Panasonic takes a step sideways from its powerful triple CCD and hi-def shooters to deliver a quirky, all-weather flash memory camcorder with more than a touch of class. It's light on the pocket and the waistline (supposedly it's the world smallest SD camcorder), but image quality risks being equally frothy, thanks to a modest 800K sensor inside.
The S10 is available now, for around £300, including a 2GB SD card.
Panasonic has opted for a compact, black and silver design that can only be described as 'retro 80s electric shaver'. You'll suffer no nicks from the S10 though, as its round edges are all extremely touch-friendly, with just a zoom rocker and pair of shutter buttons visible in its closed configuration.
The record button at the back enables traditional palmcorder-style shooting, but the one on the right-hand side, at the front, baffled us for a while. We eventually discovered that it makes shooting at low angle or above head height a little easier, although it's main purpose will probably be to take accidental movies of the inside of your bag.
The 205g plastic case is waterproof (rain and dust, not full immersion) and can withstand falls from 1.2m. We gingerly confirmed this with drops on to a concrete floor -- but always with the screen shut, as we suspect even a modest drop might snap it. Note that you have to lock the connections and card/battery compartments manually each time for full waterproofing.
Flip open the generous 69mm widescreen and you'll see the main control deck -- and also turn the S10 on, in an impressively zippy two seconds. An excellent mode dial slips between video, still and playback modes, but the menu and nav-pad buttons are less impressive. These are almost flush with surface, making them difficult to use with the menu screen at right angles -- and almost impossible with gloves on. This is a key failing for an outdoor-focused device.
Luckily, both the zoom rocker and the shutter buttons are much easier to use, gloves or no gloves, and the screen is plenty bright enough for use outdoors. It does tend to wash out bright primary colours though, and struggle in lower light or indoors.
Fronting the S10 is a 10x lens that's smooth and silent when zooming. If that 10x telephoto sounds modest compared to rival 15x, 20x and 32x optics, it's actually more than enough on such a lightweight camcorder. The electronic stabiliser is only marginally effective, so invest in a small tripod or monopod for wobble-free use at full extension.
Use the S10 in Auto mode and you'll be forgiven for thinking it's an auto-everything camera aimed at unskilled extreme sports dudes: you don't even have access to scene modes. Flip into manual mode, though, and it's a different story. Here, you can manually adjust the iris, shutter speed and white balance, and even manually focus (albeit rather ineffectually as there are no magnification aids).
Video recording is possible in three settings, the highest quality of which (XP) fits around half an hour of footage onto the 2GB card supplied. Leave it in this mode unless you're really running short of space, as the S10's 800K CCD sensor is about as far from high definition as you can buy these days. You also get easy backlight compensation and Soft Skin modes, plus a Colour Night View setting in place of any video light or photo flash.
You might want to film in traditional 4:3 format (rather than 16:9 widescreen), to eke a few more pixels from the solitary, low-res sensor. Even then, fine detail is poorly captured, with leaves and bricks smearing into one another. Sharpness is sensibly managed, though, so faces and larger subjects look reasonably natural, if occasionally too smooth and uniform.
On the plus side, bright, primary colours are very well rendered and exposure is bright and lively. Skin tones are perhaps too subtle to be accurate, and fade into grey tones as light levels drop. The omission of even a basic LED video light is painfully felt -- this is not a camcorder for parties or night-time shooting. Dark conditions reduce footage to a mass of dreary noise. The Colour Night View mode does indeed rescue some colours, but only at the expense of such a slow shutter speed that your subjects will have to stand rock-steady, as in Victorian snapshots, to avoid blurring.
Still photos are fine, but with only a 0.3-megapixel resolution (640x480 pixels) to play with, you'll be better off snapping away on a modern camera phone than switching into the S10's simple photo mode.
While size isn't everything, combine the S10's microscopic waistline with its ultra-tough casing and useful manual controls and you've got a truly unique camcorder.
Image quality is disappointing, especially in low light, but for outdoor movies when hiking, biking, sailing and skiing -- or simply lounging on the beach -- there isn't much to rival it. However, that might change later this year with the launch of Sanyo's fully submersible Xacti VPC-E1 pistol-corder, which boasts a smaller 5x zoom but decent 6-megapixel stills.
Edited by Jason Jenkins
Additional editing by Kate Macefield