Panasonic SDR-SW20 review:

Panasonic SDR-SW20

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Typical Price: $769.00
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CNET Editors' Rating

The Good It goes underwater. Small, sleek design.

The Bad Fiddly controls. Average video quality.

The Bottom Line The cool factor of waterproof gadgets is high, even when there's a subsequent trade-off in performance. Anyone going any deeper than snorkel depth will need to look elsewhere, but at least the price reflects the compromises made for that cheerily tough exterior.

Visit manufacturer site for details.

6.1 Overall

Anyone who's ever dropped their mobile phone in their beer will appreciate waterproofing. While you can't really drop it in your VB, the rugged Panasonic SDR-SW20 standard definition camcorder will survive a spill or spot of rain. Available now for around AU$769, will it stand up to the beatings of a beach holiday?

The SW20 has a small, sleek design. It's less round than most camcorders, with a slim and flat form factor closer to a (large) mobile phone's candy-bar body than a traditional camcorder's barrel shape.

This makes it easier to hold the camera if you prefer the thumb-at-the-front grip over the standard thumb-at-the-back grip. A second record button on the front right-side of the camcorder makes shooting easier if you're into different hand positions. There's also a textured surface for extra grip.

The 2.7-inch LCD screen flips out, but unusually doesn't twist over for self-portrait shooting. The camera's small size means the controls are placed in the screen well rather than at the back, which makes it harder to see both the screen and the buttons you're pressing at the same time. This can be a problem when focusing manually, as you need to use the click pad and look at the screen at the same time.

Headlining the SW20's feature list is its robustness. The SW20 is shock proof and can withstand being dropped from up to 1.2m. As its seals are designed to keep dust and water out — with one hatch for AV Out and USB connections, and another protecting the battery and SD/SDHC memory card slot — the SW20 can be submerged up to a maximum depth of 1.5m, which is good for swimming or snorkelling.

The battery's size is closer to that of a compact camera's than the usual chunky camcorder cell, although this does mean that there are no high capacity power packs to be swapped out with the bundled battery.

Boasting a small 4.23mm (1/6-inch) CCD sensor, the SW20 has a 10x optical zoom lens, shooting at 4:3 or 16:9 aspect ratios. Stills are captured at a rather meagre VGA (640x480) resolution, good enough for internet sharing, but not much more.

The stereo zoom microphone follows the 10x zoom lens, so you will be able to hear what you are focusing on, even if it is further away. This isn't as effective underwater, though, because when underwater mode is activated, it reduces both the sensitivity of the mic, as well as adjusting the white balance to suit the watery conditions.

Footage is recorded in MPEG-2 format to SD or SDHC cards. In long play mode just under an hour of footage can be crammed onto a 1GB card, while the supplied 4GB SDHC card will record the same amount of time at maximum quality.

Adjustments available include backlight compensation and portrait-enhancing soft skin mode. There are also two low-light slow shutter modes, although they can cause blurred video, as well as surf and snow scene modes for holidaymakers.

The quick start feature sees the SW20 start up in 0.6 seconds, although this is effectively a standby mode and will have an impact on battery life. With moderate use of the quick start feature, the battery lasted just over an hour on one charge. So it's definitely worth investing in spare batteries.

Because the SW20 only packs a 4.23mm (1/6-inch) CCD sensor, video doesn't look particularly great as a consequence. Footage is not as crisp as we'd like and fine details are lost. Colour isn't bad though and it copes well with moving from dark to light contrast areas.

Low-light performance isn't much to write home about, with lots of gritty noise. This is an issue when either shooting at night or in water that's either murky or poorly lit. Footage is fine for internet sharing, but compression artefacts and noise look poor on larger screens.

The novelty of waterproof gadgets takes a long time to wear off and we'll never tire of drop-testing products. The Panasonic SDR-SW20 certainly has a high fun factor, looks great and is highly affordable. But this cheery toughness comes at a price in terms of image quality and, besides, it's still not robust enough for more extreme pursuits, like scuba diving. If you're happy to stick to the shallow end, the SW20 does the job.

If the only thing you're planning to wet is your whistle, you could pay a similar amount of money for the bigger and more voluminous Sony Handycam DCR-SR45.

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