The release of the Panasonic GS150 3CCD DV camcorder this month has set a new benchmark in the market and secures a complete niche for the innovative manufacturer. Releasing the smallest and lightest DV 3CCD camcorders at an amazing price was unthinkable not long ago.
The 3CCD story from Panasonic continues to amaze and excite the market. The company has brought 3CCD technology, previously the domain of the serious enthusiast/prosumer through to professional videomaker, to the entry-level video camera buyer.
The new GS150 sets a number of firsts. It is the smallest, lightest and most cost effective 3CCD DV camcorder to ever appear in the Australian market. Starting its life at a recommended retail price of $1759 and a street price some $150 under that, the camcorder represents superb value for money.
The GS150 has three 4.2 mm (1/6-inch) CCDs, with 800,000 pixels per CCD, with 400,000 Effective allocated to video and 530,000 Effective allocated to still images As most readers would know, three chip systems use an individual CCD imager for each of the three video colours ? red, green and blue.
The ability to develop these tiny 3CCD systems still has me totally in awe. The 3CCD blocks take up much more vertical space than conventional single CCD systems, yet the GS150 is a tiny camcorder. It?s a camcorder that really fits into the ?smaller? category amongst today?s models ? an enviable and remarkable engineering feat!
Best of all Panasonic has dipped below well below the critical $2000 price point with its GS150. This camcorder will ignite market, attracting the videomaker looking to pay a little more for their image quality, innovation and style while making no tradeoffs when it comes to design, size and features.
Design and layout
The GS150 is a compact, traditionally styled camcorder with a body constructed from robust metal and plastic panels. The camcorder design is excellent and it sits comfortably in the hand making it easy to hold, with the important controls within easy reach of your fingers.
The ergonomics are excellent. The balance while handholding was perfect for me and resulted in very stable hand held shots even at a moderate zoom range. I would still recommend a tripod when approaching the camcorder?s 10x full zoom range.
The GS150 has physical dimensions of a miniscule 71 x 73 x 123 mm, and weighs-in at a healthy 420 grams (without tape and battery).
Up front, Panasonic has used an excellent F1.8, 10x variable speed optical zoom Leica Dicomar lens. The variable speed zoom is pressure sensitive and moves from slow (around 15 seconds across the zoom range) to full speed ? at full speed it moves the lens from wide-angle to telephoto in 1.1 seconds.
The lens has a focal range of 2.45 – 24.5 mm and this translates to a 47.1 to 471 mm zoom as a 35 mm lens equivalent The lens itself is threaded for 37 mm accessories.
Panasonic says its Leica Dicomar?s seven-element, multi-coated lens is a major component to capturing true to life moving images. Some users may bemoan the fact that Panasonic has limited the GS150 to a 10x zoom when other models in the GS camcorder series have up to 24x and 30x optical zoom capabilities. There is also a 20x and 500x digital zoom range. Although this is virtually unusable due to natural camera shake – even if the image stabilisation is engaged.
The camcorder offers a TeleMacro zoom enabling users to record at distances as close as 40 cm. Usually when you have used the entire optical zoom on images that are too close, it is impossible to focus on the image. By engaging the TeleMacro button, the camcorders make the necessary adjustments and the image can be captured in perfect focus.
To the left of the lens on the GS150 is a built-in flash to be used when taking stills. The flash is programmable in three settings: forced flash, no flash, and automatic. The flash is engaged when a low light setting is detected or can manually be switched on.
The working range of the camcorder?s flash isn?t great ? roughly 1 – 2.5 metres. The guide number (power) of the built-in flash is only 5.5. If you are using the camcorder for still photography in low light, you may want to consider the VW-FLH3E accessory flash unit that has a guide number of 12.
Button clutter on the camcorder has been dramatically reduced by moving almost all the controls into the camcorder?s menu system, accessed on the crystal-clear LCD screen. Navigation is new and quite different ? the GS150 uses a great little four-direction joystick controller found in the centre of the mode dial. This is easily accessible using your thumb whist recording and it makes moving around Panasonic?s new, intuitive menu easy to move through and select appropriate settings.
The camcorder uses an excellent 2.5-inch LCD screen, which works exceptionally well, even when used in daylight. As you?d expect the resolution is excellent, with 113,000 pixels used on the GS150?s screen.
To the right of the colour eyepiece viewfinder is a mode dial, which has the options to move the camcorder into: Movie record mode (tape), Movie playback mode (tape), Still record mode (SD card) Still playback mode (SD card), MPEG-4 movie record mode (SD card) and PC connect.
Thankfully, one of the great features that Panasonic has stuck with on this model is a top loading tape mechanism. This is a great time saver if you are forced to change tapes while the camcorder is mounted on a tripod.
What manual controls does the GS150 have? Well, surprisingly none really. This is really designed as a complete point-and-shoot video solution with as few manual overrides as possible littering the camcorder?s body and confusing the user.
