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Panasonic PV-GS300 Review

Highs

  • 3 CCDs; OIS; 10x Leica lens; good price

Rating

Our Score 8
User Score 10

Lows

  • Uses Mini DV tape; menu system needs help
Think of this review as a farewell gift to the SD Mini DV shoppers out there.

Summary

It’s the end of an era. No it’s not a watershed like the end of the standalone VCR after 30 years. This is likely the last review I’ll do of a tape-based standard definition (SD) camcorder. Technology is passing SD by with a new wave of high-definition home video-makers. SD just doesn’t cut it—especially having just used prototypes of Panasonic’s new AVCHD camcorders due in March and the reviewed Canon HV10 HDV camcorder. And tape technology seems really ancient in this age of ubiquitous hard drives. Still, SD tape has a major advantage over HDD and new high-def models—and it’s an important one—price. You can easily buy an entry-level Mini DV camcorder for around $250; a HD cam will set you back close to a $1,000 and the most affordable HDD camcorder is around $500. So think of this review as a farewell gift to the SD Mini DV shoppers out there. As a matter of fact, the Panasonic PV-GS300 is a pretty neat camcorder with its three-CCD imaging system, 10x Leica zoom lens, optical image stabilization and compact size. Even though it uses tape, we won’t hold that against it.

Features and Design

The Panasonic PV-GS300 is a rather compact camcorder, even with blank cassette recording media. It fits nicely in your hand and has a primarily silver body made mostly of metal with exception to the plastic door covering the tape mechanism. The camcorder weighs 18.4 ounces with tape, battery and SD memory card in place. A very easily adjusted Velcro wrist strap places your hand in good position to reach the main controls such as the wide/tele zoom switch. I prefer horizontal configuration camcorders like the PV-GS300 compared to the upright shape of models like the Canon HV10 but that’s my taste—you should definitely do a hands-on of this camcorder or any other you’re considering.

The front is dominated by a 10x Leica Dicomar zoom lens with a built-in lens cover. The ring surrounding the lens can be removed to add accessory lenses. You’ll also find a flash, stereo mic and a sensor for white balance and the supplied remote. The top features a cold accessory shoe for optional mics, a tape eject button, the wide/tele zoom toggle, a dedicated button for taking 3-megapixel stills (2048 x 1512 pixels) and the main on/off power switch.

On the left side is the swing-out 2.7-inch LCD monitor with a widescreen aspect ratio. Although rated 123K pixels, it’s decent with a nice range of adjustments for contrast and brightness. Unfortunately you have to access it through a convoluted menu system; more on this in a bit. When you open the screen, there are just two buttons on the camcorder body: one to change between full auto and manual settings as well as one to boost the LCD brightness one level. There are also USB and DV outputs. The right side has a small speaker and a compartment hiding the A/V out and mic in jacks. Panasonic is one of the few companies that offer mic jacks for folks who want to use an optional improved microphone. It’s a nice feature but it’s the rare person who actually uses it.

The rear is not nearly as clean looking as the rest of the camcorder. It’s dominated by the rechargeable lithium ion battery (rated 125 minutes in typical continuous use), the viewfinder and main controls. Although the battery is clunky, it does provide plenty of power since not too many people keep recording an event for two straight hours without hitting the stop button. Panasonic, like every other company, will gladly sell you optional spares, but hold off until you use it in the real world.

The viewfinder is a straight pull-out type with diopter control; it too has a widescreen aspect ratio albeit a tiny one to use when the LCD gets wiped out. The main mode dial gives access to all the key functions including video, camera, video and still playback as well as PC for downloads. There’s a four-way jog dial to move through the menu options and a cool turquoise light illuminates when you use it. Next to the mode dial is the record key. All are conveniently positioned for one-hand operation. The bottom of the camcorder has a tripod mount and a slot for optional SD cards used to store stills.

The Panasonic PV-GS300 comes with almost everything you need to get started other than one big omission—a blank tape. I know companies are looking to make a buck, but why not include a blank tape–especially for a $500-plus model? And of course no DV (FireWire) cable is included but few camcorder makers include one. That said, you’ll find the camcorder, rechargeable battery/charger, remote, stereo A/V and USB cables, 88-page Owner’s Manual and software CD ROM. The disc has MotionDV Studio 5.6LE for DV and Quick Movie Magic V1.0E, basic programs to edit your footage.

After prepping the camcorder, it was time to take some Mini DV videos and photographs.

