The latest camcorder sales figures clearly show that Panasonic made the right choice with its gamble of introducing low-priced 3CCD camcorders. A few years back the market was amazed when 3CCD camcorder prices dipped below the ?magic $3000? price point. Today, with the entry-level hovering below $1500 (in some stores), it would appear that the unthinkable has happened!
If I had predicted even two years ago that you could pick up a new 3CCD camcorder for under $1500 I would have been howled down and accused of taking too many recreational drugs. Yet here we are at the beginning of the second quarter of 2005 and Panasonic has blown the market wide open, with 3CCD camcorders cheaper than many single CCD models with similar feature sets from other manufacturers.
And the good news is that Panasonic is unlikely to be backing away from its market-leading strategy any time soon. Holding leadership not only in the Australian market, but in many markets worldwide is assured as more new 3CCD models roll onto retail shelves. With the 3CCD range now up to four models, expect to still see further innovation in both price and performance over the remainder of the year.
Panasonic has been particularly canny in its pricing too, with the NV-GS75, GS150, GS250 and GS400 positioned to suit a range of budgets. To say there has never been a better time to purchase a 3CCD camcorder is an understatement.
Design and layout
The GS250 has three 4.2 mm (1/6 inch) CCDs, with 800,000 pixels per CCD. 630,000 pixels (times 3) are allocated to video while 710,000 pixels (times 3) are allocated to still images. As most readers would know, three chip systems use an individual CCD image chip for each of the three video colours ? red, green and blue.
The ability to develop these tiny 3CCD systems to fit into the body of this camcorder still amazes me. The 3CCD chip blocks take up much more vertical space than conventional single CCD systems, yet the GS250 is really a very small camcorder. Comparatively it?s a camcorder that fits into the ?smaller? category amongst today?s models ? an enviable and remarkable engineering feat by any standards.
Best of all, Panasonic has priced the GS250 competitively at a recommended price of $2199, although if you shop around you are likely to see it for quite a deal less than $2000! This is a camcorder that is designed for the videomaker prepared to pay a little more for image quality, innovation and style while making no trade-offs when it comes to design, size and features.
The GS250?s design features a more elongated shape, but its basic oval profile sits well in the right hand and offers good ergonomics for hand holding, even for long periods of shooting with the important controls within easy reach of your fingers. The balance while handholding will be perfect for a range of users and this should result in stable hand-held shots even at a moderate zoom range.
You would be well advised to use a tripod when approaching the camcorder?s full 10x optical zoom range. A tripod is essential when moving through the GS250?s digital zoom range, which has options for 20x and 500x.
The GS250 is constructed from robust metal and plastic panels, which gives the camcorder a sturdy feel. It has physical dimensions of a miniscule 81 x 73 x 144mm, and weighs in at a healthy 500 grams (without tape and battery). This is around 15 percent bigger than the GS150.
Up front, Panasonic has used an excellent F1.6, 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 2.85 – 28.5mm for video and this translates to a 43.8 to 438 mm zoom as a 35mm lens equivalent. In DSC mode the lens has an equivalent focal length of 41.3 ? 413mm. The lens itself is threaded for 37 mm filters and lens attachments.
Panasonic says its Leica Dicomar?s seven-element, multi-coated lens is a major component to capturing true-to-life moving images. According to Panasonic, the GS250?s new lens system features 13 lens elements in nine groups and uses low-dispersion optical glass to reduce chromatic aberration to about one-third the level of conventional lenses. A special multi-coating process is applied to 14 lens surfaces, minimising harmful reflection to deliver crisp, clear images free of flare and ghosting.
The GS250 also offers a TeleMacro zoom mode 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 GS250 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 be manually activated.
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 GS250 uses a great little four-direction joystick controller found in the centre of the mode dial on the back to move through and select of the camcorder. This is easily accessible using your thumb whist recording, and makes moving around Panasonic?s new, intuitive menu a real doddle.
Like the GS150, the GS250 uses an excellent 2.5-inch LCD screen, which works exceptionally well, even in bright daylight. As you?d expect the resolution is excellent, with 113,000 pixels used on the screen. The GS250 also has a feature called ?Power LCD?. Press the Power LCD button and the LCD becomes brighter, making it easier to see outdoors or in other bright locations. Also, a new scanning technology allows the LCD to show diagonal lines more sharply.
