I have to admit to a certain bias towards Panasonic cameras, perhaps because I am so enamoured with my NV-GS400 Consequently I was looking forward to spending some ?quality time? with the newly released Panasonic VDR-D300GN says Frank McLeod.
Touted as the first 3 CCD DVD camera to hit the market, this camera seems set to make major inroads into what we are told is a burgeoning market for DVD cameras. I guess, when you look at the number of new models coming on the market in that genre, there just might be a whole lot of truth in that.
The G300GN, as the flag carrier for Panasonic?s range of DVD cameras, boasts a Leica Dicomar lens system (Auto iris, F1.8 to F2.8 and full range auto-focus Macro ability) to go along with its 3 x 1/6? 800 K CCD?s. It has a 10 times optical zoom, a 2.7? coloured LCD monitor to accompany a coloured viewfinder. The on-camera mic is stereo and there is a cold shoe mount for an accessory mic or light, according to need and taste. The GD300GN links to the PC via a USB 2 connector using a supplied cable but there is no Firewire connector offered.
An inbuilt flash provides as-needed light for 3.1 megapixel still photos recorded onto an SD card to 2 Gig capacity, or printed directly by a Pict-bridge compliant printer while direct connection to a television is by a specific dual purpose A/V composite and S video lead.
A 3.5 mm socket connects either an external microphone or the cabled ?freestyle remote controller? (but not both) which can operate record/pause, zoom and still photo functions.
Panasonic makes the point that you never have to search for the next empty section of disc on which to record and that accidental overwriting of previously recorded material will not happen. There are three levels of picture resolution selectable from the LP through SP to XP which will provide on a single sided disk, 18, 37 and 75 minutes of recording time, respectively using a variable bit rate method such that increased action by the subject reduces the recoding time.
The manual only describes the difference between these settings as ?prioritising? either recording quality or time. An interesting sign of the times is that the default setting for aspect ratio is 16:9 so perhaps Panasonic is trying to tell us something. Recording is in either DVD Video Recording format (VR format) for DVD-RAM and DVD-RW disks where overwriting of previously material can be chosen, or DVD-Video format (Video Format) for DVD-RW (re-writable only after formatting) and DVD-R (once only recording.) Disks other than DVD-RAM will usually require finalisation on the camera before playing on other compatible devices and copying and playing a disc directly on the computer requires the supplied DVD-MovieAlbumSE software.
Design and layout
This DVD-camera is a small compact camera, weighing in at 667 grams in fighting weight with its strap, standard battery and a DVD-RAM disk inserted. There is no need for a lens cap as this camera has an automatic layered-leaf lens cover that keeps the optics away from accidental contact with dust and grimy fingers.
To the left-hand side of the lens is the flash light for still photography, while under the lens itself is the stereo microphone. Beside that, the infra-red remote controller and white balance sensors as well as the tally/recording lamp all lay concealed behind a permanent dark plastic cover. Completing the front real estate is a nicely camouflaged cover hiding the AV and USB2 ports as well as the microphone mini-jack socket. Unfortunately, there is no headphone jack.
Pause/Record and zoom controls, like in most cameras, live where they are comfortable for use by a right handed operator. Covered by the folded LCD screen is the LCD power level/brightness button, plus a sliding switch which in the upper section of its travel, selects between manual and automatic; in the lower half of it travel, this switch is spring-loaded and when held down allows manual focusing using the joystick (see below).
On the opposite side of the camera body is the compartment for the DVD media, opened by an inset backwards-sliding switch nicely protected from any unplanned activation. This camera takes a naked disk, not requiring a cassette and thus more convenient for directly playing on a PC if finalised.
Most of the controlling action takes place on the rear right hand panel of the camera. While there is the common and familiar knurled dial to select between the various modalities of use, fine adjustments of manual functions, plus movement through the menu options are achieved by movements of a small joystick poking out from the middle of the function dial. Pressing the joystick as a button brings a quirky graphic with options depending on the modality presently chosen.
In recording mode, on the four screens that can be navigated with the joystick, the options are the on and off phases of Fade, Backlight compensation, a minor Help function, Soft Skin tone, Telemacro and the Low Light settings (Colour Night Vision and Zero Lux; this last being where the viewfinder is reversed and becomes a low level illumination). In Playback mode, pressing the joystick brings up virtual playback controls. The other two modalities on the dial take you into the land of 3.1 megapixel still digital photography, both recording and reviewing. The shutter control button for still photos and the variable speed zoom control sit on top of the camera, comfortably within reach of the right index finger.
The power switch is a ?press-the-button-and-slide? type, set at the top of the rear surface of the camera. A Rubbish Bin lives under that, used during Playback to delete unwanted files, while to the right, is the mode dial and joystick. The Record/Pause button is further down, in about the middle of the rear panel with the Menu button at the bottom of the totem pole.
The viewfinder is limited in only coming straight out and not tilting, but has a good range of focal adjustments for individual needs and provides a clear view of the subject. If you are left-eye dominant, even a delicate little nose like mine (ahem!) is jammed up between the battery and the thumb on the Record/Pause button, which makes the viewfinder uncomfortable to use and probably close to impossible with a larger battery.
