Camcorder Comparison: Panasonic PV-GS400 vs. Sony DCR-HC1000 Mini DV Camcorders

For seven or eight years now, consumer-grade 3-chip DV camcorders have come in 2 basic styles: the full-featured prosumer model, with enough bells and whistles to keep even picky broadcast videographers happy; and the high-performance consumer model, which aims more at the quality-conscious hobbyist who wants a smaller size and easier operation as well as manual controls and top-notch picture quality.

This month, we take a head-to-head look at two 3-chip DV camcorders that fall into the latter category: the Panasonic PV-GS400, and the Sony DCR-HC1000.

Panasonic PV-GS400 Mini DV Camcorder

Panasonic has been putting a lot of energy into its line of consumer 3-CCD DV camcorders in the past year or two. The PV-GS400, upgrade to the popular and successful PV-DV953, is no exception, offering a full suite of manual controls, a high-quality LCD monitor, an excellent Leica Dicomar lens and an impressive 4 megapixel still-image capability in a sleek, rugged package.

Solid Shooter

When you take the PV-GS400 out of the box and hold it in your hand for the first time, you’ll notice right away that it has a solid, almost heavy feel to it, which aids in holding the camera steady while shooting handheld shots. You also may notice that it has a soft, rubberized cover with textured finger indentations on the right-hand side, which adds to its overall comfortable, ergonomic feel. All of the camera’s right-hand controls, including the Record button, On/Off switch and Zoom/Volume toggle, have good tactile response and the overall feel of quality.

The left-hand controls, located under the 3.5-inch LCD monitor, leave a little bit more to be desired. A series of plastic membrane-type buttons operate a seemingly random set of controls: on-screen Menu, Multi P-in-P, Advanced MagicPix low-light shooting, Soft Skin (more on this below) and Telemacro; in the center of these sits a circular controller for tape transport and menu navigation. All of these controls sit atop a small hinged panel, which flips outward to allow access to the camera’s SD card reader, the place where high-quality still images are stored. Unlike the right-hand controls, it isn’t hard to imagine these plastic membranes wearing out in a couple of years. Also located under the LCD monitor are a few more rugged button controls for built-in flash, Widescreen mode, backlight compensation and record review.

Roll Tape

In nearly all aspects of its operation, the PV-GS400 is a joy to work with. The LCD monitor is bright, sharp and easy to see in daylight; most impressive, though, is the knurled Focus/Exposure ring, which successfully mimics the operations of a mechanical-style SLR lens, though in fact it’s operated electronically. By pressing the buttons on the side of the lens assembly, you can switch the operation of this ring between Focus, Iris, Zoom, and Shutter Speed control. At the brightest end of the Iris control, it even serves as a Gain Up control, displaying the amount of gain up in decibels (dB) on the LCD monitor.

Two innovative features of the PV-GS400 include Advanced Magic Pix low-lux shooting and the Soft Skin function. Advanced Magic Pix makes use of the LCD monitor, in reversed position, as a light to shoot in zero-lux conditions. This light, combined with the slow-shutter feature that accompanies it, allows the PV-GS400 to shoot high-quality, full-color images in total darkness, so long as the subject is less than 3 feet from the lens. The Soft Skin function, when activated, adds a small amount of digital blur to skin tones as a flattering effect. Also included are a titler, zebra stripe function, a few basic special effects, a microphone zoom effect that turns the on-camera microphone into a small shotgun microphone, and a multi-picture in picture effect that’s capable of producing some impressive special-effects shots.


Press Play

On playback, the rich quality of the PV-GS400’s video is immediately evident, with rich colors and sharp details bringing the picture to life. This is due in no small part to the quality of the camera’s Leica Dicomar lens. The camera’s Soft Skin function works well when used for closeup shots, but whenever a color appears in the background that’s similar to a skin tone, this function throws a blur effect on that as well. The quality of stills shot with the PV-GS400 is superb, too–even better than that of many high-quality 4 megapixel still cameras, because the 3-chip technology allows for a richer, more detailed depth of color than a single chip can provide.

Also included with the camera is a CD-ROM that contains the MotionDV capture utility, still-image transfer software and a Webcam utility for those who want to share 6-frame-per-second, 320×240 video over the Internet with the PV-GS400.