Panasonic PV-GS300
Image Courtesy of Panasonic

Performance

This camcorder is good to go in about three seconds, a relatively quick time when compared to many DVD-based models. As DigitalTrends’ readers know, I start in Auto then move to the manual options (video and still). Turning the mode dial to video, it was time to walk through the initial menu screens. For the most part, they are easy to read and fairly understandable. You simply use the joystick to navigate through them. In Auto you’re blocked from making many adjustments–which is a good thing for the vast majority of point-and-forget users. Still you can adjust the flash level and mode, OIS on/off, type of fade and other settings. Where things get squirrelly is something as important as the LCD brightness and contrast. Here you have to go into Setup, go to page 2 of 3, find LCD Set, hit Yes then make the adjustments. This is way too deep into the menu system. Once there, the adjustments are good, but Panasonic software designers need to bring this important function to the fore not aft.

You can also switch between 4:3 and 16:9 recording and the LCD automatically changes to the proper aspect ratio for easy framing and composition. This is a three-CCD camcorder which is a very good thing as you can tell by our review of the Panasonic VDR-D300 . With this system, the primary colors (red, green, blue) are handled by individual sensors resulting in more accurate colors on your TV. In the case of the PV-GS300, it features a trio of 800K pixel chips and it records 640K x 3 video in the 4:3 mode. When you go to 16:9, resolution drops to 540K x 3 since it’s cropping the image rather than using the full width of the sensor like many competitors (Canon, Sony). That said if you’re serious about widescreen video, definitely consider the much more expensive PV-GS500 that uses three 1.07MP chips for 700K x 3 video in 4:3 and 730K x 3 in 16:9. The numbers tell the story as well as your eyes. Then again you can go high-def which is another tale entirely. Back to the GS300…

I found this camcorder very easy to operate with the controls in readily accessible position (zoom and record buttons). The zoom has a nice feel and the LCD held up for the most part, although I would’ve preferred more pixels for enhanced detail. The camcorder had little problem grabbing focus—even through windows–and the optical image stabilizer eliminated most of the hand shake. OIS is a true Godsend and you should always look for it—no matter which brand you choose.

Moving to Manual takes a simple flick of the switch in the LCD compartment. Once in this setting you have access to many adjustments including multiple Scene modes (there are five them such as sports, portrait). Most are pretty self explanatory but you need the Owner’s Manual to decipher a few of them such as Spotlight and Surf & Snow. Fortunately, when you toggle through the manual options a brief description of the setting is displayed so you can decide if that’s what you’d like to do. You’ll find options for white balance, iris, to engage Magic Pix (a low-light shooting mode), soft skin mode and others. Once you’ve fiddled with these settings you can move to manual focus and tweak the setting by moving the joystick left or right. It’s here the limitations of the LCD panel again show themselves.

After shooting video indoors and out, it was time to play them back on my Toshiba TV via the A/V out and to download to the PC via FireWire. Since the supplied A/V cable has an S-out, I used that connection and the jog dial to fast forward, playback and so on. The results onscreen were quite good with a minimum amount of noise and jagged edges. Video was quite smooth and colors were fairly accurate but a touch washed-out indoors. That said, you can really see the benefits of the three-chip system and OIS, compared to the competition.

All camcorders take stills and the PV-GS300 is no exception; here it takes 3MP images, definitely nothing to write home about. I took many shots. The photos taken with the flash were good and sharp but those in dim light looked like noisy low-quality stills. Outdoors in bright sunlight they were O.K. too but I wouldn’t try an 8×10; 4×6 snapshots should be fine.

The supplied editing software is good for beginners and I had no problems downloading video to my Dell.

Conclusion

At a $549 street price this is a very good—not great—Mini DV camcorder. If you’re thinking standard definition and tape, this is a fine choice. Still, it is tape-based and you’ll have to deal with that including rewinding cassettes and the possibility of recording over important memories. If you follow some basic precautions to avoid that calamity, the value is there since you have to spend a lot more to get this level of video quality in HDD (think the Sony DCR-SR100 for $999). But I’ve had a nice sampling of high-def camcorders and it’s hard not to remember those images on my TV.

I’ve been prepped as to the new camcorders coming at the Consumer Electronics Show on Jan. 7, 2007 and have been sworn to secrecy on pain of losing my 401K. Without risking my pension, I can tell you there will be far fewer Mini DV camcorders introduced in 2007 as HDD, HDV and AVCHD models come to the fore. It is the passing of an era—and good deals on “old-fashioned” Mini DV camcorders should be readily available.

Pros:

• 3 CCD imaging system
• Optical image stabilization
• 10x Leica lens
• Relatively affordable

Cons:

• Uses Mini DV tape
• Menu system could be better
• Sub-par widescreen video mode

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