Hands-on review: Panasonic W850 camcorder

It’s two camcorders! One for taking nice videos of things in front of you, and one for taking an unflattering shot of your squinting face!

Like the Bactrian camel and the Hawaiian monk seal, camcorders are dwindling towards extinction, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t time for a few farewell mutations on the way to the taxidermist’s cabinet.

With that in mind, Panasonic has developed a moviemaker with two cameras on it – one big and outward-facing, and one smaller one that points backwards. You know, like on a phone. The smaller camera is mounted on the side of the flip-out screen, and can swivel around to capture a second angle which appears in the main camera's footage as a little window.  

Big lens good, small lens... not so much

This two-camera approach would make a nice app on a phone, one you’d spend about half the price of a sandwich on. However, on the W850 it's difficult to see why you'd want the small, swivelly, screen-side camera. It only records VGA, and only as a window in the main camera’s footage, so you can’t switch between cameras (which would be handy for shooting an interview, or a wide and close angle on a subject). So in our brief experience we got two kinds of results from the two-camera camcorder: either a confusingly small picture of something far away or a deeply unflattering, chin-filled close-up of the shooter's face. If you can think of any film that would be improved by having your peering, distracted mug superimposed on a quarter of the screen, this is the feature for you. 

The tiny camera on the side may be about as useful as a waterproof teabag, but the W850’s main eye is a feat of precision engineering. While most camcorders have two lens groups (a zoom group and a focus group), the W850 has four. The two extra zoom groups allow for a 50x optical zoom in a body the size and weight of a small hot dog (bun included). It can shoot 1080p slow motion (half-speed), and it can switch to slo-mo without breaking recording. While it’s light it feels fairly sturdy and at first squint the footage looked impressive, especially zoomed right in. 

While pawing the W850 we were also shown an interesting accessory, the VW-CTR1 Pan Tilt Cradle. Mount your Panasonic camcorder on this robotic tripod (the W850 or its more affordable sibling, the V550) and you can shoot from anywhere, using your phone or PC. If you’re a private investigator, a spy or a keen birdwatcher, this could be worth a (surreptitious) look.