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Budget camcorders might not seem flashy, but they play an important part in every camcorder line. They're designed to be an affordable, no-frills product that anyone can pick up for just a few hundred dollars. Since price is their main selling point, however, they tend to lack features that are standard on higher-end models. Among Panasonic camcorders, for example, the PV-GS85 sits as one of the runts of the litter. Still, its 32X optical zoom lens and optical image stabilization make it an interesting runt.
Chunky and simple, the PV-GS85 is almost indistinguishable in design from the crowd of budget MiniDV camcorders. Thanks to the camcorder's incredibly simple control scheme, you can easily record and play videos without ever touching its menu system. All you have to do is set the PV-GS85 in auto mode, and you're off and running. If you really want to fiddle with the menus, you can navigate the PV-GS85's settings with a small joystick that is set into the mode dial. The "advanced" menu holds very little in the way of video settings, however, and it's unlikely anyone would need to delve into the menus often.
Like most budget MiniDV camcorders, the PV-GS85 offers few, if any, impressive features. Its 680,000-pixel sensor effectively records 340,000 pixels at 4:3 and 460,000 pixels at 16:9 wide-screen. The camcorder scores some minor points for recording higher-resolution, wide-screen video, and not simply cropping its 4:3 video, but since both aspect ratios use such a small, low-resolution sensor, it doesn't matter much. The PV-GS85 incorporates a 32X optical zoom lens with optical image stabilization, but neither the PV-GS85 nor its little brother, the GS80, use a Leica-branded lens. Panasonic prides itself in its use of Leica lenses in the majority of its digital imaging products, so the PV-GS85's unbranded lens secures the device's place near the bottom of Panasonic's camcorder food chain.
For a budget camcorder, the PV-GS85 produces rather nice video. Colors looked neutral and accurate, and footage was relatively clean and free of grain. Of course, if you plan on watching your movies on a large, high-definition television, it won't be very impressive; most budget camcorders' standard-definition video tends to look blown out and jagged when upscaled on modern HD screens. Finally, the PV-GS85 failed at recording low-light video. Even enabling Night Mode or Panasonic's Best Pix mode yielded no significant difference when shooting in the darkness of a 50-watt lamp. Fortunately, the PV-GS85 has a built-in video light--so you won't be left totally in the dark, when shooting in the dark. The PV-GS85 also has an SD card slot for recording stills. Since the sensor is so low-resolution, however, the photos are only on par with camera phone photos.
The Panasonic PV-GS85 is a decent budget camcorder in its own right, but you could get a much better camera for the same or a slightly higher price. The comparably priced Canon ZR850, for example, outshines the PV-GS85 in almost every way.