The PV-GS300, Panasonic's midrange consumer three-CCD camcorder, arrives at a lower price than last year's model, the PV-GS250. As with its higher-end sibling, the
Weighing 1 pound, 2 ounces, the Panasonic PV-GS300's solidly built silver-plastic case has a squat design that's comfortable for one-handed use. The tape ejects upward, allowing you to swap tapes while using a tripod. However, you'll have to remove the camcorder from the tripod to swap the Secure Digital memory cards used for stills, as the card slot is on the bottom.
The PV-GS300's control layout is almost identical to that of the PV-GS500: minimalist. You perform most adjustments via the menus, navigating with a small, hard-to-manage joystick that sits in the center of the mode wheel. The onscreen menus are easy to understand, but the process of changing settings is tedious. I'd have preferred at least a few dedicated buttons for oft-used functions such as backlight compensation. Then again, Panasonic designed the GS300 for the point-and-shoot crowd, providing the typical assortment of program autoexposure modes, highlighted by manual shutter and aperture, adjustable white balance, and a macro mode. You also use the joystick for focusing manually--an imprecise tool that makes me long for the focus ring of the GS250.
The PV-GS300's biggest improvement over the PV-GS250 is its wide-screen, 2.7-inch LCD. Colorful, with good detail rendering, the LCD works great for framing shots, though it's a bit too small to give you the precision you need for manual focus. The optical image stabilization on the PV-GS300 is quite effective; very little image shake is evident when shooting handheld at full 10X zoom. Autofocus and exposure react accurately when panning from close, well-lit objects to distant, shadowed scenes, though sometimes there's a perceptible delay. Battery life is solid, providing more than an hour of start/stop recording and as much as two hours of continuous shooting.
The chief advantages of three-CCD models are richer color and better low-light performance, and the three 800,000-pixel CCDs clearly make a difference here. Footage shot outdoors in sunlight looked very sharp and detailed, with accurate, vibrant color. Moving indoors into regular room light--a situation where things can start to get grainy with single-CCD consumer camcorders--resulted in equally sharp footage with little or no visible graininess. Only in dim light did noise become intrusive. But even then, video retained an above-average level of color, albeit with a reddish cast. The MagicPix mode lets you use the LCD to illuminate dark subjects, though this does little to improve dark shots. Still quality for outdoor and indoor shots using the built-in flash is acceptable for small, uncropped prints. However, zooming in even slightly reveals significant noise and a general lack of detail.
The GS300 records sound very well, too, and incorporates an effective wind filter as well as an audio-zoom feature. It has a jack for an external microphone, though it lacks the headphone jack that's found on the PV-GS250.
If you have a good eye for video but a bad time with technology, then the Panasonic PV-GS300 will deliver exactly what you want: great video quality with minimum fuss. But if you like to tweak and experiment even occasionally, don't go here.