Panasonic SDR-SW20 review: Panasonic SDR-SW20

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Panasonic SDR-SW20 (Red)

(Part #: SDRSW20R) Released: Feb 1, 2008
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2.5 stars

CNET Editors' Rating

The Good Waterproof to 5 feet with decent results.

The Bad Poor performance and image quality; insecure handstrap; relatively expensive.

The Bottom Line The Panasonic SDR-SW20's only saving grace is its water-, shock-, and dust-proof body (and even those have limitations). Otherwise, there's no reason to buy this pocket camcorder.

5.2 Overall
  • Design 5.0
  • Features 6.0
  • Performance 5.0
  • Image quality 5.0

For those who need a compact, weatherproof camcorder that can take some abuse and only plan on sharing the results online, the Panasonic SDR-SW20 may be of interest. Otherwise there are plenty of pocket camcorders that produce the same or better video for less money.

The SW20's major selling point is its sturdy, waterproof body. It's protected down to 5 feet underwater for a maximum of 30 minutes at a time, adhering to the International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC) 60529 IPX8 standard. It's also dustproof and resists damage if dropped from heights up to 4 feet (using MIL-STD-810F method 516.5 for shock testing). And for all its toughness, the SW20, which records MPEG-2 video at a maximum of 10Mbps to SD or SDHC cards, weighs only slightly more than 8 ounces and measures 1.3 inches wide by 2.5 inches high by 4.5 inches deep. It's worth noting, too, that Panasonic warns that the water-resistant packing degrades over time and recommends that a dealer replace the packing at least once every 18 months.

The SW20's horizontal camcorder design--at least when compared with competitor Sanyo's pistol-grip Xacti VPC-E1--allows for its 10x optical zoom. However the zoom is not smooth, with video visibly jerking up and down as the internal lens extends and retracts (it's especially noticeable if the subject is still). Panasonic put a record/pause button both on the front right of the camcorder (handy when using an overhand grip shooting at a low angle) and at the natural thumb position at the back for an underhand grip. You'd better keep a good grip on the SW20, though, because the included handstrap--while cleverly making use of the tripod threads in the bottom--is far from secure. Not great for its active-use purpose.

Other than the record buttons and the zoom rocker on top, the controls are on the inside of the body, opposite the 2.7-inch LCD when open. Navigating the menus and settings is straightforward and the SW20 actually has a Manual option so you can set focus, white balance, shutter speed, and gain. There's a special Underwater button, too, that adapts color and audio for being underwater. The buttons are stiff, however, and don't always register (no doubt because of the seals required for waterproofing). A simple thumb dial lets you change between recording/playing video and still images. There's no dedicated photo button, so you can't take stills and capture video simultaneously.

When devices get this kind of protection, other elements of the product usually suffer, either because of the nature of the design requirements, to keep prices reasonable, or both. In this case, it's the video quality that gets shafted. Regardless of settings, it's plainly bad. If viewed at a small size on a computer screen, YouTube-style, or on a small TV, movies are passable as long as you have low expectations, don't mind the white balance being out of whack, and are OK with the picture being a bit crooked. (Though that last one might just be the unit I tested.) Lighter colors and skin tones were frequently blown out as well. Details are poor in general, but fairly nonexistent in dim light. Understand, most of these complaints are typical for the type and class of camcorder, but the SW20 is below average.

The concept for the Panasonic SDR-SW20 is sound: a small, lightweight flash-based camcorder that can withstand weather, water, dust, and drops. But if you have to sacrifice so much of the video quality to get it and pay extra for the privilege, I'm not sure it's worth it. Especially when options like the sturdier, less expensive Olympus 1030 SW point-and-shoot camera and the similarly priced Sanyo Xacti VPC-E1 exist.

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