Camcorder Review:Panasonic PV-L552H VHS-C

$350

Panasonic Consumer Electronics Company

One Panasonic Way

Secaucus, NJ 07094

(800) 211-PANA

www.panasonic.com

Do you remember the "bad old" days when all you could find in stores were VHS, VHS-C and 8mm camcorders? Back in the early 1990s Panasonic ran a TV spot with a shopper looking for a new camcorder. She asked several salespeople whether the tapes will play back in her VCR. Naturally, since it was Panasonic’s ad, the winning salesperson in the ad pointed her to a Panasonic VHS-C camcorder, who demonstrated removing a just-recorded tape from the camcorder, sticking it in an adapter and inserting the whole thing into a VCR on the floor. Voil, the just-recorded picture appeared on the screen.

Nearly a decade later, Panasonic is still producing analog camcorders, such as the PV-L552H. With the growth of Mini DV camcorders, we wonder how much longer VHS-C camcorders can possibly last.

Semi-Instant Gratification

Of course, if you just need to show your footage without connecting anything to your TV (that happens to have a VHS VCR already connected to it), then this camcorder will certainly allow you to use your VCR without making any new connections. If this is all you want, then the PV-L552H delivers.

The PV-L552H is a relatively large consumer camcorder and is larger than most entry-level digital camcorders. Panasonic exploited the size of the tape mechanism to provide some very unique physical characteristics. For example, if you open up the viewscreen, you’re greeted with a gigantic, bright 4-inch LCD. Slide the tape eject switch and the entire side of the camcorder opens up to show the unit’s full-sized head drum. The unique transport is definitely a hybrid between the typical miniaturized VHS-C transport and a full-sized VHS transport and is only offered by Panasonic.

In spite of its somewhat gangly appearance, the camcorder is suprisingly light and easy to hold. Its weight distribution feels slightly off-balance, but we always recommend that you hold your camcorder with both hands.

The camcorder has very few buttons, keeping controls reasonably easy to find. A very short menu does contain some functions, but not many. The unit is spartan and lacks even basic manual features such as exposure and a white balance control. There isn’t even a tape counter. There is, however, a graphical estimate of the amount of tape remaining on the top quarter of the viewfinder and viewscreen.

There are no inputs and only one output jack on the camcorder. The A/V Output jack uses an 1/8" connector to transport mono analog audio and composite video, both via RCA connections. There is also no headphone jack and no microphone jack, but the unit does include a speaker that is mounted on the tape door.

One nice aspect of the PV-L552H is that it doesn’t require batteries to be charged on the camcorder itself. The kit comes with a separate charger/power supply unit that also includes a refresh capability. Considering that this camcorder uses NiCd batteries (which are prone to developing a memory), this is an important addition.

Looking At You

The 26x optical zoom is staggering in its range. If you’re primarily observing subjects from a distance, this may be your camcorder of choice as no other current consumer camcorder has such a powerful zoom lens. You can adjust the zoom at four speeds. The camcorder’s zoom control gives you remarkably good control of your shot. But, like other digital zooms, the Panasonic’s looks pretty bad over 40x.

With the lack of manual controls, this isn’t our first recommendation for a motivated shooter, but the camcorder does have some notable hands-off features that caught our eye. Standby Recording will record a few seconds of video at a time over a stretch of time, which allows you to produce time-lapse video of sorts. The camcorder also includes a motion-sensing automatic recording capability for light surveillance work or nature videography. Whenever it senses motion, it records a minute of video and then goes back into standby. We could definitely see placing this relatively inexpensive camera in a weather-proof box along a deer trail and seeing what turns up. In our tests, the battery lasted 6 hours waiting in this mode, recording video every now and again. Florescent office lights triggered the motion sensor, but it is still an interesting feature for incandescent or outdoor shooting.

Our image tests revealed nothing surprising. The resolution was decent for an analog camera and looked good on an average television. The automatic focus and white balance were fast and accurate, with only a tinge of blue in mixed-light situations such as (florescent and incandescent).

You can’t really expect more, but it would have been nice to have a manual override. Auto exposure worked well, but took about a second to become acclimated to sudden changes.

I Can Read Your Mind

Overall, the Panasonic PV-L552H is an inexpensive analog camcorder that was quite usable. Not surprisingly, image quality was inferior to digital and analog is also not as convenient for computer editing, but if you need to shoot and playback in a VCR, this is it (VHS adapter cartridge is included).

The lack of manual controls rather limits this camcorder’s potential. We recommend this model most highly for those who absolutely must have a VHS-C camcorder, for beginners wanting to get their feet wet and for those who won’t use the manual controls.

TECH SPECS

Format: VHS-C

Lens: fl=3.8mm to 98.8mm, f/1.6, 26:1 optical zoom (no filter threads)

Image sensor: 1/4-inch CCD

Gross Pixels: 270,000

Effective Pixels: 250,000

Viewfinder: 0.55-inch color

LCD Viewscreen: 4.0-inch color

Focus: auto, manual

Image Stabilization: electronic

Maximum Shutter Speed: 1/10,000

Exposure: auto only

White Balance: auto only

Audio: linear mono

Microphone Input: none

Headphone Output: none

Inputs: none

Outputs: mono analog audio, composite video

Edit Interface: none

Other Features: built-in light, motion-sense recording, standby recording

Dimensions: 4 5/16 x 4 13/16 x 7 1/2 (WHD in inches)

Weight: 2.21 lbs. (sans tape and battery)

Performance

Tested Resolution: 310 lines

Field of View: 43-degrees

STRENGTHS

  • Huge viewscreen
  • Potentially useful time-lapse features

    WEAKNESSES

  • Very few manual controls

    SUMMARY

    Worth considering if you need a VHS camcorder.

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