless access point attached to the Internet, you can switch the smartphone to Home Monitoring mode, and keep an eye on your premises remotely. You can also turn the HC-V520 into a DLNA server, which we were able to connect to easily with a Samsung Smart TV. Most excitingly of all, the HC-V520 can stream live video via the USTREAM broadcasting service, although you will need to sign up for an account, and also one with Panasonic's Lumix Club, then enter your details into the camcorder to enable this.
Of the three Panasonic camcorders available in the HC range, the HC-V520 shows the most obvious improvement in image quality. The new sensor fixes the Achilles Heel of its predecessor, namely a slight lack of detail, although otherwise the HC-V500 already offered a very commendable performance for the price. The image still doesn't quite have the crispness of Panasonic's top-end models, but it's very good for a camcorder with a 1/5.8in sensor. Low light performance is also slightly improved, even though on paper both the new model and its predecessor have the same 4 lux minimum illumination. There is a bit more colour and grain is finer as lighting is reduced.
The Panasonic HC-V520 is quite an improvement over its predecessor. With better image quality, the Wi Fi features, and enhanced zoom as well as more image stabilisation options, there are many reasons why this is a better buy than the HC-V500. The HC-V520 is good value for money at around $599 from electronics retailers.