Taken as a whole, this camera offers an impressive suite of manual controls in a solid, well-designed package, with only a few minor details marring its otherwise excellent overall quality. Aside from these, the camera’s attention to detail and superb image quality in both the still and video realms make it a strong contender in the consumer 3-chip DV marketplace.

Sony DCR-HC1000 Mini DV Camcorder

Sony is a company that has long been known for innovation in its video gear, and the new DCR-HC1000 is no exception. Sporting a 3-chip imaging system for superior color reproduction, full manual controls, a nice selection of in-camera effects and a handful of very useful editing and DVD-creation tools, this camera aims at the gray area that exists between the high-end hobbyist and the budget-minded prosumer shooter.

Fancy Features

The DCR-HC1000 has a solid black appearance and an equally solid feel strap and prepare to shoot. The basic design differs from most Sony camcorders that preceded it; consisting of an elongated main camera section and a separate, hinged tape transport/handhold/control module, which twists forward for easy access to the controls while shooting low. All of the right-hand controls are easy to access and intuitively designed; as an added bonus, the tape ejects from the top of this part of the camera, so you don’t have to remove it from a tripod to access the tape door.

The left-hand controls of the DCR-HC1000 consist mainly of the 2.5-inch touch-screen LCD, which offers a very easy-to-use and straightforward way to control nearly all of the camcorder’s main functions. The buttons, controls and graphics on the LCD monitor are all attractively designed and easy to understand; Sony really went the extra mile in designing this interface, and we commend them on a job well done. The only drawback to such a system is the tendency for the LCD monitor to get smudged and worn after repeated use, but so long as you keep your hands clean and treat it with respect this shouldn’t be an issue.

Bells and Whistles

All of the DCR-HC1000’s basic functions–including focus, exposure, zoom, in-camera playback and photo modes–operate smoothly and responsively; the manual focus ring and the aforementioned touch-screen LCD controls work very smoothly together. An Auto-Lock switch on the side of the camera toggles the manual exposure mode; a similar switch covers auto and manual focus. Aside from that, and the small, unobtrusive Backlight button, all of the camera’s main functions exist in the touch-screen panel.

On the audio side, the DCR-HC1000 includes a 4-way surround sound mode that’s capable of recording 4-channel audio using the dual 12-bit stereo tracks of the DV format. With this mode, you can create tracks that will play back in 5.1 surround mode on DVDs or Video CDs created directly from the source footage on this camera–but only if you purchase the optional ECM-CQP1 microphone ($200) and also have access to the Sony VAIO’s Click-to-DVD software. If you do happen to have access to all three of the required Sony products, it’s an impressive feature; the microphone is basically a pair of stereo microphones working in tandem both in front of and behind the camera.


Wait, There’s More

If you have a newer VAIO computer, you can connect it to the DCR-HC1000 via FireWire and use the Click to DVD software that comes standard with the computer to easily transfer your videos to a DVD or Video CD. If you decide you’d like to edit your videos to another camcorder or to a VCR before making your DVDs, you can use the camera’s Digital Program Editing to perform basic editing–a very useful feature that we haven’t seen in a while from Sony or anyone else for that matter.

On playback, the video and audio quality are stunning, just as you might expect from a Sony 3-chip DV camcorder. The quality of the still images is pretty good, too, but more megapixels are needed to create truly impressive printed images. The included Picture Package software is a very basic set of image editing and transfer tools.

With its all-manual controls and a nice selection of whiz-bang features, the DCR-HC1000 is sure to please any hobbyist or prosumer videographer.

Head-to-Head Comparison: Sony DCR-HC1000 vs. Panasonic PV-GS400

In almost all of the basic performance characteristics we tested for, the Sony DCR-HC1000 and the Panasonic PV-GS400 were indistinguishable from one another, with one notable exception: the Panasonic’s still images were much more suitable for printing, as they offered four times the resolution of the Sony’s digital stills. On the features front, the Sony wins hands down, with just as many manual controls and a whole lot more ways to interface with computers for DVD creation. The Panasonic, on the other hand, had a better overall feel to it and a much bigger LCD monitor.

In conclusion, if you look at raw performance over features, the PV-GS400 barely edges out the DCR-HC1000 due to lower price, bigger LCD and better still picture capabilities. On the other hand, if you prefer lots of in-camera editing features and if you already own or are planning on buying a new VAIO computer, the DCR-HC1000 could be just the ticket for you to simplify the creation of DVDs straight from the camera.

