Remember when you were in eighth grade? You probably felt like pretty hot stuff--until the next year, when you found yourself demoted to the status of a lowly freshman. Panasonic's PV-GS400 MiniDV camcorder is in the same position: at the pinnacle of Panasonic's consumer camcorder line, just below the professional line, which begins with the .
What makes the Panasonic PV-GS400 such an advanced consumer camera are its three-chip capture system, 12X optical zoom with optical stabilizer, 3.5-inch LCD screen, and manual control over almost every function. But all these assets don't quite add up to a professional camera. The 1/4.7-inch chips may be large for a consumer camcorder, but they're tiny by pro standards, and there's a fairly strict correlation between chip size and low-light performance. And while you can control all the functions of the PV-GS400 manually, you do it using a multipurpose ring rather than the discrete mechanical controls to which pros are accustomed.
With a street price near $1,000, the Panasonic PV-GS400 is one of the best consumer-camcorder deals available. Just don't mistake it for a pro camera. The Panasonic PV-GS400 has a classic Handycam-style layout and a high-quality metallic-silver finish. Measuring 3 inches high, 3 inches wide, and 7 inches deep and weighing 1.5 pounds, this is a solid package that lends itself to two-handed operation.
The right of the camera consists primarily of a top-loading, rubber-coated MiniDV cassette door, which serves as a comfortable handgrip. A wrist strap is connected to the bottom of the door, and a zoom slider sits at the door's top, under the operator's forefinger. A large 3.5-inch, 200,000-pixel flip-out LCD dominates the left side of the camera. The more frequently used manual-control buttons reside in front of the LCD, and the less-used effects and VTR buttons sit under it along with a pop-up SD-card (not included) slot for stills.
Protected by a conventional lens cap, a 12X Leica Dicomar zoom makes up the front of the camera. The lens has a 43mm filter ring and is surrounded by a generously sized (by consumer-control standards) Multi Manual Ring. On the camera's back are a viewfinder eyepiece at top, a battery below, and a mode dial and power controls to the right. Finally, from front to back, the top of the camera is covered by a pop-up flash, a built-in stereo mic, and a hotshoe to accommodate optional accessory lights and microphones.
The Panasonic PV-GS400 offers the usual assortment of ports: composite A/V and S-Video, USB, and FireWire. The external-mic jack is essential for recording high-quality audio, and it doubles as a jack for the included MagicWire wired remote, a clever handheld mic that includes buttons to stop and start recording and control the zoom. The A/V port also doubles as a headphone jack.
For a consumer camera, the PV-GS400 offers very well-laid-out controls. They're ergonomically positioned and large enough for real human fingers. They also display a startling lack of gimmickry. A couple of buttons select whether the Multi Manual Ring will control focus, zoom, shutter, or iris--and that's all there is to it! The heart of the Panasonic PV-GS400 is its three-chip imaging system. Each chip is 1/4.7 inch in size--relatively large for a consumer camera--and has a whopping megapixel of resolution, which accounts for the camera's excellent wide-screen performance and decent still-picture capabilities.
The Leica Dicomar lens offers a 12X zoom range and optical image stabilization, which is superior to the electronic stabilization typical in consumer cameras. (Note that the PV-GS400's optical stabilization is misidentified in the menus as EIS.)
It's safe to say that no camera at the PV-GS400's price point offers more or better manual controls. Focus, iris, shutter, zoom, gain, white balance, and even audio levels can all be controlled quickly and directly. True, the Multi Manual Ring isn't quite as efficient as the separate controls pro cameras have for each function, but this hybrid arrangement is a world beyond that of the typical consumer camera.
Besides the manual controls, the Panasonic PV-GS400 offers several other pro features: zebra stripes (an exposure-setting aid that highlights blown-out areas); color bars for setting up monitors; and a full complement of custom image adjustments that enable the shooter to fine-tune the sharpness, the color, the exposure, and the contrast of the image.
For those who want a cinematic look, the PV-GS400 offers both letterboxed and anamorphic (squeezed) wide-screen modes, as well as Pro Cinema mode, a pseudo-24P look that gives the image a filmlike motion quality. Unfortunately, Pro Cinema is available only when shooting in anamorphic wide-screen format.
For the less ambitious user, the PV-GS400 also features the usual variety of automatic options, including a fully automatic mode and a number of autoexposure modes, such as Sports, Portrait, Low Light, Surf and Snow, and Spotlight.
The PV-GS400 offers a full range of consumer-oriented digital effects, which are mostly tucked out of the way in the easily navigable menus. The effects include 700X and 30X digital zoom, TeleMacro (for extreme close-ups), SoftSkin (which reduces wrinkles), Fader, MultiMode (which takes nine small pictures in a row and saves them to tape), Picture-in-Picture, Strobe, Mix, Mosaic, Mirror, Stretch, Slim, Trailing Effect, Wipe, Negative, Sepia, Black and White, and Solarization. A couple of low-light modes are also offered: MagicPix, in which the shutter speed is slowed down, and Advanced MagicPix, in which the LCD is turned forward to serve as an illuminator.
The Quick Start mode falls into the miscellaneous-features category. It reduces the camera's start-up time from almost five seconds to less than two but exacts a penalty in battery life. Another battery-draining feature is the Power LCD button, which doubles the brightness of the flip-out LCD for viewing in bright conditions.
At least on paper, the PV-GS400 has impressive photo capabilities. Through pixel-shift technology, the three megapixel chips can output stills with up to 4-megapixel resolution. While the camera is recording video to tape, it can simultaneously record stills of up to 1 megapixel to SD card. The PV-GS400 also has several flash modes, a self-timer, red-eye reduction, and burst modes. Finally, it is PictBridge enabled, so you can directly connect it to compatible printers.
The Panasonic PV-GS400 comes with MotionDV Studio LE editing software for Windows and ArcSoft PhotoSuite (both Windows and Mac) for editing stills. In general, the Panasonic PV-GS400's automatic systems are adequate but not spectacular. Autofocus performance can be sluggish. Autoexposure and white balance, while accurate, are also a bit slow to respond. On a lower-end camcorder intended for point-and-shoot operation, this mediocre automation would be a serious problem, but the PV-GS400 has clearly been optimized for the more advanced user who wants to take manual control over the camera.
Fortunately, the manual controls exhibit a much greater responsiveness. While the Multi Manual Ring may seem a bit awkward to someone used to pro gear, it's about the best control system I've ever seen on a consumer camera. Similarly, the zoom slider may be small by pro standards, but it's gargantuan compared to some consumer controls. All essential manual adjustments can be made quickly and instinctively, without the need to navigate menus.
The flip-out LCD is big, bright, and sharp. The viewfinder is adequate but will probably be neglected in favor of the LCD.
Sound performance with the built-in mic is typical: good when near the subject in a quiet environment but less acceptable in more challenging conditions. On the plus side, the mic doesn't pick up much camera noise, and the GS400 can accommodate an external mic and headphones--which are the keys to recording high-quality sound. When it comes to capturing video in well-lit situations, the Panasonic PV-GS400 is a consumer MiniDV camera that offers state-of-the-art image quality, approaching professional standards. No doubt due to the PV-GS400's three CCD chips, video is bright, colorful, accurate, and detailed. And because they're megapixel chips, the 16:9 mode is superb, with no noticeable loss in sharpness.
In low light, the images still look good, considering they come from a consumer camera, but by professional quality standards, they're noisy and somewhat muted.
Still-image quality is also middling: good for a video camera but competitive with the quality of only the lowest tier of dedicated still cameras.