Choosing a DVD camcorder has typically meant sacrificing quality when compared to MiniDV models in the same price range. The Panasonic VDR-D300 breaks that mold by offering video quality that's noticeably better than that of many competing DVD camcorders, as well as three CCDs for excellent color, even in low-light situations. It also produces decent stills all at a price that's not much higher than that of comparable tape-based camcorders. The Panasonic VDR-D300 is extremely compact for a camcorder boasting three CCDs and a mini-DVD drive. Weighing 1 pound, 7 ounces with battery and disc, it's not a featherweight, but it's still light enough for extended shooting. The gentle curves at the top of the camera and the placement of all of the important shooting controls within reach of your thumb and index finger make the VDR-300 extremely comfortable to use. Its unassuming silver-plastic shell gives it a plain-Jane appearance, but the camcorder has a sturdy, solid feel that should hold up well in the field. A chrome ring around the lens has ridges that tease you into thinking the camera is equipped with a focus ring, but they turn out to be purely decorative.
You'll find only a few buttons on the VDR-D300. 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. The joystick also provides access to other functions that typically have dedicated buttons, such as macro, backlight compensation, and Soft Skin mode. Accessing these functions isn't exactly obvious at first--you press the joystick until the proper set of icons appears, then use the joystick to select the proper icon. The meaning of the icons wasn't always clear with some earlier Panasonic models, but the VDR-D300 clarifies them with text labels as you select each icon. Though this system takes a bit of getting used to, I found it easier to use than an array of buttons.
The Panasonic VDR-D300 lends itself well to tripod use. The DVD door opens at the top and the battery snaps on the back, so only the SD card slot is blocked when it's mounted on a tripod. The Panasonic VDR-D300's Leica lens offers a mere 10X zoom. What it lacks in reach it attempts to make up for in image quality through the inclusion of three 1/6-inch, 800,000-pixel CCDs, the same trio found in Panasonic's MiniDV-based PV-GS300, which promises sharper pictures and better light sensitivity than single-CCD cameras. Along with its VDR-D250 sibling, it's one of the first three-CCD camcorders to feature DVD recording for less than $1,000.
Casual shooters will appreciate the VDR-D300's fully automatic mode, as well as the inclusion of five scene modes for special shooting conditions such as sports or sand and snow. Those who prefer more manual operation will find much to like in the VDR-D300, which offers full manual control of shutter speed and aperture, as well as manual focus and white balance.
The MagicPix mode uses slow shutter speed to bring out color in low-light situations, creating a blurred, surreal effect. Though the VDR-D300 includes a flash for use with still shots, when shooting video, the only built-in illumination is the ability to flip the LCD around and use it as a poor man's camera light. It's extremely weak, illuminating objects within only 4 feet.
The VDR-D300 can record on three types of mini-DVDs: DVD-R/RW and DVD-RAM. DVR-R discs can only be written to once, while both DVD-RW and DVD-RAM can be overwritten. DVD-R and DVD-RW offer the advantage of being compatible with most set-top DVD players. DVD-RAM discs are compatible with few set-top players, but they allow you to delete, split, and combine scenes right in the camera, as well as create playlists by stringing together existing scenes. When you finalize a disc, you have the option of including a basic, industrial-looking DVD menu.
If your computer has a DVD drive, file transfer is a snap--just drop the finalized disc in the drive. Otherwise, you can use the included USB cable to move video and stills to your PC; the camcorder mounts as a drive for easy transfer.
The VDR-D300 features composite and S-Video outputs for display on a TV or dubbing to a VCR or DVD recorder, but it lacks the corresponding inputs for transferring older digital tapes to DVD.
The stereo zoom microphone sports a wind-noise-reduction mode. There's a jack for an external microphone but no headphone output. An accessory shoe lets you connect external add-ons, such as a microphone or a light.
The Panasonic VDR-D300 can record still images at resolutions as high as 3.1 megapixels to an SD/MMC card. There's also an unusual 2.2-megapixel 16:9 wide-screen still mode which could prove useful when shooting pictures for use in titling wide-screen DVDs. The Panasonic VDR-D300 is a solid performer overall, with automatic white balance, focus, and exposure all reacting quickly and accurately as we panned across a variety of subjects.
The zoom rocker is responsive and easy to control. Happily, the rocker is free of the annoying clicking sound that we've heard in other models. The manual zoom is controlled with the joystick, which is workable but not as fluid or precise as a focus ring. Optical image stabilization works well throughout the 10X optical zoom range, but camera shake becomes evident once you start reaching into digital zoom range.
The 2.7-inch LCD uses a wide-screen aspect ratio. The display is sharp and detailed, though blues were occasionally faded compared to their real-life counterparts. It remains viewable even in bright sunlight, particularly when you press the Power LCD button to increase the brightness. The color viewfinder is sharp and detailed as well, but its 4:3 aspect ratio means that wide-screen footage is compressed and distorted when viewed through it.
The Panasonic VDR-D300 's microphone quality is very good. If you find the cameraperson's voice overwhelms the subject's, you can use the microphone zoom function, which increases sensitivity as you zoom in. The wind-noise-reduction feature works well.
Bundled batteries typically don't let you go too long between recharges, but the one included with the VDR-D300 is good for as much as 1 hour, 20 minutes of shooting with the LCD on. An optional larger-capacity battery offers nearly 2.5 hours of recording time, quite a lot when you consider that mini-DVD discs store only 30 minutes of full-quality footage. The Panasonic VDR-D300's image quality is among the best that we've seen in a consumer DVD camcorder. Image sharpness is above average for a DVD camcorder, approaching that of MiniDV cameras such as Panasonic's PV-GS65. We noticed far fewer video-compression artifacts typical of DVD-based units. Outdoors, video looked very good, with accurate, saturated color and no visible chromatic aberration or color fringing. The only noticeable visual oddities were some very subtle jagged edges we saw when we zoomed in tight on rounded objects.
Indoors, the three CCDs come into play to offer far better color in low-light situations than you'd get with single-CCD cameras. In dimly lit rooms, there was noticeable graininess in the footage, but color remained accurate and saturated down to a light level where most single-CCD cameras would be displaying a gray, muddy image. Only when lighting conditions were closer to dark than dim did we see a significant loss of color. The MagicPix mode attempts to compensate for this by lowering shutter speed, but it's mostly useful for still subjects due to blurring of moving objects.
Still images had good color but lacked sharpness in heavily textured areas. In particular, indoor shots with flash had a noticeably fuzzy quality to them. Overall, still quality is decent--acceptable for candid shooting, but you wouldn't want to use it as your primary still camera if you plan to make larger prints.