TECH SPECS

Panasonic PV-GS400

Format: Mini DV

Lens: f1.6, 3.3-39.6mm focal length, 12:1 optical zoom, 700:1 digital zoom, 43mm filter diameter

CCD Pixels: Video: 700k (x3), Still: 990k (x3)

Viewfinder: .33 inch color LCD, 110k pixels

LCD Monitor: 3.5-inch LCD

Focus: Auto, Manual

Anamorphic 16:9: yes

Image Stabilization: Electronic

Exposure: Auto, Manual, Program AE modes

Minimum Shutter Speed: Video: 1/60; Still: 1/2

Maximum Shutter Speed: Video: 1/8000; Still: 1/2000

Iris: Auto, Manual

Electronic Gain: Yes

Zebra Stripes: Yes

Night Mode: Advanced MagicPix

White Balance: Auto, Manual, Indoor, Outdoor

Audio: 12-bit or 16-bit

Manual Audio Levels: Yes

Audio Meters: Yes

Microphone Input: 1/8-inch Plug-in-power

Headphone Output: 1/8-inch stereo mini

Inputs: Composite video, stereo audio, S-Video, FireWire

Outputs: Composite video, stereo audio, S-Video, USB 2.0, FireWire

Edit Interface: FireWire

Other Features: 10 digital effects, Soft Skin shooting mode, SD/MultiMedia card for stills, built-in flash, backlight compensation, Leica Dicomar lens, 4 megapixel maximum still image resolution, MotionDV software for video capture/recording, WebCam software

Dimensions: 3.2 (width) by 3.2 (height) by 7 (depth) inches

Weight: 1.5 pounds


STRENGTHS

  • Superb image quality
  • Excellent LCD monitor
  • High-quality stills

WEAKNESSES

  • Cheap membrane-style controls under LCD

SUMMARY

A great camera that delivers excellent performance on both the video and still sides of the equation.

TECH SPECS

Sony DCR-HC1000

Format: Mini DV

Lens: f1.6, 3.6-43.2mm focal length, 12:1 optical zoom, 150:1 digital zoom, 37mm filter diameter

CCD Pixels: Video: 690k (x3), Still: 1000k (x3)

Viewfinder: .33 inch color LCD, 110k pixels

LCD Monitor: 2.5-inch LCD

Focus: Auto, Manual

Anamorphic 16:9: No

Image Stabilization: Electronic

Exposure: Auto, Manual, Program AE modes, Spot Meter

Minimum Shutter Speed: Video: 1/4; Still: 1/60

Maximum Shutter Speed: Video: 1/10000; Still: 1/500

Iris: Auto, Manual

Electronic Gain: No

Zebra Stripes: Yes

Night Mode: No

White Balance: Auto, Manual, Indoor, Outdoor

Audio: 12-bit or 16-bit; 4-channel surround recording w/optional ECM-COP1 microphone

Manual Audio Levels: Yes

Audio Meters: Yes

Microphone Input: 1/8-inch Plug-in-power x2, front and rear

Headphone Output: 1/8-inch stereo mini

Inputs: Composite video, stereo audio, S-Video, FireWire

Outputs: Composite video, stereo audio, S-Video, FireWire

Edit Interface: FireWire, LANC

Other Features: LCD touch-screen controls, 4 digital effects, 7 fades, VAIO computer DVD/VCD burning interface, Sharpness and Camera Color picture adjustments, hot shoe, digital program editing, Memory Stick Duo, memory chroma/luma key

Dimensions: 4 (width) by 3 1/8 (height) by 6 1/4 (depth) inches

Weight: 1 pound 11 ounces

STRENGTHS

  • Superb image quality
  • Many innovative features
  • In-camera editing tools

WEAKNESSES

  • Stills only 1 megapixel

SUMMARY

A great choice for in-camera editors and demanding high-end hobbyists.

Joe McCleskey is Videomaker‘s Technical Editor.

$1,499

Panasonic

One Panasonic Way

Secaucus, NJ 07094

(800) 211-PANA

www.panasonic.com

$1,700

Sony Electronics

One Sony Drive

Park Ridge, NJ 07656

(877) 865-SONY

www.sonystyle.com

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