Panasonic Palmcorder PV-DV52 review: Panasonic Palmcorder PV-DV52

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MSRP: $399.95

The Good Very good video quality; light and relatively compact; side-loading cassette; smooth zoom control; inexpensive.

The Bad Awkward menu and manual focus control; noisy low-light images; weak built-in light.

The Bottom Line It lacks bells and whistles but offers better performance than you'd expect from a low-priced MiniDV camcorder.

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5.6 Overall
  • Design 5
  • Features 5
  • Performance 6
  • Image quality 7

The Panasonic PV-DV52 Palmcorder is a video Hyundai: an extremely affordably priced camera that gets the basic job done very well but is missing some of the expected creature comforts. In good lighting conditions, the camera's 680,000-pixel CCD and 10X zoom lens work together to provide image quality that's better than you'd expect from an entry-level camcorder. But poor low-light performance, rudimentary still-image support, and the inability to record from analog sources are sacrifices you'll make for a bargain price.

You'll find both playback controls and a variety of shooting controls on top of the camera.
An entry-level camcorder, the PV-DV52 looks and feels the part. It's small and relatively lightweight, at less than 1.3 pounds with battery and cassette loaded, but its squarish lines and hollow feel divulge its budget orientation.

The camera's controls are a mixed bag. On the bright side, they're all on the outside of the case, so you don't have to flip open the LCD to access any functions. However, the menu button and the jog navigation wheel are difficult to reach with your right hand, so you'll have to execute awkward finger stretches or reach over the top of the camera with your other hand. At least the menus are relatively simple and straightforward. The jog wheel is also used for manual focus control, which we found clumsy compared to turning a lens ring.

Other controls are clustered near the back of the camera.We like the side-loading cassette hatch behind the LCD, which allows you to swap tapes without removing the camera from a tripod.
The PV-DV52's built-in light is an unexpected bonus for an entry-level camcorder. Alas, it's very weak, and it doesn't even light the full perimeter of the area being taped, resulting in dark edges around the screen. Using it is akin to taping a penlight to the side of the camera, and there's no accessory shoe for adding an external light.

An alternative for low-light shooting is the MagicPix system, which lets you record full-color images even in very dim light. It accomplishes this by slowing down the shutter speed, which makes for jerky video when objects move or you pan the camera. The PV-DV52's basic feature set also includes 11 additional digital effects, including wipes, scene fades, mosaic, and a sepia playback mode. There's no titling feature, though.

In addition to offering a FireWire port, the camcorder includes a composite cable for output to a television or other video device. There's no higher-quality S-Video connector, so you'll lose some image detail during analog playback. The camera also lacks analog inputs, which means that you can't use it to transfer your old analog videotapes to digital format. There's also no memory card slot for storing still images. In everyday use, the PV-DV52 is intuitive to operate and responsive. The control for the 10X optical zoom is very precise, allowing you to smoothly adjust your zoom speed. Advanced features such as fade-to-black, wipes, and scene transitions work as advertised.

The included battery had unexceptional stamina, lasting for less than an hour of recording and playback with the LCD in use. Consider purchasing a larger cell.
The smallish 2.5-inch LCD washes out in direct sunlight; you'll want to use the viewfinder in bright conditions. Neither display provides a particularly high level of detail, making precise manual focusing somewhat difficult. Autofocus is generally accurate, but you'll sometimes see a noticeable blurring as the camera gets its bearings after panning. Panasonic's Dual Digital Electronic Image Stabilization System does an admirable job of eliminating camera shake without sacrificing image quality.

As the PV-DV52 lacks a flash memory slot, still images must be stored on tape. You'll either need to grab them with a video-editing program when you capture your video via FireWire or spring for Panasonic's optional RS-232 cable and PhotoVu software to transfer them to your desktop. Given the low quality of images stored on tape, you're better off putting the cash toward a dedicated digital camera and forgetting about using the PV-DV52 for stills. Under optimal lighting conditions--outdoors, or in a brightly lit room--the PV-DV52's video quality is very good, with accurate color and effective white balance. Its 680,000-pixel CCD provides above-average detail for a camera in the PV-DV52's price class. In dimmer conditions, such as a lamplit room at night, the image begins to get noisy, with muddied colors. The built-in lamp helps somewhat, but it has such a small radius of illumination that only the center of the screen is fully lit.

Under bright tungsten light, using the automatic white balance setting, we captured vivid colors and a good level of image detail in both highlights and shadows for this camera's class. Image shown at 50 percent.

Interestingly, although we could see a bit of a motion blur and delayed image response on the LCD when moving the camera quickly during recording, with image stabilization on, we didn't notice it when playing back the recorded footage. So, while this shortcoming of the LCD can be disconcerting, it doesn't necessarily indicate the final video quality.

Under low incandescent light, image quality was less pleasing. Image shown at 50 percent.

Despite this camcorder's basic feature set, you can shoot footage with the PV-DV52 that looks much better than you'd expect for such an affordably priced camera--and far better than yesterday's more expensive Hi8 cameras. Just be sure to have plenty of available light.

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