Panasonic recently hit the ground running with a swag of new models. Mike Jones tests its budget NV-GS27.
The competition on the playing field of the video camcorder market is as fierce as any bear pit you can imagine; new models are turned over by the major corporations quicker than their CEO’s can cash their bonus cheques, and all are seemingly striving to outdo each other with the most convoluted model names formed by random selections of letters, numbers and dashes. (And while we’re on that topic, why can’t cameras be called real names like cars are? Are we supposed to be fooled into thinking the technology is so hot off the scientists’ work bench that the only name it’s got is the secret code name?).
The competition in this sphere is made all the more fierce by developers trying to satisfy all ends of the market, from professional and very serious amateurs at one end to entry-level novices at the other. Panasonic, for its part, has made substantial waves by breaking the 3CCD divide that had so long marked an arbitrary and silly line in the sand between so-called ‘pro’ and ‘amateur’ camcorders. Its range of compact, relatively inexpensive 3CCD models are designed for amateur mums and dads who really care about image quality and features and, as a result, the range has been picked up by a large section of the digital media education sector as perfect student models.
However, this focus on the more expensive camcorder left Panasonic’s presence in the entry-level field somewhat neglected. The NV-GS27 stands fill that gap and is the only Panasonic camcorder available for under $1,000. In fact at just $659 it has the potential to be one of the best video camera bargains around.
Or, with all the trade-offs for price, has the GS27 been left short on functionality?
Assessing a camcorder of this type is invariably about weighing up the things that have been left off, more so than those that have been included, and asking if the camcorder still serves it’s desired purpose and user group with those omissions.
The GS27 has no external microphone socket so audio quality will be restricted to the built-in mic. There is no headphone socket so you wont be able to monitor what the camcorder is ‘hearing’. And there’s no digital still camera functionality so the GS27 won’t be able to serve as an all-rounder video and still camera as so many other cameras currently do.
Do these three omissions mean the GS27 is a bad buy? Not necessarily. The GS27 is a camcorder designed for home users; mums and dads whose singular focus is generally just making sure the kids are in the frame doing something memorable, the camcorder left to take care of itself with little thought beyond pushing the Rec button and zooming in.
This user group is unlikely to ever want to use an external microphone, it would be just more stuff to take on holiday. Similarly, these same users are unlikely to want to connect up a set of headphones to check their audio level. The lack of a digital still camera function might be a more noticeable absence for this same group as they look for the most efficient solution to capturing holiday and family moments.
On the upside, while the GS27 goes for an automated, stripped back approach it also sports some features that take steps in the other direction. The manual controls – including manual focus, exposure and white balance – on the GS27 are substantial for a camera of this cost and target market.
The GS27 has a limited number of connection options, restricted to simple DV (Firewire/IEEE1394) output and AV analog output. There is no analog or digital DV input on the GS27 meaning it cannot serve as an inexpensive way of dubbing old analog sources to digital. This will be a substantial negative factor for many users who have collections of old analog tapes (Hi-8, VHS-C, etc). There are a number of camcorders, a little more expensive, on the market that offer this feature and this may drive potential users away from the GS27.
The microphone on the GS27 has a ‘zoom’ functionality meaning that it amplifies and narrows its polar pattern (the area of audio sensitivity) in synchronisation to the lens zoom. In this regard too, it seems Panasonic may have done market research that showed the word ‘Zoom’ polled well with consumers and, as a result, there is much focus on zoom performance on the GS27. The lens on the GS27 offers one of the longest zoom ranges on any consumer camcorder I’ve tested at a very impressive 30x optical.
What is far, far less impressive – to the point of being absurd – is the boasting of a 1000x digital zoom. As I, and every other technology journalist, has stated in reviews a thousand times before, digital zoom is nothing but a marketing hoax. All digital zoom does is make the image pixels bigger. Since a standard definition DV image is very, very low resolution to begin with (just 720 x 576) making these few pixels larger just degrades your image beyond repair. At just 50x digital zoom the image is unwatchable, let alone what it looks like at 1000x. Digital zoom should be turned off the moment you unpack the camera and never turned back on.
Design and layout
The GS27 follows a pattern common to Panasonic camcorders across its consumer range. While major rival Sony seems to be on the quest for the ever-smaller camcorder, Panasonic has continually walked the road of ergonomic function. The result is that its camcorders are usually a bit larger in chassis size but quite often, as a result, more comfortable to use, hold and grip.