To the right of the colour eyepiece viewfinder is a mode dial, which provides the option of moving the camcorder into a number of modes: 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.
What manual controls does the GS250 have? There are some excellent manual overrides that provide the ability to personalise the camcorder?s settings ? such as aperture, shutter speed and white balance ? depending on the ambient conditions.
Access to the manual mode is via the joystick. Slip the camcorder into manual and the centre of the joystick glows a cool blue colour, which means you are now in control. Pressing the button in brings up the various manual functions, and moving it from left to right and up or down allows the settings to be adjusted.
There is a great deal of flexibility with the GS250?s manual settings, with the best manual access provided in the manual Gain department. Here you have the ability to increase the sensitivity of the camcorder?s three CCDs in steps from 0dB to +18dB.
Most of the camcorder?s rear panel is taken up by the battery housing. On the right of the rear panel is the mode dial, with multi-coloured picture icons representing the camcorders various operational modes. The innovative quick start button is above the dial, and if pressed before turning the camcorder off allows the GS250 to be jump-started in just 1.7 seconds, bypassing the usual lengthy start-up process.
On the software side, Panasonic bundles a USB driver along with a copy of Motion DV Studio 5.0 LE. The USB driver should give away one of the GS-250?s other interesting features, USB 2.0 connectivity. In a world where i.LINK is the norm and USB 2.0 is the exception you might be worried about connecting it up to dedicated devices such as DVD recorders ? which often only feature Firewire. Don?t worry, though. The GS-250 is dual-connection capable, with Firewire and USB 2.0 ports.
USB 2.0 compatibility gives you high-speed uploading of DV data to a PC over a single USB cable. Video Class compatibility allows real-time transfer of DV moving picture data over the same USB cable. The included MotionDV STUDIO 5.3 LE*2 application makes it easy to edit DV footage, so you can create your own polished, professional-looking movies.
Still picture performance
The GS250 captures still photos with approximately 3.1 megapixels and provides for three quality settings: 2048 x 1512, 1600 x 1200 (1.9 megapixels), 1280 x 960 (1.22 megapixels) and 640 x 480 (VGA). Panasonic uses Quad-Density Pixel Distribution Technology, which was introduced in the broadcast world to maximise 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 GS250 are impressive, with good clarity and definition. The camcorder offers PictBridge direct printing technology so it can work seamlessly with any of the new PictBridge compatible printers.
According to Panasonic, the GS250 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 GS250 performed well in field-testing and on the test bench. Auto White Balance, Auto Exposure, Auto Shutter as well as Auto Focus performed accurately and quickly to ensure the captured footage was excellent.
As with all 3CCD camcorders, most users are likely to want to gauge low light performance before 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 GS250 works extremely well and delivered some of the best results for a 3CCD camcorder we have tested to date. The ability to manual add gain made all the difference and the increase in gain only caused a marginal increase in picture grain or video noise. This is one of the best low light performances we have seen on the test bench.
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.
Unfortunately, Panasonic doesn?t publish the true low light ratings of its camcorders, although I would estimate to be around 10 to 12 lux. At a realistic 100 lux, the GS250 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 into the camcorder?s lower lux ratings noise obviously increases, but he point is that this camcorder delivers excellent 3CCD low light performance and quality. The video was pin sharp, very crisp; definition between colours, and the distinctiveness of the grey scales was beyond what you?d expect from a camcorder of this price.
Another advantage of the GS250 is that it includes Panasonic?s MEGA Optical Image Stabiliser (O.I.S.) system, which takes stabilisation technology a step further by adding a sensitivity selector. This allows MEGA O.I.S. to provide about twice as much hand-shake correction when shooting still pictures as standard O.I.S. provides with moving pictures. The result is that the system efficiently compensates for handheld camera shake.
As with all DV camcorders, the GS250 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 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 GS250 is tremendous, benefiting greatly from the power of 3CCDs. Even though they are 4.2mm (1/6-inch chips ? small in comparison to prosumer camcorders and video cameras), having separate colour chips 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, with the only criticism being the occasional jagged stepping on straight lines in some scenes.
Best of all this is a great value-for-money camcorder that really does deliver 3CCD performance for what used to be the average single CCD camcorder price. Panasonic has brought 3CCDs to the masses with the GS250 (and the GS75) and if you are after great quality in a conventional package at a remarkable price there is just no peer in the current market.