It sounds like the perfect vacation camcorder: weighs 10.2 ounces, three CCDs, a 10X zoom lens, 3-megapixel still photos, optical image stabilization, and SD-card recording, all for significantly less than $1,000. And that includes the 2GB SD card and the remote that ship in the box. But while the Panasonic SDR-S150 might seem like the traveler's dream come true, it doesn't really live up to expectation, especially at its current price.
I have few complaints about its design, however. Light, compact, and comfortable to hold, the S150 even has a rubber nub at the bottom of its grip that allows you to quickly place your hand without accidentally putting your finger over the lens--a big problem with units this small--though I find frequently that I don't know where to put my index finger while shooting. It also feels surprisingly sturdy and well made. An automatic sensor turns the S150 off when you fold down the LCD. The zoom and navigation controls are easy to operate with your thumb. You connect to a PC via the USB 2.0 port, and a single proprietary-connector multi-A/V cable delivers composite or S-Video output plus audio.
The SDR-S150's modest feature set makes the menus and manual controls easy to understand and navigate. You can activate the wind filter or enable zooming for the mic; choose from among three different recording-quality options--best quality (25 minutes on the bundled 2GB card), medium quality (50 minutes), and lowest quality (100 minutes); jump between wide-screen and standard 4:3 aspect modes; enable the optical image stabilization and digital zoom; and boost the sensor gain for low-light shooting (MagicPix). When shooting in Auto mode, your options are limited to backlight compensation, Soft Skin mode, and a zoom macro mode. The Soft Skin mode seems a bit redundant, since the video is never sharp enough to show the kind of detail that makes a mode like this necessary.
Manual options include a few white-balance presets plus custom, shutter speed, and a sort of gain-priority mode--it allows you to boost the gain and automatically changes the aperture to compensate. You can also choose from a handful of exposure presets within the menus: sports, portrait, low-light, spotlight, and surf and snow.
Though it's fun and easy to shoot with, that's where the enjoyment stops. The most obvious problem I hit is its pitiful battery life. After fully charging the battery, I shot about 14 minutes of video and a handful of stills with a few flash shots, at which point it had dropped to about one-quarter of capacity. Plus, the focus is slow to lock. And once I got home, I couldn't help but be disappointed with the results. Videos never achieve true sharpness and display severe interlace artifacts, and weaknesses are exacerbated by poor auto white balance--the sensor is on the side of the camcorder--and inconsistent metering. For stills, throw in random flash exposures and a seriously overprocessed look that should settle the new math argument once and for all: three 800,000-pixel sensors never equals one 3-megapixel image.
If it were cheaper, I might forgive the SDR-S150 some of its flaws. I want to--its SD-based recording of MPEG-2 files is a compellingly attractive convenience. But until this convenience hits the right quality threshold, I recommend sticking with cheaper tape- and hard-disk-based models from Canon, Sony, and JVC.