The GS27 has a tape chamber that extends from the body horizontally, as opposed to the traditional vertical orientation, from the bottom. This makes the chassis of the GS27 as wide as it is high, rather than vertically narrow as most camcorders tend to be. The resulting handgrip is extremely comfortable and functional; indeed I’d go so far as to say that, in terms of grip and handling, the GS27 is the most comfortable camcorder in its class I’ve used. The GS27 is a camcorder that could be easily held and used for very long periods of time without excessive muscle fatigue in the hand. Panasonic should be commended on its bias towards ergonomics: smaller is certainly not necessarily better.
The controls for accessing functions on the GS27 have been very well designed and are very functional to match the grip. While major competitors have opted for touchscreen menus, Panasonic will be praised by many for its thumb-operated joy-stick control which, beyond being more robust than touchscreen, is arguably quicker and easier to access. All functions and controls on the GS27 can be accessed with the one hand using this joystick and associated buttons placed in easy finger and thumb reach. You never need a second hand to operate the GS27 and this alone makes it a good holiday camcorder.
The LCD, as we’ve come to expect these days, is substantial in size and surface area, giving a good window to survey the scene. But no matter good or how bright, most LCDs are rendered useless in bright light or sunshine so the eyepiece viewfinder is not to be overlooked. With a short telescopic extension, the eyepiece is very comfortable to use (something that can’t be said of large number of other compact camcorders. Moreover the image on the eyepiece viewfinder is black-and-white, and while Panasonic probably see this as a point of difference between the GS27 and its more expensive siblings with colour viewfinders, (a covert incentive to upsell customers) the truth is that any experienced professional camera operator will tell you that a black-and-white viewfinder is very often far more effective and accurate for showing focus than a colour one, and most professional cameras still use black-and-white viewfinders. The lack of a colour eyepiece viewfinder should not necessarily be seen as a negative.
While physical design is a great leveller between different camcorders (where cost isn’t so much of a factor and a $3,000 camcorder can have the same physical design as a $500 camcorder ) it is in the area of image quality and performance where the men are sorted from the proverbial boys.
The 30x optical zoom is very impressive for a unit this size and price but, as you might expect, the GS27 doesn’t employ the Leica lens of its more expensive stablemates. Lens clarity is not outstanding nor is sharpness of focus, particularly at the far end of the zoom range where things can become quite hazy indeed.Â However, colour saturation is very good and Panasonic’s internal image processing is certainly very capable. Good, rich colour can go some way towards making up for a lack of lens crispness.
The most telling factor between more expensive and less expensive camcorders is inevitably the low-light performance, where a number of factors conspire. Lens clarity, shutter, CCD size and pixels all influence how well the camcorder performs under low light. Unfortunately this is where the GS27 shows its budget credentials, with a rather unattractive array of chromatic noise grain introduced into the image under anything less than clear, bright light.
While the manual states the GS27 has a rating of 2 lux the truth is that at this low-light level there is more noise than image and a distinct lack of colour. Outdoors in full sun or bright overcast, the GS27 performs very well but if you plan to shoot indoors you’ll want to make sure you’ve got as many lights on as you can find the switches for.
On the audio side, an area where the cost of the camcorder doesn’t necessarily guarantee that the internal microphone will be any better than the poor excuses usually mounted on consumer camcorders, the GS27 faired better than most. Proximity is always the key and so long as the subject was within six feet of the camera the sound quality was quite acceptable.
The zoom microphone function however proved a bit more problematic. As the zoom lever is operated to bring a distant image closer, the zoom mic increases its audio gain in an attempt match audio level with the reduced focal distance; in other words bring the sound closer. While nice in theory, the result is that along with the sound from the subject becoming louder, so does background noise. With a microphone polar pattern that picks up sound up in all directions, this function just makes louder hiss around a slightly louder subject. The real answer is not to zoom to your subject but to walk closer to them.
For those who’ve often found themselves missing that golden moment because they couldn’t get the camcorder to turn on and start up in time, the GS27 offers a feature that will make you very happy. The Fast Start on the GS27 allows it to go from ‘off’ to shooting in just 1.7 seconds so you should never miss that moment again.
As with all tools there’s never a perfect one-size-fits-all. Selecting a camcorder is about knowing what you want to do and how you want to do it. In the case of entry-level camcorder such as the GS27 it’s also very much a case of knowing not just what you need in a camcorder now, but also what you might need and want in one into the future.
The GS27 is a very good, entry-level beginners camcorder at a very inexpensive price point. But it is not a camcorder that will grow with you as your skills expand and you become more confident or ambitious.
If your needs are simple and you have no desire to make a short film for Tropfest or get carried away with detailed family documentaries; if you just want to point and shoot and get a few great moments on holiday or with the family then the GS27 may be a good fit. If you’re a little more ambitious, or think that you might with time become more ambitious, then the GS27 may run out of options for you quite quickly.