While the is highly regarded for its rare blend of automation and manual controls, its successor, the PV-GS500, doesn't so much improve on the PV-GS400 as simplify it. It retains the same lens and trio of CCDs as its predecessor, so videos and photos look almost identical, but many manual controls and features have either been moved to the menus or eliminated altogether. Point-and-shooters will appreciate the streamlined, slightly smaller, and less expensive design, but more ambitious users will certainly be disappointed.
In fact, the Panasonic PV-GS500's only significant functional improvement over its predecessor is the ability to display wide-screen video in its correct aspect ratio, thanks to the PV-GS500's 16:9 LCD. Superficially, the Panasonic PV-GS500 bears a strong resemblance to the PV-GS400, retaining its predecessor's classic handicam layout and high-quality metallic-silver finish. At 3 by 3.5 by 6 inches (HWD) and weighing three pounds, this is a solid package which encourages two-handed operation.
The right side of the camera consists primarily of a top-loading MiniDV cassette door, under an adjustable wrist strap. The user's right hand is meant to grip the rounded door, which unfortunately lacks the comfortable rubber coating of the PV-GS400. In front of the door are ports for the A/V cable and the MagicWire wired remote, a clever handheld mic that also includes buttons to stop and start recording, as well as control the zoom. Notably, the PV-GS500 lacks a headphone jack, rendering the camera a bad choice for any project for which audio quality is critical.
Under a standard 43mm-diameter removable lens cap, the front of the PV-GS500 contains the same optically stabilized 12X Leica Dicomar zoom as its predecessor. While the generously sized ring around the lens appears to be unchanged, functionally, it is now only a focus ring rather than the Multi Manual ring of the PV-GS400. A flash sits to the side of the lens, and the mic is located below it. A powered accessory shoe sits atop the camera, along with a reasonably sized zoom slider and a still-photo button that's meant to be operated by a forefinger. An upward-pivoting viewfinder eyepiece at the top and the battery below--the same battery that's used in all of Panasonic's recent three-chip consumer cameras--occupy the camcorder's back.
The Panasonic PV-GS500 offers very few external controls and is clearly designed to be used when set on automatic. Aside from zooming and focusing, every other adjustment requires a trip through the extensive menu system, navigated by the tiny thumb-actuated joystick. While the menus are arranged in a reasonably logical fashion, this approach is not a practical way to make common adjustments; for instance, you must toggle through four layers of menus simply to adjust the iris. The same heart beats within the Panasonic PV-GS500 as does its predecessor: a trio of 1/4.7-inch CCDs, relatively large sensors for a consumer camera. Each chip has a whopping megapixel of resolution--low resolution for a single-chip camera but rare in a three-chip model--which accounts for the camera's excellent wide-screen performance and its decent still-photo quality. Also unchanged from the PV-GS400, the Leica Dicomar lens offers the same 12X zoom range as well as Panasonic's optical image stabilization, a superior solution to the electronic stabilization typically found in consumer models.
The most significant new feature of the PV-GS500 is its 16:9 flip-out LCD, which now displays both 16:9 and 4:3 footage in their proper proportions. For outdoor viewing, you can brighten the LCD--at some cost in battery life--with a push of the Power LCD button.
While you can control every function of the PV-GS500 manually--focus, zoom, iris, gain, shutter, white balance, and audio levels--all but the first two items on this list operate via menus, a process that is too cumbersome to employ frequently. Missing entirely are many of the advanced features of the PV-GS400, namely zebra stripes, color bars, and custom image adjustments.
For the point-and-shooter, the Panasonic PV-GS500 offers the usual variety of automatic options, including a fully auto mode and a variety of scene program modes, such as Sports, Portrait, Low Light, Spotlight, and Surf & Snow. It also supplies a range of consumer-oriented digital effects, among them TeleMacro, for extreme close-ups; SoftSkin, which reduces wrinkles; and fader. Pro Cinema mode is a pseudo-24P effect that gives a filmlike motion quality to video; unfortunately it is available only when shooting wide-screen. There are also a couple of low-light modes: MagicPix, in which the shutter is slowed down, and Advanced MagicPix, in which you flip the LCD forward for illumination. Gone--but not missed--are many of the PV-GS400's more gimmicky effects.
In the miscellaneous features department, the Quick Start mode reduces the start-up time of the camera from almost 5 seconds to fewer than 2 but exacts a penalty in battery life. AGS (Auto Ground-Directional) is a strange new feature that automatically places the camcorder on standby when it's upside down and is presumed to have been left recording by accident.
The PV-GS500 would be a real winner if it had a headphone jack; its audio meters and manual level controls are very advanced features for this category of camcorder. The Zoom Mic feature is of more dubious value--no camera microphone can function well beyond a few feet from the subject.
On paper, the photo options of the PV-GS500 are impressive. By using pixel-shift technology, the three 1-megapixel chips can capture stills with as much as four-megapixel resolution. While recording video to tape, you can simultaneously capture photos of as much as 1 megapixel to the SD card. There are several flash modes, a new wide-screen aspect-ratio option, a self-timer, red-eye reduction, and burst modes. Finally, the camera is PictBridge enabled, allowing it to be directly connected to appropriate printers.
The Panasonic PV-GS500 comes with MotionDV Studio 5.6LE for video editing as well as the more basic Quick Movie Magic, both for Windows. In general, the Panasonic PV-GS500 performs adequately but no better. Although the PV-GS500 can react quickly to manual inputs, its menu-based manual controls are so cumbersome that responsiveness becomes moot. Autofocus can be sluggish, and autoexposure and white balance, while accurate, can also be slow to respond. Battery life is also fairly mediocre, with the small bundled battery typically lasting for only about an hour.
The sharp and constrasty lens offers a respectable 12X zoom range, though its wide end is on the long side, equivalent to approximately a 40mm lens in 35mm-camera terms. This limitation--typical in small camcorders--makes it difficult to shoot wide shots in cramped interiors. On the plus side, the manual focus ring and zoom slider are generously sized and easy to manipulate.
The flip-out LCD is reasonably bright but rather small, and it did not perform well outside of a narrow viewing angle. As much as I appreciate the PV-GS500's proper display of both 4:3 and 16:9 video, I miss the much larger LCD of the PV-GS400.
Sound performance with the built-in mic is typical for this class of camcorder: adequate when near the subject in a quiet environment but less acceptable in more challenging conditions. Unfortunately, the PV-GS500's audio design is a significant step down from that of the PV-GS400--its new mic position is more susceptible to camera-handling noise, and its lack of a headphone jack is inexcusable. Since it incorporates the same lens, sensors, and image-processing firmware as its superb predecessor, the Panasonic PV-GS500's image quality is essentially identical as well. Like the PV-GS400, in well-lit situations, the PV-GS500 offers state-of-the-art standard-definition video quality, approaching professional standards. No doubt due to its three CCD chips, the PV-GS500's video is bright, colorful, accurate, and detailed. And because it uses megapixel chips, the 16:9 mode is excellent, with no noticeable loss in sharpness.
In low light, the video compares favorably with that of other consumer models but is noisy and somewhat muted by professional standards. The still-photo quality is also middling: acceptable for a camcorder, but competitive with only the lowest level of dedicated still cameras.