Waterproof, sand-proof and with Full HD recording, the Panasonic HX-WA3 camcorder is basically made for holidays.
You don't get a lot of these kinds of pistol-style camcorders these days, but Panasonic is persevering, having impressed us with the similar Panasonic HX-WA10 previously. Just to be confusing, the Panasonic HX-WA3 is actually an update to the WA10, despite its lower number.
There's also a new Panasonic HX-WA30 model, which offers waterproofing to a deeper level than the WA3, and is shockproof to 1.5m/5ft. It also has a more advanced sensor that's capable of recording at 120 frames per second, while the WA3 here tops out at 60fps.
But enough of the other model, what exactly do you get here in the Panasonic HX-WA3? It can record in numerous modes, including 1080p at 30 frames per second, 720p at at 60 or 30 frames per second, and at SD resolutions at 30 frames per second. It also does 1080/60i, for those into such things (or whose video editor of choice only supports such things).
The 60fps mode is particularly appealing for sports and other fast-moving subjects, partly because it means you can slow them down to half-speed when you get home without losing any smoothness or detail.
There's a 5x optical zoom, which extends to 18x with Panasonic's Intelligent Zoom, which is designed to use clever image processing on digital zooms to go beyond what the optical zoom can do without degrading quality badly - we were thoroughly impressed with it on the Panasonic HC-V720. There's also Active Image Stabilisation, to make sure that you can see what's going on when you play back handheld video footage.
As we mentioned, it's waterproof, rated for up to 5m/16ft; it's also freeze-proof down to -10C/14F, meaning that it should do well out in the snow. It also boasts a dust-proof/sand-proof design, so should survive the beach, too.
It can take still pictures at up to 16 megapixels, and offers 180-degree and 360-degree panorama modes. It offers various scene modes, but most of the time you'll just want to use Panasonic's Intelligent Auto system, which has proven impeccable in the past at adjusting quickly to new situations.
It boasts a bunch of effects, too, including a nice Miniature Effect mode and smart Ghost Effect mode, though we're never keen on applying these kinds of effect in-camera - much better to record clean and add them with a good video editor later. If you don't have one, though, or can't be bothered to do it that way, the options will be welcome.
The important thing is obviously video quality, and the Panasonic HX-WA3 certainly delivered some impressive moments during our time with it, but also several frustrating ones.
The best thing about this camcorder is the way it handles motion. It's brilliant, even at the 30fps 1080p mode (the 60fps 720p mode is even better, unsurprisingly). Things can move across the screen in just a frame or two, and there's almost no digital artefacts or degradation in the non-moving parts of the image. The things that are moving are still blurred, of course, but they don't leave the horrible smears across the image that you get from lower bitrate recording.
Along similar lines, the Panasonic HX-WA3's image stabilisation works really well, turning footage taken from shaky hands into fairly smooth, perfectly watchable video. It didn't seem to be quite as capable as that on the far more expensive Panasonic HC-V720, but was easily as good as we expected.
However, the image stabilisation did seem to have the side effect of sometimes spoiling the quality of the video. We took several shots where the images would blur dramatically for a few frames, then return to normal, several times in a row. The two stills below show it happening; the second one is the very next frame after the first.
Maybe it's the result of compensation for tiny hand movements, but it means that in an image that appears steady to the eye, everything gets randomly blurry, as if the focus has screwed up (it's the not focus, though - the blur issues happen at various depths in the frame).
Still, the good news is that image quality from the Panasonic HX-WA3 is good enough to be ruined - if you see what we mean. Colours are mostly good, appearing realistic, if maybe just a tad washed out in cloudy weather on the iA setting. At lower zoom levels (ie, when still in the optical zoom), you can get some lovely crisp shots of fairly close subjects, with things like hair picked out strongly, and a strong amount of detail.
As things get further away, softness creeps in quickly, likely due the size of the sensor (a 1/2.33-inch CMOS - the same as most compact cameras). Edges are still picked out sharply, but you start to lose the texture of things.
Alas, zooming in won't necessarily bring back the extra detail. The optical 5x zoom is great, but when going past that, the Intelligent Zoom feature comes in. It's designed to enable you to go past the limits of the optical zoom without a large drop in image quality, and it works to a degree - but images lose a lot of the detail still.
They aren't fuzzy, like a poor digital zoom, so the outline will be crisp, but it's like everything's been hastily airbrushed.
In lower light levels, the Panasonic HX-WA3 gives a pretty decent account of itself, though we noticed colour saturation dropping, and noise starting to affect the normally sharp outlines of objects.
However, the Intelligent Auto mode that Panasonic uses does a truly excellent job of making sure that you don't have to think about modes or anything yourself. It handles going from light areas to dark ones well, tracks focus across objects without much faffing and always gave us results that we were confident were the best the camcorder had to offer.
Ergonomically, the Panasonic HX-WA3 is a bit of an odd one. The trigger handle shape is easy enough to grip, though we have pretty large hands, and smaller ones may struggle to grip it as steadily. It's also easy to stick your finger in front of the lens accidentally, but practice will solve that.
The controls for zooming are quite far up, though - to the point that reaching between them causes your hand to move, which is a bit awkward if you're recording at the time.
The menu is fairly easy to navigate, and there are plenty of options there, including the ability to switch to manual focus, though you can't then adjust the focus while recording, disappointingly.
There's also the waterproofing, of course, and this is another area where the Panasonic HX-WA3 impresses. While we couldn't test it all the way down to 5m, it survived our trip into some shallow water just fine.
Crucially, it's also capable of capturing great footage underwater, with almost no detrimental effect from being under. Colours are still fairly good, detail is evident, and the great motion handling means that a cloud of bubbles from something moving doesn't cause lots of nasty artefacts.
And lastly, but very importantly, the battery life was excellent. During one 24-hour period where we used the camera often for a few hours, looked back over our footage later, and then occasionally grabbed it to fiddle around with, all without turning it off (we would just close the screen and leave it on standby), we only ran the battery down by around 25 per cent.
This kind of longevity is perfect for holidays. And it can be recharged through a USB cable, so a car charger or even a solar charger or USB battery pack could get it back and powered again.
If image quality was all that mattered here, we might give the Panasonic HX-WA3 a lower score than this. But context is vital, and the Panasonic HX-WA3 as a holiday package really stands out.
It's capable of taking some great shots, with brilliantly captured motion, even if it can have issues with image detail at other times. But the waterproofing and sand-proofing, the solid image stabilisation and the excellent battery life mean that it's ideal for taking to the beach, up a mountain or anywhere in between.