I was thinking of getting the Sony HDR-PJ540 but testing it out in the store and looking at footage taken with it posted on Youtube I was not impressed. And the Sony was $699.00. I got the Panasonic HC-V550 at Costco on sale for $299.00 with a 32 gig card and bag. I compared footage of both camcorders from the Youtube footage and by playing with them in the stores. And in my opinion the Panasonic out performed the Sony in zoom capability, image quality, low light, and stabilization. I will mainly focus on these four areas because they play a big part on getting good video and most people don't utilize or learn all the features. Most just point and shoot and the ones that do know how to use the features tend to buy higher end cameras. I will use the Sony as a comparison because it is the only camcorder that is close enough in the four areas I mentioned above.
First the zoom. It used to be rare to find a decent camcorder with more than 10x optical zoom. Just recently upper end camcorders started offering bigger optical zoom capability but most still hover around 12x and only a few get to about 30x. But 50x optical wide angle with nice stabilization was unheard of! And with 50x optical you have the advantage of a clearer image already where others have to digitalize to even get close and they are at a disadvantage. You can find lesser quality camcorders with 50x optical zoom with hardly any features and without a decent stabilization, so the extra zoom is useless without good stabilization and a decent lens. This Panasonic has 50x optical with 90x intelligent zoom which it uses the sensor somehow to magnify the image instead of doing it the old digital way where the image degrades. The video quality of the image looked crisp still. I even zoomed passed 90x up to 150x and the image still looked nice. Even zoomed out to 300x where the image got a little grainy where other camcorders can't even come close! Now get this, even up to 500x the image got only a little more grainy and even close to about 900x the image got more grainy, it wasn't great but you can still make out the image. Other camcorders would be lucky to get to 150x and the image barely recognizable. Of course your going to need a tripod at those extreme zooms. The Sony had 30x optical and their clear image zoom was only up 60x and I noticed it started to get a little grainy at the end.
The image quality from what I can tell, was that the Sony didn't seem that nice for a higher priced camcorder and from what I have seen for myself. Comparing the two from Youtube and the LCD screen the Panasonic seemed better. The Sony didn't seem too sharp and there was artifacting here and there. And yes Youtube can't do justice sometimes, but they were both on the same playing field.
In low light I zoomed into dark areas in the stores and the Panasonic was brighter than the Sony. And with the Sony I zoomed out to 60x whereas I zoomed out to 90x with the Panasonic. The Panasonic should of done lousy zoomed way out in a low light situation, but it outperformed the Sony. The image was brighter clearer.
The stabilization on the Sony worked pretty good but it would sometimes wander a bit before it stabilized. The Panasonic stabilization works just as nice if not better because I was able to zoom further out with it than the Sony and still have a stable and clear image.
I videoed my kids stage performance with only stage lightning standing about 60ft back and hand held it. Was at about 3x zoom up to 10x occasionally and it was a little over an hour and a half with a ten minute intermission. The video was bright and steady. I videoed my kids at baseball in the day and at sundown with nice results. I zoomed in on an airliner far away at almost 300x zoom and I could make out the passenger windows and other details. The LCD has 3 brightness levels and I didn't have any problem viewing the screen out in the sun. Only problem might be a reflection because the screen is shiny and not antiglare, you can compensate some by angling the screen at an angle.
The Panasonic does not have built in memory so you have to use regular size SD cards or micro SD with adapter. Sony has built in 32 gigs along with a slot to use various other memory cards but you are paying a premium for built in memory vs buying SD cards. I would recommend a 32 GB card which would get you 2 hr 40 min. of which most of us would need for recording a full event like a sporting event or recital or something. The recorder can take up to a 64 GB card and get you 5 hr 20 min., but that is putting all of your eggs in one basket if the card corrupts or something. Also with two 32 GB cards you would have the versatility of two cards vs one to label and keep separate if someone else wanted to use the camera or to keep your events separate if you didn't get a chance to take the video off of the cards. Now the times I have given are based on the highest setting of 1920x1080/60p. I like the SD route because I don't have to pay more for something I can get cheaper, I don't lose my video if I break or lose the camcorder and I can just pop out the card and plug into my computer instead of having the camcorder plugged. The battery lasted about two hours give or take which is about in line with the record time on a 32 GB card. I used 1080 60p with little pausing. Manual states about 1 to 2 hours battery time depending on continuous recording or pausing and starting.
You can take pictures while recording but it will be a 2 megapixel image. You can switch to camera mode and it will take a 10 megapixel image. As with all camcorders the pictures are not the same quality as using a real camera. It is better than nothing but don't bother enlarging them.
The camcorder is really light and about the same length as a toilet paper roll and a little larger in diameter. If you have large hands then it might be a little awkward to hit the record button. The camcorder does not come with a separate charger. It comes with a thin wall cable that plugs into the camcorder and you charge the battery while it's on the camera. Plus is you travel lighter, minus is you can't have a spare charging. You can buy an external charger if you want. I won't get into the other features of this camera, I just wanted to hit on the things I thought mattered the most. I will update if I find something else worth mentioning.
You will get some people recommending so and so camera because it has better low light, color or video quality or something. But they get off track because the one they recommend has way less zoom, stabilization not as good or something like that. They don't recommend something that fits the criteria you were looking for. I urge you to take a look into the Panasonic HC-V550 as an option for what it can do for the price.
Per recommendation of a comment I bought an Anker external battery instead of purchasing an extra battery because the prices were ridiculous. Granted you will have a cable dangling around if you hold the camera in your hand, but if you have it on a tripod with a hook you can just hang the battery on the tripod. I carry a small hiking/bicycling waist bag that I sling across my body anyways so it isn't an issue to have the Anker connected if needed. If I find a decent price on an extra battery later on I might get one. I went this route also because my kids are in competitions and they last all day long so this external battery will serve multipurpose to keep my camcorder going, phones charged and my other son's tablet charged to keep him occupied.
The 2nd generation Anker chargers have ports that will configure to your devices specific charge requirements whereas others have ports that just put out a certain amp and may not be compatible with your devices so it will either not charge or charge very slowly or they may have one specifically for Apple and one for Androids. Oh and use the USB cable that came with your device because that also can affect compatibility. Anker offers a variety of different sizes. The Panasonic HC-V550 has a 1940 mAh battery so get at least a 2000 mAh capacity external battery with at least a 1.8A output. I got the 2nd Gen Astro3 12000 mAh with up to 4A output and 3 IQ ports to cover all my bases. May be too big for some but it works for what I intend it for. Oh and also I can use it around the house and not be limited by the length of my cable to an outlet, use it as emergency back up power or take it on hikes to power my GPS.