Panasonic VDR-M50PP DVD  Review

$750

Panasonic Corporation of North America

One Panasonic Way

Secaucus, NJ 07094

(800) 211-PANA

www.panasonic.com

Panasonic’s compact VDR-M50PP camcorder gives the video hobbyist the convenience of recording video and still shots directly to DVD then playing them back on a newer home DVD player. As much as 60 minutes of video will fit on either 8cm DVD-RAM or DVD-R discs depending on the quality setting. And the RAM disc holds a whopping 999 still images. Even in-camera editing is possible when using RAM discs.

The camera is small, light and easy to hold with mode and zoom controls within easy reach of your right-hand thumb and fingers. With the large lens barrel and the round side-loading disc chamber, the VDR-M50 looks reminiscent of old 16mm film cameras. Most direct function control buttons are on the left side, while others are behind the 2.5-inch LCD flip out screen. Most camera features are accessed through menus. A small infrared remote with basic camera and navigation controls is included.

Compact Performer

The zoom rocker is easily operated by the index finger. The zoom is quiet with four speeds from slow to very fast. To soften jarring starts and stops, the VDR-M50 provides ease-in and -out of fast zooms.

A button on the left side panel toggles between auto and manual focus, allowing you to adjust focus by pressing nearby plus and minus volume buttons. Under good lighting and medium to wide focal lengths auto focus is moderately quick and accurate. Auto focus in the digital zoom ranges is particularly slow and soft, but it doesn’t lose focus when objects temporarily pass between you and your subject.

The electronic image stabilization provided by the VDR-M50 does a good job reducing shakes and jitters without sacrificing video quality. There is surprisingly little lag to give you that drunken feeling and it even helps smooth zooms and pans.

The stereo mike sits right below the lens barrel, a position we discovered was way too easy to cover with your finger when shooting from a low angle. (The A/V jack, curiously, is also located in this questionable position.) Audio quality is good when close to your subject. Beyond about ten feet, sound quality drops off rapidly as the AGC (Automatic Gain Control) increases both ambient and mechanical noise. There are no manual controls for audio–par for a camera in this category. We connected a higher quality off-camera microphone into the mini stereo plug at the front of the camera that provided significantly better sounding audio; however, there is no headphone jack to monitor your sound. The small built-in speaker plays back audio with expected tinny results. If you hold the camera during playback, your right hand can completely cover the tiny speaker, making the sound even less impressive.

Size Matters

The VDR-M50 uses a small 1/6-inch 340,000 (effective) pixel CCD. For such a small chip, images are quite sharp and the overall quality is pretty good. We tested contrast and resolution by shooting white pelicans on a lake backed by a dark shoreline around noontime. Much of the detail in the whites was lost as was the information in the dark shoreline. With some manual adjustment of exposure, we captured more detail in the whites but lost more in the darks. Reds and greens are also a little over-saturated.

Using Auto White Balance outside, we found skin tones to be on the warm side. Manually setting white balance provided only slightly more neutral tones. It takes about 10 seconds for the Auto White Balance to adjust to a new lighting condition. Inside, we found skin tones to be too warm and saturated even with manual white balance set.

By selecting just one button, you have full access to automatic control of iris, shutter and focus. A system menu has AE presets that cover the usual scenarios of Sports, Portrait, Spotlight, Surf & Snow and Low Light. Each provides acceptable exposure in varying conditions. In most cases with high contrast, we found we still had to use either manual exposure control or backlight compensation via buttons nested on the left side panel to get a properly exposed image. This was probably due to the MPEG-2 compression algorithm that all DVDs require, and which can sometimes cause problems with contrast.

Still images can be recorded to either a DVD-RAM disc or an optional SD Memory card. With a still resolution of only 640 x 480, the images are made mostly for video screen viewing. At this resolution, printing quality will be quite low.

Wrap-At-Random
Beyond the ease of instantly playing DVD-R discs in a set top player the most attractive feature of the VDR-M50 for users may be the ease of randomly accessing and editing recorded clips. A mini-joystick on the left panel makes getting around and viewing clips simple. You can do most basic editing functions all in-camera.

If you are looking for high quality video and audio, you may want to keep looking around. If you want the convenience of recording home videos and low-res stills to pop into the home DVD player, then look no further.

TECH SPECS

Format: DVD-RAM; DVD-R

Number of CCDs: One

Size of CCDs: 1/6-inch

Pixels on CCD: 680k (approx)

Video Effective Pixels: 340k (approx) Movie mode; 340k (approx) still mode

Focus: Auto/manual

Shutter Speed: Auto

Maximum Shutter Speed: 1/4000

Minimum Shutter Speed: 1/60

Lens f-Stop: 1.8-3.6

Program Exposure Modes: Full Auto; Sports; Portrait; Spotlight; Surf & Snow; low light

Optical Zoom: 18x

Digital zoom: 40x-500x

Focal Length: 2.1-37.8mm

Image Stabilization: Electronic

Manual White Balance: Auto; presets; manual

Viewfinder: .33-inch TFT (approx 110k pixels) color

LCD monitor: 2.5-inch TFT (approx. 120k pixels) color

Progressive Scan: No

HD Modes: No

Video In: A/V in via breakout cable; USB 2.0

Video Out: Via breakout cable: USB 2.0

Mono/Stereo Recording: Stereo with built-in or external (stereo) mic

Microphone in: 3.5mm stereo mini jack

VU meters: None

Manual Audio Level Controls: None

Headphone Jack: None

Speaker: Side-mounted

Still Shot Media: DVD-RAM disc; SD memory card; Multimedia card

Memory Card Included: No

Flash: No

Wireless Remote: Yes

External Battery Charger Provided: Yes

Battery Type: Lithium Ion

Disc loading Configuration: Side loading

Onboard Video Light: No

Accessory shoe: Yes (cold)

STRENGTHS

  • Convenience of recording directly to DVD-RAM and DVD-R
  • High capacity recording of low resolution stills

    WEAKNESSES

  • Speaker is muted by your hand if held during playback
  • Low resolution stills
  • A/V jack in an awkward location

    SUMMARY

    The VDR-M50PP is a great solution for the video enthusiast who needs the convenience of recording directly to DVD and not the need for the highest quality video.

    Brian Peterson is a Communications Director with more than 14 years of broadcast video production experience.

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