DVD camcorders such as Panasonic's VDR-M70 are great until you realize that mini DVD-R/RAM discs are still very expensive and that you can't just pull the discs out of the camera and stick them into your set-top DVD player. They need to be finalized first, and that puts an end to any more recording on that disc. If you add a computer between the two and use it to import, edit, and create DVDs, then you transform the VDR-M70 into nearly the most perfect of all recording devices, with media that has at least a 10-year shelf life and won't stretch, break, or degrade your video on the 1st or the 10,000th rewrite. Without the computer, save a couple of hundred dollars and find yourself a nice MiniDV camcorder instead. Toting around a one-pound camcorder requires no more effort than lugging a one-liter bottle of designer water. But wrapping your hand around Panasonic's VDR-M70 feels awkward almost immediately because of the built-in bulge needed to accommodate the 8cm mini DVD discs used for recording. It takes some squirming and a little extra slack in the carrying strap before things start to feel reasonable. Once you have the grip, the frequently used buttons are all where they should be: zoom under your forefinger and record/stop under your thumb. Your thumb is also responsible for pressing and holding a button that unlocks and operates the mode thumbwheel. You can use it to select recording video or still files on the disc or, if you have an optional SD card, to record stills on that. The last position on the wheel is not Off, so it is possible to accidentally leave the camcorder on.
Design aspects to file under "dumb things to do:" the manual-focus mode switch and the manual-focus control buttons are grouped under the LCD, so you have to flip it out to access them. That shuts off the electronic viewfinder, powering up the LCD as your viewing screen. Unfortunately, your hand can partially obscure the LCD while manipulating the focus controls. That aside, our only real bone to pick with the VDR-M70's design is its monstrous battery pack. If you don't fully extend the viewfinder, you're guaranteed to smack yourself in the cheek with the battery pack. Even with the viewfinder extended, the battery will still rest against your face, and after about 20 minutes of continuous use, both the battery and the camera get noticeably warm.The 1/4-inch, 1-megapixel CCD delivers a maximum effective 400,000 pixels for movies and 1 megapixel for stills. The three video-recording modes--Xtra Fine, Fine, and Standard--respectively deliver 18, 30, or 60 minutes of recorded video per disc side.
The Panasonic VDR-M70 is another in an emerging lineup of mini-DVD camcorders that we feel are not quite ready yet for prime time. On the plus side, DVDs are more durable than tape. Mini DVDs, however, are irrationally expensive compared to their full-size counterparts and hold about a third of the data. And what of Panasonic's claim that 8cm single-sided DVD-R or double-sided DVD-RAM discs in their round plastic holders are available everywhere? After trying five RadioShacks, two CompUSAs, and a Circuit City, I retreated to the Internet to order a few. On eBay, I did find aftermarket telephoto (2X) and wide-angle (0.42X) lenses as well as UV, polarized, and color-correcting filters to increase the camera's effectiveness.
DVDs, unlike tape, aren't necessarily linear. They require the camcorder's operating system to keep track of where things are. That can add anywhere from a one- to six-second delay between when you stop recording or insert a disc to when you can start recording again. The camcorder can host an optional SD card for stills, but that becomes mandatory if you want to take snapshots while using a mini DVD-R disc. The VDR-M70 can take stills with only DVD-RAM discs. If you are shooting stills, consider the optional flash unit, which connects to the top-mounted hotshoe.
The VDR-M70 offers the usual list of menu options, allowing you to run the camera in anything from full-automatic to manual-adjustment mode, with backlight compensation, low-light mode, and a select group of exposure programs. You can even do limited editing if you're using a DVD-RAM disc. You use a tiny joystick embedded in the lower-left side of the camcorder to navigate and to select the various options. Wide-screen fans will appreciate the availability of 16:9 aspect ratio, but don't use it unless you have a 16:9 display. This isn't letterbox, and trying to cram a 16:9 video image into a standard 4:3 display environment squishes the image in at the sides and distorts the proportions.
Panasonic has gotten things right in quite a few areas. Without resorting to low-light mode, the VDR-M70 seems to have an uncanny knack for using available light to the best advantage, although you might notice a small delay as the aperture adjusts to the ambient light and the focus follows along. On the subject of light, the Backlight setting worked well, but the VDR-M70's low-light mode is basically a waste of time compared to similar features on Sony's DVD camcorders. The VDR-M70 was unable to focus on the shadowy images it detected, and even stationary subjects drifted in and out of focus as the camera seemed to be latching onto nearby light sources instead of the object itself.
The zoom is silky smooth, and with the variable-speed switch, it can move at a crawl or a hair-raising pace. The autofocus tracks almost anything short of a wild zoom and pan, provided that the lighting is consistent. The built-in Digital EIS (electronic image stabilization) works well with the 10X optical zoom.