Most of the camcorder?s back is taken up by the battery housing. On the right of the back is the mode dial with its multi-coloured picture icons for the various modes. The innovative quick start button is above the dial, and if pressed before turning the camcorder off, allows the GS150 to be jump started in just 1.7 second, bypassing the usual start up process.
The GS150 also offers a QuickStart mode. This means that in a mere 1.7 seconds the camcorder can be jump-started at the touch of a button. To activate QuickStart, before shutting down the camcorder, simply press the QuickStart button. When you need to catch that unexpected action, just click the QuickStart button on again and you?re ready to record.
Another great feature is the lens cover built right into the camera body; simply turn the lens ring to open or close it. You?re ready to shoot in an instant and you never have to worry about losing the lens cover.
Still picture performance
The GS150 captures still photos with approximately 2.3 megapixels (640 x 480 and 1760 x 1320 settings). Panasonic uses Quad-Density Pixel Distribution Technology, which was introduced, in the broadcast world to maximize picture quality by shifting pixels vertically and horizontally for enhanced clarity. The technology combines the pixels of all three CCDs. All the camcorder?s manual features are available in still mode.
The photos produced by the GS150 are impressive, with good clarity and definition. The camcorder offers PictBridge direct printing technology so they can work seamlessly with any of the new PictBridge compatible printers.
According to Panasonic, the GS150 is the world?s first camera to record moving pictures and 1.2-megapixel still pictures at the same time Now you can have it both ways. When you?re shooting a moving picture and you see a great scene, you can snap off a still shot at the same time.
The GS150 performed well in field-testing and on the test bench. There is a great deal of inbuilt latitude in all the functions and the camcorder is responsive to a many difficult shooting conditions. Auto White Balance, Auto Exposure, Auto Shutter as well as Auto Focus performed accurately and quickly to ensure the footage captured was of the highest standard.
As with all 3CCD camcorders, most users are likely to want to gauge low light performance before even considering a purchase. 3CCD camcorders are traditionally poor performers in low light conditions; however, astute users are aware of this and compensate with lights or by using the camcorder?s gain control.
The good news is that the GS150 works much better than its predecessor and did, in fact, it delivers some of the best results for a fully auto 3CCD camcorder we have tested to date.
Key to the camcorder?s high-level performance is Panasonic?s proprietary 3D RGB Frame Noise Reduction. The noise reduction system uses a noise-shaping filter (first dimension) to remove the rough, highly visible noise. Next, it extracts and analyses data from several adjacent pixels in the horizontal and vertical directions (second dimension), and removes any parts that it determines to be noise.
Finally, the process is applied to the time axis (third dimension), where it extracts and analyses several frames, and again removes parts that it determines to be noise. The result is a better noise-reduction performance than conventional systems provide. The noise reduction is particularly effective when shooting at low illumination, so you can capture clear, sharp images even at night or when lights are low.
Unfortunately, Panasonic doesn?t publish the true low light ratings of its camcorders, although I would estimate to be around 12 to 15 lux. At a realistic 100 lux, the GS150 performs well, with no grain apparent in the image. The focus system retained the ability to hold focus even as light levels dropped ? this is where many systems start hunting for focus like crazy. Differentiation between colours is crisp, consistent and accurate, even at these low levels.
Of course, in the 2000 lux test, the colours were more vibrant and the contrast more defined in the picture.
As you move down to the camcorder?s lower lux ratings noise noticeably increased. The point is that this camcorder delivers excellent 3CCD low light performance and quality. The video was pin sharp, very crisp, definition between colours, and grey scales distinct beyond these camcorders? price range.
As with all DV camcorders, the GS150 can record both 12 and 16-bit audio, but unlike most camcorders, both have wind noise reduction as well as a Zoom Mic. This system is capable of focusing into the centre of the action as the camera zooms. Additional audio can be added using the magic wire remote, and the both camcorders have headphone jacks located on the right side at the rear under the port cover. Both also include a manual microphone-in socket.
From an imaging perspective, the GS150 is tremendous, benefiting greatly from the power of 3CCDs. Even though they are 4.2 mm (1/6-inch chips ? small in comparison to prosumer camcorders and video cameras), having separate colour imagers makes a difference in the overall vibrancy and colour consistency at good light levels.
Overall, the camcorder?s video quality is excellent. The resolution produced by the three CCDs really shows. The only thing was the occasional jagged stepping on straight lines in some scenes.
However, best of all this is a great value for money camcorders that really do deliver 3CCD performance for what used to be the average single CCD camcorder price range. Panasonic has brought 3CCDs to the masses with these two models and if you are after great quality in a conventional package at remarkable prices there is just no peer in the current market.
On the negative side, the navigation system takes some getting used to. The four-way joystick can be hard to use for some people, nearly impossible without looking, and as a result, users will find themselves fumbling through the menu.
The lack of manual overrides is also a drawback. Some degree of manual control is vital I think and whipping out manual access to things like Exposure, White Balance and Shutter Speed is short sighted in a camcorder that is likely to sell large numbers.