Panasonic BB-HCM381 review

£615
Price when reviewed

The past few months have seen Panasonic become a force to be reckoned with in the IP camera market. It’s released a steady stream of surveillance products aimed at home and business users, and the latest BB-HCM381 delivers PTZ (pan, tilt, zoom) functions at an affordable price.

Build quality isn’t quite up to the standard set by Sony’s IPELA SNC-RZ25P, but the HCM381 is a lot more compact and discreet. Pan and tilt ranges are as good as the competition, although Panasonic scores higher for its 21x optical and 2x digital zoom. Two-way audio functions are supported, as the camera offers a single socket to attach the supplied splitter cable for an external microphone and speaker. Quality will depend on the devices you use but, suffice to say, audio has a lag of around one second, putting it out of sync with the video feed. The camera offers a dual-protocol stack that supports both IPv4 and the next-generation IPv6. IPSec-encrypted transmissions are also possible, but the manual makes no more than a token effort at enlightenment, and Panasonic’s support site is useless on this topic.

Installation starts with the supplied setup utility, which searches for and displays any cameras ready for action. The first time the camera is accessed from a web browser, it insists you create a username and password for administrative access. Next, you decide whether to allow internet access, and if you do it takes you straight to Panasonic’s free Viewnetcam DDNS service, where you can create a unique URL for the camera.

The web interface is common to all Panasonic IP cameras and provides direct access to all the main settings in the same window as the image. A soft keypad lets you move the lens, and buttons below control zoom and manual focus. You can select from a number of resolutions and choose between quality, motion or standard picture settings. Overall picture quality is significantly better than Sony’s, with the image demonstrating a sharper focus and a more natural colour balance.

Quality with the optical zoom is impressive and, although digital zoom is usually of little value, on the HCM381 it actually works but, inevitably, it isn’t magic and adds no image detail. Pointing inside the image window and using the mouse wheel allows you to control the zoom. You get ten steps of optical and then it automatically switches to digital for the last step. We found that the expected image deterioration for the digital zoom was hard to detect, with the picture remaining sharply focused.

The camera offers a frame rate of up to 30 frames per second, but only at its lower 320 x 240 resolution – move up to 640 x 480 and speed will drop to around 12fps. Motion detection is available for unattended monitoring, and you can modify the triggering threshold and sensitivity to suit, using a preview screen and bar graph. The camera also offers an SD memory slot so, along with uploads to FTP servers and emails to three addresses, you can send images to an SD card when motion detection is triggered.

Unlike Sony’s IPELA, the HCM381 doesn’t offer optional wireless support or MPEG4 compression. However, if top-quality imaging is what you’re after, Panasonic is the one to go for, as it delivers this along with a good range of useful surveillance features. And, all for a competitive price.

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