What could be more convenient than a camcorder that burns its own DVDs? Shoot a soccer game or a birthday party, pop the disc into your set-top player, and presto--video on demand. Panasonic's compact, single-CCD VDR-M75 records video on inexpensive 3-inch DVD-RAM and DVD-R discs, thus giving you the kind of instant playback gratification that you can't get from tape-based camcorders. Unfortunately, that's the only real benefit to this model, which suffers from mediocre image quality, a surprisingly limited feature set, and a poor choice of rewritable media.
Though a tad on the heavy side at a bit more than one pound, the svelte Panasonic VDR-M75 measures just 3.4 by 2 by 4.8 inches. Its controls are simple and straightforward, with clearly marked text labels on most of them. A four-way controller makes for easy menu navigation, and the menus themselves are self-explanatory. The only problem lies with the membrane-style buttons that reside in the LCD compartment. This recessed locale makes them difficult to access while you're shooting. But worse than that, the plus and minus buttons used to manually adjust focus and exposure have almost no tactile feedback. Thus, it's hard to know if your presses are even registering and harder still to gauge your adjustments--especially for focus, which has no corresponding onscreen meter.
Panasonic provides five autoexposure modes, including sports and low-light, and a handful of white-balance presets, but the only manual controls are the aforementioned focus and exposure. That's a pretty slim roster for a camcorder in this price range. Even Panasonic's own MiniDV , which costs considerably less than the VDR-M75, offers more options. Also, according to the tech specs on Panasonic's Web site, the VDR-M75 includes manual iris controls, but we found no such controls on the camcorder itself, nor any mention of them in the instruction manual (which is excellent, however).
Equipped with a 1/4.5-inch CCD, the Panasonic VDR-M75 features a 2.5-inch LCD, a color viewfinder, an SD slot, 1.3-megapixel still capabilities but no flash, backlight compensation, and a 10X optical zoom--the last definitely on the low side. At least you can accessorize, thanks to the dedicated microphone input and an accessory shoe. Panasonic also supplies a corded lens cap, a wireless remote, and an AC adapter that can charge batteries outside the camcorder--always a nice plus.
Using the VDR-M75 isn't quite as convenient as you might think. (For details about general issues with DVD camcorders, read "Camcorders and DVD: all it's cracked up to be?") Third-party software support is sketchy: Panasonic does provide some software for capturing video from DVD-RAM discs and burning simple DVDs, but if you want to edit your movies, choose a MiniDV camcorder instead.
Taking media out of the equation, the Panasonic VDR-M75 performed reasonably well. We found its zoom controls suitably responsive and its autoexposure suitably quick at adjusting between indoor and outdoor lighting. We like the onscreen countdown timer that shows the number of minutes remaining on the disc. We didn't like the several-second delay between the time we pressed the record button and when recording actually commenced. And speaking of delays, it took about 12 minutes to finalize a half-full DVD-R--not the kind of wait you want when everyone's crowded around the TV to see the video you just shot. Plus, the camcorder didn't even build us a thumbnail menu of our scenes, just a shot list organized by date and time.
The VDR-M75 produces video that could best be described as fair. Colors reproduced accurately but lacked the warmth and vibrancy we've seen from other camcorders--including other Panasonic models. The camcorder did a decent job in dimly lit settings, although the autofocus produced a noticeable pulse effect as it attempted to lock on. As we've seen with other camcorders, switching to low-light mode actually made things worse: although the subjects looked much brighter, even the slightest movement resulted in major blurring and shaking. Still photos were about what we expected: soft, grainy, and good only for TV viewing.
Needless to say, we came away fairly unimpressed with the Panasonic VDR-M75. Although it's compact and easy to use, Sony's similarly priced DCR-DVD203 offers more features, better video quality, and support for more versatile DVD-RW/+RW media.