It’s not easy to give a straightforward answer to which is “best” but perhaps we can provide some pointers.
First of all, none of them are bad camcorders! They all provide excellent pictures, can do decent sound and have a mix of auto and manual features. So whichever one you choose should do a reasonable job.
That said, since you wish to film in Auto, the Sony is probably overkill. It has loads of manual features which you won’t need and its autofocus can be astonishingly slow to lock onto a subject. Sometimes it takes 10 seconds or so to find what its looking for.
However, you can use a half-manual / half-auto focus mode where you touch the object you want focused on on the screen and in our tests it would snap to that instantly. It will also focus on faces if you wish (not so good for animals or landscapes!).
In its favour, it’s great in low light (for a small camcorder), has a good zoom range and can shoot in better quality (50Mbps mode) than the other camcorders. If you are willing to sacrifice a little image quality, then its Active Steadyshot mode is very good.
The Panasonic is considerably cheaper of course which leaves you money spare to buy those essential accessories such as extra batteries, a case perhaps or even an external microphone such as the Rode Videomic Pro which will bolt on the side of the camcorder and provide much better quality sound than the inbuild mic (this is true of all the camcorders but only the Panasonic is cheap enough to leave you the budget to buy one within the same price as the Sony or Canon, if you see what we mean).
It has reasonable low light performance (we trust you’ve seen our comparison video at www.youtube.com/UKAirscape as well as all the Tubeshooter videos?). It has an excellent stabiliser for handheld shots and a reasonable autofocus (the caveat with all autofocuses is that they only work well in good light – they’re liable to keep “hunting” for focus when used inside if it’s getting even a bit dark).
On the upside, the nice big ring on the lens can easily be used for manual focus if you need to override the auto setting. Like the others, the Panasonic also offers face recognition for focusing.
While we’re on the subject of the Panasonic, we should touch on colour rendition briefly; we can’t tell you which is “better” simply because everyone’s interpretation of “better” is different to everyone else’s! We go into people’s homes sometimes and see how their TV is set up and they have the most dreadful colour balance, all over-saturated and horrible yet to them this is “right” (even though clearly it isn’t)!!
What we will say is that in *theory* the Panasonic should be best because it has 3 sensor chips, one for each of Red, Green and Blue whereas the other camcorders use single chips and, in essence, have to extrapolate the colour from that. Whether that actually translates to better colour on the Panasonic would require scientific tests in a lab, of a kind we’re not equipped to perform (sorry).
Bear in mind that, as far as we recall, all the camcorders offer you some degree of customisation of the colour so you can flatten the contrast, boost the saturation etc a little to your preference. Ideally you need to borrow one of each and try them for a week at home…
The Canon is a favourite of ours though we can’t really explain why (that doesn’t help, we know). It has a nice zoom rocker rather than a little toggle like the Panasonic. It’s got various stabilisation modes which at best are only slightly worse than the Panasonic. It also offers a 35Mbps mp4 filming mode which is better than the Panasonic though not as good as the Sony – frankly we think the average viewer would be hard pushed to see the difference in everyday footage though. The Canon has two memory card slots so you can film continuously for longer before having to worry about putting another card in (this may not be an issue for your type of filming).
In conclusion, we’d probably say your choice comes down to the Panasonic or Canon (the Sony is ruled out for poor autofocus and poor auto-exposure in our opinion too). Whichever you choose may depend on budget, the Panny being cheaper than the Canon. The Canon has more manual controls but also does an excellent job in auto mode so don’t let that put you off.