If you like to stay one step ahead of the crowd, the Panasonic SDR-S100 is a camcorder that will keep pace with you. Panasonic blazes the trail toward solid-state video capture with this diminutive, three-chip camcorder. Ever since the company introduced its professional P2 system, which captures broadcast-quality video on SD cards encased in sturdy pro-style cartridges, the writing has been on the wall for the consumer market. JVC beat Panasonic to the punch with its Everio line of ultracompact camcorders that record to Microdrives as well as flash-memory cards, and this first MPEG-2 solid-state consumer model from Panasonic is set to go head-to-head with them, along with future models we can expect to see from these and other manufacturers.
The Panasonic SDR-S100 is so small that you might confuse it with earlier models that recorded lower-quality MPEG-4 video on flash memory cards. But, as Panasonic is quick to point out, this is a real camcorder, equipped with all the features home-video shooters expect and intended to divert your attention from the MiniDV cameras that have dominated the camcorder market since the digital video era began.
One of the smallest three-chip camcorders on the market today, the Panasonic SDR-S100 offers both portability and style to home video makers. It's a camcorder that you can carry around as easily as you would a compact still camera, and Panasonic has been careful to omit the protrusions and dangling pieces that can make the whip-it-out-of-your-bag-and-shoot style videography a clumsy proposition. There's a built-in shutter that protects the lens, dispensing with a separate lens cap. If you leave the camera set to On, the shutter will open as soon as you flip open the LCD viewfinder and then close when you fold the screen down. We were able to leave the SDR-S100 on standby for days this way to capture short, spontaneous video clips when the moment arose without having to wait for the camera to power up and without draining the battery. The LCD itself provides a wide-screen view and folds down to cover almost an entire side of the camera. There's no eyepiece viewfinder to supplement it, which helps keep the model compact and streamlined.
The streamlined design extends to the Panasonic SDR-S100's control layout, which places almost all buttons and switches on the back of the camera within reach of your thumb. The only exceptions are an LCD-brightening button, a release for the pop-up flash, and the main Mode dial, which is also within reach of your right thumb, although it's on the side of the camera. From top to bottom, the camera-rear controls include the power switch; a swiveling zoom dial with the record button in the center; a four-way controller; the menu-activation and delete buttons; and a switch that lets you select automatic operation, a manual mode, and manual focus.
The zoom dial is cleverly designed, in that it has treads on each side. If your hand is smaller, you can rest your thumb on the closer side (the right if you're right-handed, the left if you're a southpaw) and move it up and down to turn the dial, whereas people with larger hands can use the far tread for a more comfortable hand position. That said, the dial feels a little bit too high to accommodate a comfortable grip on the camera while zooming. Because your fingers are wrapped around the front of the camera, raising your thumb to reach the dial can be a strain. However, your comfort in operating this camera will probably vary with your hand size and dexterity, so try this one out to see if it's a good fit before you buy it.
This camcorder is clearly aimed at videographers who usually shoot on auto, but it does put some useful manual adjustments within easy reach so that you don't have to stop and hunt around in the LCD menus for them. In automatic mode, you can press the center button of the four-way controller for quick access to Soft Skin, Backlight Compensation, and Tele-Macro modes. In manual mode, the same button in conjunction with the controller keys also lets you adjust exposure; change the shutter speed, the iris, or the white balance; and boost the gain. You'll find other scene modes and adjustments in the menus, which are easy to understand and navigate once you've familiarized yourself with all the icons.
There are a few drawbacks to the compactness of this camera's design. The SDR-S100's battery is housed in an internal compartment that's covered by a door, which means that you can't snap a larger, higher-capacity cell on as you can with a camcorder that has an external battery well. You'll have to carry a spare to extend your shooting time. The battery charges in the camera instead of via a separate charger, so you can't charge one cell while using another. There's no accessory shoe for a video light or an external microphone, and there isn't even a jack for connecting those accessories. The SD slot is on the bottom of the camera near the tripod mount, so if you set the camera on a tripod to record an event that's longer than your memory card's capacity, you'll lose a few minutes of the action while dismounting the camera to change cards.
The Panasonic SDR-S100 makes it clear that the era when three-chip camcorders were made exclusively for serious videographers is over. Its feature set offers home video makers and other casual shooters a useful array of automatic features, including an all-purpose, fully automated mode and a modest selection of automated scene modes. The manual options that are available, which include shutter speed, iris, gain, and white-balance settings, will be best appreciated by video makers who use them only occasionally. They're implemented for convenient access, but they have limitations that will frustrate anyone who prefers manual to automatic controls, including gain settings that become available only when the iris is wide open, not to mention a manual focus that's operated via buttons instead of a lens ring.
This three-chip model uses small 1/6-inch CCDs to capture 704x480 MPEG-2 video, as well as JPEG stills that are interpolated up to 3 megapixels. You can select a wide 16:9 aspect ratio or the standard 4:3. The Leica Dicomar lens gives you a 10X zoom range, which is unremarkable. One aspect of the lens that is notable, however, is its narrow view. With a video focal length range running from 45.6mm to 456mm in 35mm-film-camera terms, you'll have a hard time capturing group shots in even moderately small spaces. Panasonic does make an optional wide-angle lens converter as well as a telephoto converter.
Panasonic mercifully avoids bloating the menu system with gimmicks and effects. Instead, efficient controls and short menus provide access to selections such as Backlight Compensation, which does exactly what its name says; Tele-Macro mode, which shoots close-ups; and Soft Skin mode, which will do at least as good a job as the latest wrinkle-reducing snake oil at smoothing out your subjects' complexions. Sports, Portrait, Spotlight, and Surf and Snow modes are also available, along with Low Light and Magicpix selections for shooting in dim environs. Most of the settings available in video-capture mode are duplicated when you're capturing photos. Unfortunately, we didn't find the low-light settings very helpful, since their main capability is to create a slow-shutter effect. However, the little pop-up flash is useful for taking low-light photos. You won't find some of the useful extras available in similarly priced single-chip cameras included with the SDR-S100; for example, there's no infrared mode or built-in light for night shooting.