As Panasonic's top MiniDV camcorder, and the company's only tape-based standard-definition 3CCD model, you'd be right to expect a lot from the PV-GS320. You'd also most likely be happy with this camcorder, as long as you're not expecting prosumer-level controls. Advanced consumers, who tinker with manual controls, such as shutter speed and iris, should appreciate the image-quality perks that come along with this camera's three CCD chips. Nitpickers will note that Panasonic doesn't include a built-in video light or a flash for photos, though most built-in video lights aren't powerful enough anyway.
Panasonic kept the PV-GS320's design very similar to last year's PV-GS300, though thankfully they moved the manual focus selector as well as the USB and FireWire jacks out from behind the 2.7-inch LCD screen. However, Panasonic moved that manual focus selector to the right side of the body, to a spot that is difficult to access while shooting. Since there aren't any buttons below the LCD, that might have been a better spot. While Panasonic does a nice job of partitioning its menus, and you can access most manual functions with a few quick button presses, advanced shooters who are used to having dedicated buttons for functions such as white balance won't find any here. Instead, you access most of these types of functions by pressing the joystick, which brings up a menu that's separate from the main menu. In many cases this worked well, but some videographers prefer dedicated buttons, especially for oft-used functions such as backlight compensation. Our biggest gripe is that there's no focusing ring, even though the specs on Panasonic's Web site say there is. Instead, you need to use the joystick to focus; an annoying exercise, to say the least.
We were impressed by the PV-GS320's optical image stabilization. In our field tests, it did an admirable job of taming shake in our handheld footage, even with the lens zoomed to its 10x maximum. Autofocus wasn't the fastest we've seen, but it was certainly plenty quick for a consumer camcorder and did a nice job of keeping our subjects in focus when panning. As always, it's a bit slower when shooting in dimmer environs, but overall, we were pleased.
While the camera does include an unpowered accessory shoe, there is no microphone input--a notable omission compared to the PV-GS300. There's also no headphone output. Panasonic does include a useful built-in wind filter and the built-in stereo mic does have an audio-zoom feature, but we would have expected to find an external mic input. You really know MiniDV is approaching the end of its life as a format when manufacturers start pulling out useful features such as this.