As will be revealed, software editing options are somewhat limited but on-the-camera editing capability is virtually nil. Inside the playback menu after recording there is only the option to cut or join clips. There are no effects at all and other than for a fade-in (at least two button presses on the joystick) and fade-out (the same operation as for fade-in) there are no between-clip transitions. This makes me feel that in spite of its up-there optics and image stabilisation, this camera is really aimed at the ?point, shoot, play? market.
The D300GN feels nice in the hand and will suit people who are partial to smaller compact cameras. There is a marked delay from initial switch on, especially after insertion of a new disk where it can take up to 25 seconds before being ready to record. Once past this step, however, this delay can be reduced somewhat during recording sessions by leaving the switch on and activating the camera by either extending the viewfinder or opening the LCD monitor.
In use, the controls and in particular the joystick rapidly becomes comfortable. Using the joystick to select presets is intuitive once you understand its requirements. The LCD monitor is bright and clear and to increase battery life, would normally be run on its lower power setting in anything other than bright light; however, I would not use the viewfinder on this camera other than under duress for comfort reasons, as detailed above.
The images obtained are clear and bright. The Telemacro function is excellent, and while typing this, I tested this using my keyboard as the subject. I could almost fill the viewing screen with just the image of a single key, with the camera at a distance of about 75 mm.
Shooting in daylight provided crisp, clear and colourful images in automatic and with the LCD monitor in use, the slide switch can easily be reached to enable manual focus. This would undoubtedly cause significant camera shake and would preferably be engaged and adjusted prior to actually recording. The 10x optical zoom is more than adequate without resorting to a tripod but at full zoom, you are expecting a lot even of an optical image stabilising system to keep you out of camera-shake problems.
The zoom function is variable speed and the focus adjusts acceptably quickly to rapid changes. Rapid panning will result in movement artifacts.
Low light shooting is pretty ordinary in the night colour mode and it is not practical to use the camera hand held and expect to get anything approaching usable images as a result in either. Of course, in the 0 lux mode, with the LCD monitor reversed as a weak light source, you are compelled to use the viewfinder, which didn?t add to my left-eye dominant comfort especially as focusing is automatically shifted to manual mode.
The on-camera ?stereo-zoom? microphone supplies good quality sound for a built in mic, being sensitive and clear. In playing back clips through good quality headphones attached to my PC, I did not detect any motor noise and by itself, the internal mic setup would be sufficient for most purchasers of this style of camera. Of course, there is a shoe attachment and a microphone jack for those wishing to go further upscale with an additional external mic.
The D300GN has to be connected to its AC adapter to work with its software, which unfortunately is the point at which my love affair with this camera seriously foundered. The ?editing? software is simply awful. From the first impression on opening DVD-MovieAlbum SE, it does not feel right. Maybe I am getting rigid in my old age, but one of the big advantages to my mind of Windows-based software is that most software suppliers are happy to go along with the familiar Windows-like front end, with familiar toolbars and menus, but seemingly not the developers of this software.
The shame of this is that since this camera requires this specific software to even copy a file across from the camera to the PC in a useable (=playable or editable) format, it is not apparent to me how I could interpose better software in its place. MovieAlbum is not intuitive in my opinion and then, when you get past this, is seriously limited in what it can do with the MPEG files generated by the D300GN. It does not even offer transitions!
So-called editing is limited to not much more than simple cutting and joining of adjacent clips.
While you can choose to use files on either the camera, DVD drive or the hard drive, in order to use the latter, you are obliged to make use of a specific Copy Tool to bring the file from the camera to the hard drive. I was told this in no uncertain terms when I tried to do a copy-and-paste directly from the camera, identified as an additional drive, to my C: drive.
Finally, to add insult to injury, the PDF manual ? which itself is a written example of ?much ado about nothing? – is verbose, repetitive and pedantic in saying what little there is to be said in multiple mini-steps. It is generally bereft of practical use but includes a section on operating instructions for a titling program (using ?title? with its usual connotation) called ?3D Title Studio?. For an instant, this did raise my hopes and might have gone some way to improve my opinion of this software ?suite?. However, it was not included in the package that came with the camera, and that only added to my frustration and sense of disenchantment.
There is also included a fairly low end DVD authoring program called DVD FunStudio which is linked in with DVD MovieAlbum and that might be satisfactory in the long term to some users.
There is no doubt that the Panasonic DVD-D300GN could be described as a fine piece of clever engineering that delivers great images in an accessible form to a TV near you. And this would be true, as far as it goes. Unfortunately, it is handicapped by a most forgettable accompanying collection of software that at least in part is essential to the camera?s getting files to a PC. If you can get past the ?editing? software, then there is the probability that a DVD playable on a DVD set top player will eventually result. But sophisticated ? it will never be.
I really feel that the engineers have been sadly let down by their software colleagues and it makes me wonder if the time of the DVD camera has really arrived yet. On top of this, the amount of usable storage on the DVD?s used in this type of camera is rather limited and on a ?bang for the buck? very expensive when compared to miniDV tape and ? probably ? hard disk drive cameras.