The Panasonic PV-GS65 offers a mix of outstanding and average features. Its three-CCD optics capture footage with superb color, even in low-light conditions, but its mere 10X zoom is disappointing. Still, with excellent video quality, decent automatic performance, and above-average manual control, this compact MiniDV camcorder offers a lot of shooting muscle for the money. The Panasonic PV-GS65 is quite compact for a three-CCD camcorder. With its rather generic silver-and-gray shell, only the large lens barrel and its slightly wide design give away that this is anything but a typical compact camcorder. Despite its jacket-pocketable size and weight of slightly more than a pound including the battery and a MiniDV tape, it has a very solid feel and should stand up well to typical shooting conditions. It's comfortable to hold, though its wide body may be somewhat awkward for small hands.
The camera takes a minimalist approach to controls with only a few buttons. Nearly all camera settings are adjusted via a small, five-way joystick on the back of the camera. This works very well with the menu system, which is clearly labeled and easy to navigate. It also provides access to other functions that typically have dedicated buttons, such as macro, backlight compensation, and faders. Accessing these functions isn't exactly intuitive--you press the joystick until the proper set of icons appears, then use the joystick to select the proper icon. The icon functions aren't always obvious, and you'll definitely need to consult the manual at first, but once you get used to the system, it's actually easier to use than an array of buttons.
One odd design decision is the placement of the FireWire port in the LCD well. While we're used to unusual connector placement on compact camcorders, this puts the FireWire cable directly in front of the screen, which is inconvenient for reviewing footage while the camera is connected to another device.
The Panasonic PV-GS65 lends itself well to tripod use. You can easily swap the top-ejecting tape and battery without removing the camera; only the SD card slot is blocked by the tripod. The Panasonic PV-GS65's lens features a mere 10X optical zoom. Though this pales in comparison to the similarly priced PV-GS35's 30X optical zoom, the PV-GS65's trump card is inclusion of three 1/6-inch CCDs. An unusual feature for a camera in this price range, the three CCDs give the camera an edge over its stronger-zoomed, single-CCD sibling by offering more accurate color and slightly better sharpness.
Along with full automatic settings and five scene modes, the PV-GS65 includes a variety of manual settings. You can manually adjust white balance and focus, and you have full manual control over both shutter speed and iris. You won't find any gimmicky special effects here, but there is a fade function.
For shooting in extremely low-light situations, the MagicPix mode uses slow shutter speed to bring out color, which creates a blurred atmospheric effect. You can also flip the LCD around and use it as a poor man's camera light, but it's extremely weak, illuminating only objects closer than four feet.
Quick Start is an interesting feature that works similarly to a notebook computer's standby mode. At the expense of some battery life, you can put the camera into standby. Then press the Quick Start button, and you'll be ready to shoot in just 1.7 seconds.
One missing feature that will disappoint users transitioning from older analog cameras is the ability to transfer footage from analog sources. Though you can output to a composite- or S-Video display, the Panasonic PV-GS65 lacks analog input.
The camera features a stereo zoom microphone with a wind-noise-reduction mode, as well as both headphone and microphone jacks. An accessory shoe lets you connect external add-ons, such as a microphone or light.
The Panasonic PV-GS65 can record still images at a resolution of 1,280x960 to an SD/MMC card. You can also grab stills from prerecorded DV content, though only at 640x480 resolution. The Panasonic PV-GS65 offers solid overall performance, with white balance, autofocus, and exposure reacting quickly and accurately when we panned to new subjects. Electronic image stabilization works well throughout the rather limited zoom range, without the odd shifting effect we saw on the PV-GS35.
The zoom is responsive and easy to control. However, unless we were careful to return the zoom rocker to the center before letting go, an audible click could be heard in our footage as the rocker snapped back to the center position. Manual zoom is controlled with the joystick, a solution that's workable but nowhere near as intuitive or precise as a focus ring.
The Panasonic PV-GS65's sharp LCD offers rich, true color reproduction that's among the best we've seen on a consumer camcorder. It's easy to see in most lighting conditions, and the Power LCD button increases the brightness to make it more readable in direct sunlight. The color viewfinder shows a little less detail but works well for most shooting as long as you're not relying on it for setting manual focus.
Microphone quality is very solid, with a zoom function that increases sensitivity as you zoom in on distant subjects. The wind-noise-reduction feature works well. The only audio-related difficulty we encountered was the microphone picking up our release of the zoom rocker.
Bundled batteries aren't typically long-lived, but the Panasonic PV-GS65's included battery offers more than an hour of continuous recording. Optional high-capacity batteries can boost this to as much as 4.5 hours. The Panasonic PV-GS65's image quality is excellent for a camera in its price range. The general sharpness of the image is typical of a midrange consumer camcorder; image detail is very good, though not extraordinary. But the three CCDs offer top-notch color rendition. In normal shooting conditions, colors are rich, saturated, and accurate in both hue and level. We didn't notice any chromatic aberration, color fringing, or jagged edges in our test footage.
Where the three-CCD difference really comes into play is in indoor shooting. Typical consumer camcorders in the PV-GS65's price range shoot grainy-looking footage with washed-out color in many indoor situations. The PV-GS65 was a stellar performer in even dimly lit rooms, with good color reproduction and very little visual noise even when shooting in a dimly lit room on a cloudy day. Only when we were in conditions that were closer to dark than dim did we start to see significant noise and loss of color. The MagicPix mode attempts to compensate for this by lowering shutter speed, but it's generally only useful for still subjects due to blurring of moving objects.
When shooting outdoors, still-image quality is on the positive side for a normal camcorder, particularly given the relatively low resolution. Images are fairly crisp, with accurate color. Once you head indoors, however, stills get very grainy, even in typical room light.