Panasonic's VDR-M30, which records MPEG-2 digital video directly to 8cm mini DVDs, replaces the VDR-M20. The new model has a smaller, sleeker body; adds a color viewfinder and an SD/MMC slot; replaces the previous 1.1-megapixel CCD with a 690,000-pixel version; and is listed at $100 less. We have mixed feelings about using DVDs for camcorders, but if you like the idea, the M30 offers decent performance and features in a slim package.
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You can access a few frequently changed settings via controls behind the flip-out LCD.
Panasonic's previous DVD camcorders were a bit large compared with their compact MiniDV competitors, but the company shrank the M30 to fairly svelte dimensions. The camera's weight is also moderate: 1 pound, 6 ounces when a battery and media are installed. The circular DVD drive gives the mostly plastic body a slightly odd shape, but the silver and blue-gray finish looks good. The M30's overall build quality is adequate--although the plastic compartment doors feel flimsy--and we were able to get a comfortable and secure grip.
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Buttons on the left-rear corner give you access to menu and playback options.
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You'll find a simple mode/power dial in the usual spot on the right-rear corner.
For the most part, controls are well placed and easy to reach, but the flush-mounted buttons behind the LCD are a little too hard to activate. We had no trouble deciphering and navigating the camcorder's menu system.
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In addition to the mini-DVD drive, there's an SD/MMC slot for recording stills and MPEG-1 video.
This Panasonic's most notable feature is obviously its use of 8cm DVDs. The M30 can record on either rewritable DVD-RAMs or write-once DVD-Rs. According to DVD-camcorder manufacturers, DVD beats tape-based video formats, such as MiniDV, by lasting longer (more than 30 years), not jamming, and being less damage-prone. And like a computer's hard drive, DVDs let you directly access each video clip and still without rewinding or fast-forwarding--a terrific convenience. The format also prevents you from accidentally overwriting recorded footage, a nasty little mistake we recently made with a MiniDV camcorder.
To play back DVD-RAMs, you'll need a drive that's compatible with them. A wider range of players and drives supports DVD-Rs, but you can't erase or rewrite these discs, and they don't accept still images. If all else fails, you can transfer video to your computer via the camera's USB 2.0 port, but that method is no more convenient than using the FireWire connection on a MiniDV camcorder.
When you record on a double-sided 8cm DVD-RAM, the M30's best and second-best video-quality settings will get you 40 and 60 minutes of footage, respectively. The lowest-level option lets you pack a disc with two hours of video, but its quality will be noticeably degraded.
The M30's operating features are just adequate compared with those of other entry- and midlevel camcorders. The 10X zoom lens covers what would be roughly 34mm to 340mm in the 35mm-film format. Image stabilization is electronic. You get six programmed exposure modes, as well as a 12-step exposure-shift function. The standard accessory shoe accepts video lights, and there's an external microphone jack. You can also capture 640x480-pixel photos to either DVD-RAMs or SD/MMC media.