Cars made by Japanese-owned companies encompass full-size, intermediate, compact, and subcompact designs, and much the same can be said about MiniDV camcorders. Popular MiniDV camcorders run smaller than the VHS behemoths of yore, but even these compact beauties segment into four categories, with a camera such as Sony's VX2000 at the full-size end and one such as Canon's Elura 50MC qualifying as a subcompact. In this world, Panasonic's PV-DV953 occupies the intermediate category. It's a larger palmcorder, weighing slightly less than 2 pounds when fully loaded with battery, cassette, and flash-memory card. It's still pretty portable and very compact for a model that accommodates a three-chip system to obtain maximal color fidelity, but it definitely won't fit into your pocket and probably not in your fanny pack.
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|A simple mode and power dial, a record button, and the menu-activation button are on the upper-right rear corner of the camera.|
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|The zoom toggle, the photo-shutter release, and the jog dial for adjusting exposure and audio levels fall to the left of the viewfinder. You navigate the menus with the jog dial, too.|
Basic operation of the camera is easy, thanks to features such as a side-mounted cassette hatch that closes with a simple thumb tab; a large, 3.5-inch, color flip-out LCD; and responsive automatic controls for focus and exposure. The combination of automatic controls and a large LCD let you come out from behind your viewfinder and join in the conversation when you videotape an event with family or friends. Holding the camera at arm's length, you'll still get good images under most circumstances.
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|Playback functions, the Magic Pix low-light mode, and photo-related settings--among other options--are accessed via controls behind the LCD.|
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|There's a second record button on the right-hand side of the lens barrel, near the manual focus ring.|
Although the DV953 offers a manual focus ring and surfaces numerous controls on the camcorder body, manual control is not its forte. For example, if you're shooting on fully automatic mode and decide to control exposure manually, you'll need to flick a switch on the camcorder's left front to enter manual mode, wait five seconds for the camera to adjust, twice press a dial on the camcorder's rear right, then rotate the dial to change the exposure--phew! We'd prefer separate, mechanical buttons for the basic image-control functions of iris, shutter, and programmed exposure settings.
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You can record about eight highest-quality stills on the supplied SD card or purchase larger SD/MMC media if you want to expand the capacity.
The DV953 leapfrogs its predecessor, the DV952, by adding a host of features, including zebra stripes for detecting overexposed portions of your picture during shooting, color bars for adjusting color on a professional video monitor, adjustable audio levels, and a very capable still-photo mode. These improvements make it similar to Sony's DCR-TRV950, with a notable exception: it doesn't offer Sony's Bluetooth communications capability, which continues to distinguish the two models.
You can control exposure manually, use exposure shift, or lock exposure, and there's also a backlight compensation mode. The by-now-ubiquitous preprogrammed shooting modes automatically optimize shutter, iris, and gain settings for fast-moving subjects, portraits, low-light conditions, spotlighted subjects, and bright backgrounds. The camera also incorporates optical image stabilization, and you can adjust color and sharpness levels.
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On the left-hand side of the lens barrel, you'll find buttons that control the optical stabilizer, the backlight mode, the fader, the white balance, and the exposure and focus modes.
Panasonic emblazons 3.0 megapixel on the side of the DV953, in reference to the camera's still-photo capabilities. In fact, that's an interpolated resolution achieved by software, not the native sensor resolution. Nevertheless, the images are better than many we've seen produced by a camcorder to date. There's a pop-up flash with adjustable brightness, as well as a modest selection of photo-related settings. You can also record MPEG-4 video to the same SD/MMC media on which you save stills, and you can hook up the DV953 to your computer to use as a Webcam.
As was the case with its predecessor, the DV953 comes equipped with a slide-style zoom actuator, and as before, we found it inferior to a rocker-style model for adjusting zoom speed. Using that slide switch, we tended to trigger the zoom either too slowly or too rapidly, and only with practice did we achieve smooth transitions between the two extremes.
The DV953's audio functions have been enhanced. You can now opt for automatic or manual audio settings (once again, menu controlled), although it appears that you are actually adjusting the amount of gain applied to the audio signal, not the mike setting itself. What remains the same in this camera is Panasonic's whisper-quiet zoom and tape-transport mechanisms. Actually, they're better than a whisper--we didn't detect them at all on the recorded audio, which is quite a feat in a compact camcorder. The mike also features a noise-reduction setting for windy conditions.
We preferred using the clear, bright, 3.5-inch flip-out LCD over the viewfinder, though the latter is sharp enough. The flip-out screen does demand more battery power, so consider purchasing a larger cell than the one that comes in the box.
Three-chip cameras are by nature better able to capture accurate color and image detail than their one-chip counterparts. While there are more-compact palmcorders than the DV953, their single-chip recording systems won't deliver better images. While it's true that in a well-lit setting with minimal contrast, a high-quality one-chip camera may deliver an image indistinguishable from the DV953's, the value of this camera lies with the images it gives you the other 75 percent of the time.
Not to say that what it delivers is flawless--we observed moiré in areas of high contrast, such as in the alternating dark-to-light image of a steam radiator. But that's typical for this class of camera. In a tungsten-lit room, images lost detail, so a woman's hair appeared as a brown mass differentiated only by shifts in hue, not by resolving individual strands, as your eye would.
On the other hand, the camera handled interior white balance capably, adjusting automatically for the warmer color of interior lighting. The optical image stabilization worked well, even at full zoom. And when we used automatic exposure, it adjusted quickly as we moved the lens from darker to lighter scenes and vice versa.
When compared to its closest rival, Sony's similarly sized DCR-TRV950, the Panasonic produced an image with slightly more noise at high gain settings (9dB to 12dB) and was less light-sensitive in low-light settings. A low-light switch behind the flip-out screen (called Magic Pix) slows shutter speed to increase light sensitivity but at the usual cost of smearing the image if either the camera or the subject moves. We also noted some color distortion in well-lit settings--for example, along the edges of a passing rainstorm's clouds, where they were silhouetted against clear sky.