Panasonic has recently released the PV-GS85 camcorder which offers optical image stabilization, 32x optical zoom, still-shot mode, and widescreen recording format - all for under $300. The PV-GS85 is a solid camcorder that has its good points as well as bad points, so lets see if this camcorder is right for you...
First off, the Panasonic PV-GS85 is a nice, compact camcorder that measures in at 3.09" by 2.86" by 5.36", and it tips the scales at about 1 pound. The size of this camera makes it an ideal camcorder to travel with. This camcorder is comfortable to hold, and it can be easily operated with one hand.
The design of the PV-GS85 is pretty basic. Most of the controls are located in ideal locations which make it easier to operate with one hand. There is one huge design flaw with this camcorder, though. The FireWire, DC input, and USB port are all located underneath the battery. This means that you have to take out the battery every time that you want to transfer video to your computer. Panasonic should have placed these inputs in a more accessible location, such as behind the flip-out LCD display which only houses a small speaker.
Inputs are located behind the battery
With the one design flaw aside, the look and feel of this camcorder is good. The lens is a bit cheap (not the usual Leica lens used by Panasonic), but it works well overall. The lens is a 35x optical zoom lens with an aperture range of f/1.8-f/3.7, and a focal length of 2.3mm-73.6mm. The flip-out display is 2.7" in size, and it works well in bright or dim lighting. There is also an adjustable viewfinder for more precise video shooting.
It is relatively rare to see a budget camcorder with an optical image stabilization (OIS) system. The PV-GS85 does a very good job of minimizing "camcorder-shake" - especially when taking advantage of the 35x optical zoom. The video below will show some examples of how the OIS helps to minimize excessive "camcorder-shake" while filming.
This camcorder is a bit "outdated" when it comes to the media that it records onto. The PV-GS85 uses MiniDV tapes for recording, which is a bit older than DVD or HDD formats, but it does have its advantages. MiniDV tapes are very inexpensive, have a long shelf-life, and dollar-for-dollar have a better image quality than DVDs or HDD (according to Camcorderinfo.com). The only downside is that MiniDV tapes are a lot like VHS tapes in terms of having to rewind and fast-forward, instead of being able to quickly skip ahead like with DVDs. Also, transferring videos from a MiniDV-equipped camcorder to a computer, via FireWire, can be a much longer process than it would be with a typical DVD or HDD camcorder.
The PV-GS85 is able to take still-shots, much like a digital camera. This camcorder includes a SD card slot on the bottom of the body, which is used to store digital still-shots. This feature is nice to have, but it doesn't take the best quality images. As a matter of fact, the quality is comparable to that of a camera phone. Plus, the maximum size of still-shots taken with the PV-GS85 is 640 by 480 pixels - effectively making it a 0.3 megapixel camera.
The video quality taken with the Panasonic PV-GS85 is solid for a budget camcorder. This camcorder is especially good in low-lighting, because it features a nice LED video light right next to the lens. The video quality will not blow you away by any means, but according to Camcorderinfo.com, it is better than the Canon ZR850, Sony DCR-HC38, and the JVC GR-D796 - all similarly priced camcorders.
For someone looking for an easy to use budget camcorder, the PV-GS85 may be a good choice. This camcorder takes good quality video that the average user will find to be more than sufficient. Also, it's tough to find a budget camcorder that offers a good OIS system like the PV-GS85 has. I don't recommend using this camcorder if you plan to watch the video on a large HDTV, because the resolution won't look too great. If you have a HDTV, you may want to spend the extra money to get a HD-camcorder. The video playback is good on a standard TV, and this camcorder is capable of recording in 4:3 standard format or 16:9 widescreen format.
For under $300, it's tough to beat the Panasonic PV-GS85 - as long as you don't mind having a MiniDV camcorder when most new camcorders are DVD or HDD format. The only downfall of the Panasonic PV-GS85 is the design flaw that I mentioned earlier, but other than that it's a great budget camcorder.
Cnet rating: 6.2/10
Camcorderinfo rating: "winner for 2007's Best Camcorder Under $300 award"
My Rating: 8/10 (compared to the competition)
Sources: Cnet and Camcorderinfo.com
Joe Eitel's Gadget Blog