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Pansonic PV-DV952

Panasonic DV Palmcorder offers Power, Features

by Jim Bray

It may be overkill for the "ordinary consumer," but Panasonic's Palmcorder PV-DV952 "multicam" is a terrific digital camcorder capable of capturing extremely high quality images - both still and moving.

And isn't that a moving story?

This $2300 product records on the Mini DV tape format and also includes a 16 Megabyte Smart Media card for capturing stills and voice. Between the two media, you can record stuff for just about any medium you'd want, from broadcast television to pictures and sound for the Web. It also comes with a terrific LEICA DICOMAR Lens with a 10x optical zoom to which Panasonic has added digital zoom capability of up to 120X.

That's one heck of a zoom and I have to admit I found the really higher zoom rates excessive, especially since I didn't have a tripod with me when I tried them, leading to a picture so jittery it was virtually unwatchable.

That's not Panasonic's fault, of course; you should always have a tripod for such times, despite the built in electronic image stabilization system that, under normal circumstances, does a pretty good job of steadying your hand. It isn't perfect (what is?) but it's good.

Peeking through the camcorder at the images you're recording is done comfortable via a color LCD viewfinder - and if you want more freedom of moment and flexibility (at the cost of battery life), there's a folding 3.5 inch LCD screen on the unit's side. Both offer good picture quality - though I noticed that some of the footage I recorded while on a boat trip had a couple of small smudges on the lens that I hadn't noticed through either viewfinder.

Can't blame Panasonic for that, either, unfortunately.

With all the stuff Panasonic has stuffed into this "multicam" (an apt description, indeed), you'll want to take a leisurely stroll through the owner's manual. It's all pretty well laid out and explained for the most part. I found it particularly handy to take it with me on vacation, so I could consult it when I ran into trouble.

The first trouble I ran into was trying to use the multicam as a digital still camera; try as I might I couldn't get it to take a shot when I pressed the "record" button. Fortunately, the manual pointed out that you don't use the "record" button when taking still pics; there's a separate button for that.

Well, duh! As if there aren't enough buttons, switches, rings and things on this camera to begin with! I'm sure Panasonic had a very good reason for not making the "record" button do multiple functions, but it sure would have been more ergonomic if they had!

Anyway, that was really the only problem I had…

The 1.6 megapixel camera feature a 3 CCD pickup system, which puts it into "professional" territory and having seen the marvelous pictures that come out of it I wouldn't hesitate to use it for electronic news gathering (ENG) or other applications like that.

It can also be set to shoot in a 16x9 widescreen mode - which makes it forward compatible (always nice when you're buying a fairly expensive item). Since I have a widescreen HDTV-ready projection TV in my main home theater, I was dying to try this feature and shot virtually all of my video footage in this "cinema" mode. The manual says it'll automatically zoom out to fill the TV screen when you play it back, and it does this as advertised.

Unfortunately, the image is NOT anamorphic widescreen, so when the TV zooms the letterboxed picture to fit the corners of the TV screen you lose resolution. This is unfortunate, and (besides the single use record buttons) is probably the only real complaint I have about the camera. It seems a bit shortsighted to include a "letterboxed" cinema mode when they could undoubtedly have squeezed the picture electronically or offered a separate, optional 16x9 compatible lens.

Perhaps that's what they have up their sleeve for next year's model….

Anyway, despite my non-anamorphic angst, I really liked using the 16x9 mode and highly recommend it for those with (or shooting for) widescreen TV's. Despite the lower apparent resolution, the color is still terrific and the playback doesn't suffer from the horizontal distortion of the "widezoom" type of setting that's required when playing 4x3 pictures back on a 16x9 TV.

And that's just the start of the reasons to like this Panasonic. Here's a list of features and explanations culled from a Panasonic press release (with my comments in parentheses):

  • The Optical Image Stabilizer system uses two movable lenses and two fixed lenses. Two gyro sensors operate at 480 times per second to detect even slight shaking and two linear motors instantly shift the lens to compensate. The result is clear, sharp images, free of picture degradation even when shooting from a moving vehicle or using the zoom lens. (see above: it works very well, but it's no substitute for a tripod)
  • MPEG-4 Internet Movie: Lets users easily transfer MPEG-4 video clips with audio to a PC to create clip libraries and presentations, or to attach them to an e-mail. Video clips are stored on the included SD memory card. (Nice, thoughtful and convenient, but I'd rather record onto the mini DV tape - which offers a lot more recording time - and then use PC software to create my MPEGs. Unfortunately, Panasonic doesn't include such software, though it's easy enough to obtain separately. Including the feature as they have is undoubtedly an extra convenience feature for those who want the extra flexibility)
  • SD Voice Recorder: Allows users to record important voice messages directly onto the included SD memory card for easy playback. The built-in high performance microphone provides superb digital sound. (fine, and the sound is good - and surprisingly free of wind noise - but this is probably the feature I'd use the least).
  • Progressive PhotoShot Mode: Enables users to record still pictures with higher resolution, finer details and provides smoother image contours than the normal PhotoShot function. This feature captures the image data and temporarily stores it into two separate field memories. The two images of the exact same moment are then combined with no time lag, eliminating the need for simulations. This results in 1.5 times the resolution of standard-recorded stills for a beautifully clear and brilliant picture. (overall, the camera's still photo quality - which is available in a variety of resolutions - is very good)
  • Built-in pop-up flash (always a nice treat)
  • MagicPix image enhancing feature for shooting full colour video and stills in extremely low light situations. (works okay, but I had some low light footage that left something to be desired. That, of course, could have been operator error…)
  • Multi-image Playback allows the user to view nine consecutive still images on the LCD screen in Playback mode. It's great for analyzing athletic performance such as golf swings. (nice, but I really didn't care)
  • P-I-P (picture-in-picture) feature: Using the LCD monitor, P-I-P lets users insert a small still shot over the video being recorded. The miniaturized digital still image appears in the right corner of the video during playback. This feature offers a quick, handy alternative for inserting still shots into moving video. (a nice piece of flexibility, but I daresay it isn't something the average person will use much

Panasonic also includes ArcSoft photo editing software suite, a bundled set of programs that let you enhance, retouch and apply special effects to captured still images. You don't get video editing software, unfortunately; I would have loved to see Panasonic throw in something like Dazzle MainActor, which lets you capture and edit digital video.

One wonderful feature of this "multicam" is its Firewire interface capability. This i.LINK IEEE 1394 digital interface lets you control the camcorder from your PC, using your mouse. This is wonderful. With it, and the appropriate software (I used MainActor), you can capture your footage and save it to your hard drive for later editing and output to other video devices such as a VHS VCR (with a loss of quality) or a CD or DVD burner.

A warning: video footage takes up a LOT of hard drive space, so make sure your PC has plenty of elbow room. I capture some 45 minutes of footage from the mini DV tape and stored it in .avi format and it took just a tad under 10 Gigabytes.

Fortunately, as I write this hard drives are cheap…

Panasonic also built in a PhotoVu Link with an RS-232C serial connection, a USB port, built-in SD Drive plus an SD Memory Card slot - so if you can get images into the camera, there's a way to get them out again as well (which certainly comes in handy!).

I wish I'd had more time to play with this powerful and flexible camcorder/still camera. While it was a wonderful tool to take on vacation, I would have loved to do some more professional recording than boat trips and visits to families and museums - for instance some real camera setups for broadcast journalism or more creative things.

I'm sure this Panasonic would have acquitted itself admirably.

Jim Bray's technology columns are distributed by the TechnoFILE and Mochila Syndicates. Copyright Jim Bray.


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