Panasonic Camera and Camcorder Review: PV-VM202 Mini DV Camcorder

$2,300

Panasonic Consumer Electronics

One Panasonic Way

Secaucus, NJ 07094

(800) 211-PANA

www.panasonic.com

Innovations in camcorder design have been falling from the sky like rain in the past few years. We’ve seen hard-disk cams, MPEG cams, DVD cams and even camcorders that record onto MiniDiscs. With the PV-VM202, Panasonic gets into the game, offering a compact Mini DV camcorder that actually comes apart and becomes a tiny digital still camera.

Targeted at consumers who prize compactness, image quality and dual still/video functionality above all else (including price), the PV-VM202 provides all of the above and more. Though it may seem a little quirky at first – and it is – its superb design and overall quality of operation make it a serious contender.

Giant Robot?

The first thing that came to mind when we saw the PV-VM202 was a certain type of Japanese cartoon, wherein a gigantic, technically advanced robot transforms into a jet, a car, etc. based on the situation. The camcorder consists of two main pieces: the upper camera body (including lens, controls and LCD monitor), and the lower tape-drive segment. Together, the unit is configured for video (though limited still-image functionality still exists), while apart, the upper camera section becomes a digital still cam (with some minor modification and addition of a separate piece that holds the battery and a flash unit).

At first, it was a little hard to accept the design concept. "Why would anyone want this?" we asked ourselves. But, when we tested the camera in the field, the value of the little digital camera became clear; the abbreviated version of the camera fit easily into a jacket pocket or even the pocket of our reviewer’s chinos. Still, the dual-design was problematic. It was easy to imagine losing one of the three pieces necessary to pull off the transformation.

In video (full-size) mode or still camera (reduced) mode, all controls were easy to reach and operate. Some of the functions were a little bit odd, such as the combination of switches and buttons necessary to access the unit’s various modes. Those intimidated by large numbers of controls and options might find the PV-VM202 a bit overwhelming, but if you’re a gadget freak, you’ll love all the ways you can control this camera. We found the hand-strap configuration a little uncomfortable and hard to adjust. Also, it was frustrating using a tripod with a camcorder that ejects the tape from the bottom as the PV-VM202 does, because it requires that you remove the camera from the tripod plate entirely in order to replace the tape.

Small, but Powerful

The PV-VM202’s 10:1 optical zoom Leica lens contributed to the overall quality of the camera’s images. It was easy to operate the zoom control (located under the thumb), which provided speeds from super-fast to a slow crawl. The manual focus adjustment, controlled by a tiny wheel on top of the camera that also controls white balance, shutter, iris, volume and frame-by-frame jog, was a little hard to operate, but the autofocus system was very impressive and quick to respond.

The electronic image stabilization control performed very well, which is a good thing, because the camera is so small it’s difficult to hold steady.

The stereo on-camera mike provided good sound, but its odd location, right on top of the camera, made it impossible to point it directly at the subject. Furthermore, its location was perfect for picking up unwanted operator noises, such as breathing, sniffing, etc. The unit does not have a mike jack for attaching an accessory microphone, but you can monitor the audio with headphones.

Also on the plus side were manual iris, white balance and shutter speed controls; hats off to Panasonic for providing these.

Quality Playback

The image quality of the PV-VM202 was excellent, both in the digital still and digital video categories. Colors were bright, skin tones were accurate and resolution was sharp. Audio quality was acceptable at close range.

While in-camera digital effects don’t usually excite us, the effects provided in the PV-VM202 were more useful than most, especially the multi (still only) and picture-in-picture effects. The wipe effect is especially useful for in-camera shooters who don’t plan to edit.

In our tests, the PV-VM202 provided good to excellent quality in all aspects of operation except one: the small MPEG-4 streaming-video clips it shoots were jerky, grainy and of mediocre quality, even when compared to similar capabilities on other digital still cameras. If you want to use the PV-VM202 for streaming video, we suggest you capture the DV video to your computer and use software to make your own video streams.

The PV-VM202 is a gadget-laden, somewhat gimmicky camera, yet no slouch in the performance department. It’s a great travel/vacation solution, perfect for those who want a combination of high-quality images and portability.

TECH SPECS

Format: Mini DV

Lens: fl=3.55 to 35.5mm, 10:1 optical, f/1.8, 37mm filter diameter

Image Sensor: 1/4-inch CCD, 680,000 pixels

LCD Viewscreen: 2.5-inch color

Focus: auto, manual

Maximum Shutter Speed: 1/8,000 sec.

Exposure: auto, manual, backlight compensation

White Balance: auto, manual

Digital Effects: Multi-picture, Picture-in-Picture, Wipe, Mix, Strobe, Magicpix, Trail, Mosaic, Mirror, Nega, Sepia, Mono, Solari

Audio: 12-bit or 16-bit

Inputs: IEEE 1394, S-video, composite video, stereo audio, mini mike

Outputs: IEEE 1394, S-video, composite video, stereo audio, headphones,

USB (stills)

Edit Interface: IEEE 1394

Other Features: Flash, 16MB multimedia card, electronic image stabilization, modular design, high quality digital stills

Dimensions: 2 5/8 (w) x 3 3/8 (h) x 6 5/8 (d) inches

Weight (sans tape and battery): 1.2 lbs.

STRENGTHS

  • Excellent digital still features, including flash
  • Headphone jack
  • Innovative, useful design

    WEAKNESSES

  • Tape ejects from bottom of camera
  • Hand-strap was uncomfortable
  • No microphone jack

    Performance Times

    Pause to Record: 0.88

    Power-up to Record: 7.00 sec.

    Fast-forward/Rewind (60 min. tape) 3 min. 25 sec.

    Tested Horizontal Resolution: 410 lines

    SUMMARY

  • An excellent choice for those who want portability in a combination digital still and DV camera.
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