Panasonic broke new ground when it introduced the PV-GS200 and the lower-priced PV-GS120. The very compact design that the two MiniDV cameras share makes them the smallest, lightest three-chip camcorders on the market. They're also more affordable than usual for three-chip models, putting technology normally reserved for the prosumer market into the hands of home-video makers. The flagship PV-GS200 offers numerous advantages over its lower-priced cousin, including a higher effective resolution, a manual focus ring, MPEG-4 capture, a wired remote with a built-in mic for narration, and a built-in flash for low-light stills.
In addition to being easily portable, with no dimension exceeding 5 inches, the Panasonic PV-GS200 is comfortable to hold and maneuver for long periods of time. At 16.6 ounces, it's fairly light, and its basic automatic and manual controls are well placed. The icons that identify them are understandable, not just cute, and the LCD menus are bright and easy to read. Sometimes the LCD menu system can be cryptic, especially to a novice. Pray that you won't have to count on the user manual for help--it's a labyrinthine mess of poorly organized information.
The Panasonic PV-GS200 packs an impressively rich feature set for a camera at its price point. It sports an f/1.8 10X Leica Dicomar zoom lens, and you can manually set aperture, shutter speed, and white balance. An SD card slot is tucked neatly behind the LCD screen for recording stills and MPEG-4 video. You'll need to buy your own card, though, since the puny 8MB one that's included won't hold much. While Panasonic touts this camera's 2.3-megapixel still capture, that resolution is achieved through what the company calls quad-density pixel distribution technology. The result is mediocre photos that may make fine mementos but can't compare in quality to what you'd get from a decent dedicated still camera.
The autofocus, zoom, and manual controls are extremely responsive and smooth. On the other hand, the electronic image stabilization is the PV-GS200's Achilles' heel. Cameras this compact lend themselves easily to wobbly footage, so image stabilization is extremely important--but the PV-GS200's system often left noticeable trails and generally didn't take enough of the shake out of our images. That's a shame, and it cost the Panasonic an Editors' Choice award. On the other hand, the moderate-size 2.5-inch LCD is bright and sharp, as is the color viewfinder.
Thanks to the three CCDs, the Panasonic PV-GS200 easily takes wonderfully vivid footage with excellent color rendition--in good exposure situations, that is. Dim scenes yielded noticeably noisy results. The MagicPix setting, which allows the PV-GS200 to take footage in no-light situations, seems like a great idea in theory, but don't rely on it in practice. Although this Panasonic has three CCDs, they're small 1/6-inch sensors, so you won't get the kind of detail that a prosumer model with larger CCDs would provide. Nevertheless, the footage we captured was excellent--if a little too shaky when zoomed in--coming from a consumer camcorder.