Most video cameras geared toward general consumers have a single light-gathering CCD chip. Professional cameras, on the other hand, employ a prism behind the lens, which sends the red component of the image to one chip, the green to a second, and the blue to a third. Three-chip cameras generally produce images with richer colors and greater detail than do single-chip cameras, but they've been too expensive and bulky for home video use--until 2004, when Panasonic introduced a series of three-chip cameras priced and sized to compete with the one-chippers. The PV-GS250 represents the second generation of the company's consumer-oriented three-chip line, replacing the PV-GS200 in the middle of the series between the PV-GS150 and PV-GS400. Weighing a solid pound and clad in a lustrous silver metallic skin, the Panasonic PV-GS250 feels solid and well balanced in the hand. The body is oriented horizontally in a classic Handicam-style design rather than the vertical layout of many current consumer cameras. On the right side is a top-loading tape door under a hand strap; on the left, a 2.5-inch flip-out monitor sits above an SD/MMC card slot. The Leica Dicomar 10X zoom resides next to a stereo microphone and a flash on the front, and the battery snaps onto the camera under the viewfinder at the rear.
The uncluttered design of the PV-GS250 has clearly been optimized for one-handed use with the camera set on automatic, and it is at its best when used this way. Just about all special features and manual controls are accessed through a navigation system controlled by a small joystick that rests under your thumb. This navigation system is very well organized and easy to use, but such menu-based setups are better suited for the occasional mode change than for the constant tweaking required to control a camera manually. While you can theoretically command just about every aspect of the PV-GS250 manually, doing so for any length of time quickly becomes frustratingly tedious. The only other significant controls are the smooth and well-placed manual focus ring and the mediocre zoom toggle, which has too short a throw to facilitate subtle zooming.
The PV-GS250 has the usual assortment of analog and digital ports: FireWire, USB, S-Video, and analog audio and video via RCA plugs. When not connected to a special RCA cable, the analog video port doubles as a headphone jack--a smart use of limited real estate. In addition, a microphone jack is available to connect a variety of external microphones, including the nifty Magic Wire Remote Control with Narration Mic, which is supplied with the camera. Finally, the PV-GS250 has an intelligent accessory shoe that can power an optional camera-mounted mic or light. What most sets the Panasonic PV-GS250 apart from the competition is what can't be seen from the outside, namely its three 1/6-inch 800,000-pixel CCDs, which offer 640,000-pixel effective resolution for video and 710,000-pixel effective resolution for stills. We'll discuss the impact of this three-chip design in the Image quality section.
Although its chips are optimized for 4:3 shooting, the PV-GS250 offers two 16:9 shooting modes: an anamorphic squeeze that will fill a 16:9 television and a letterboxed wide screen for use on traditionally proportioned TVs. Unfortunately, no progressive video mode is offered to complete the "film look."
The Leica Dicomar lens offers a 10X zoom, which is fairly limited by contemporary standards. That's ameliorated somewhat by the wide end of the zoom, which is wider than much of the competition and may be more useful than a supertelephoto zoom. You can select 25X and 700X digital zoom options in the menu, but as is always the case with digital zoom, the image is extremely compromised when you apply them. More successful lens features are the excellent optical image stabilizer--inaccurately described as EIS in the menu--and the Tele-macro mode, which enables extreme close-ups of objects located about 16 inches from the camera.
The PV-GS250's menu system offers a typical selection of autoexposure modes, including Sports, Portrait, Low Light, Spotlight, and Surf & Snow. The camera defaults to a generic auto mode, and you can also use the joystick-based navigation system to manually control every aspect of the image: shutter, iris, gain, and white balance. As noted in Design, while full manual control (excepting audio levels) is possible, on a practical level, the joystick-based navigation system isn't really up to the task.
You can choose from two low-light modes: MagicPix, which brightens the image by slowing the shutter down to 1/2 second, and 0 Lux MagicPix, in which, in addition to the 1/2-second shutter speed, the LCD screen cleverly doubles as an illuminator.
Other features include backlight compensation; fade to either black or white; Soft Skin, which reduces wrinkles by adding a slight blur to flesh tones; and QuickStart, a standby mode that saves batteries and can have the camera up and running in only a couple of seconds.
With regard to audio, the PV-GS250 offers a couple of cool-sounding features that don't work all that well, namely Zoom Mic, which is supposed to enable the audio perspective to change with the focal length of the lens, and Wind Cut, which cuts down on the low frequencies associated with wind noise. More successful is the very clever Magic Wire Remote Control with Narration Mic. This small wand serves not only as a handheld mic but also as a remote control, allowing you to control the camera while shooting yourself. If you're recording video with 12-bit audio, you can use the Magic Wire Remote to add a voiceover later.
The PV-GS250 can take stills at a variety of output resolutions, from 640x480 to 2,048x1,512. However, the higher resolutions are not native but are achieved via Panasonic's pixel-shift technology. The camera has a built-in flash for taking low-light photos. You can also capture stills without flash while you're recording video but at only 640x480 resolution. The RapidFire Consecutive PhotoShot mode lets you shoot a series of as many as 10 pictures at a rate of 2 frames per second.
Panasonic bundles the PV-GS250 with Motion DV Studio 5.1E LE for DV, a PC-based video-editing application. As the Panasonic PV-GS250 is optimized for automatic control, the performance of its automatic systems is particularly critical. In general, its automation tended to be accurate but slow. For example, the autofocus often took a couple of seconds to lock onto the object in the middle of the frame, but once it did, there was no wandering. Similarly, autoexposure and automatic white balance were spot-on but lagged in comparison to the best of the competition.
When set to manual, the camera responded quickly and precisely to the controls. In this area, the difficulty was the joystick-based control system itself, as discussed in Design. The excellent manual focus ring is an exception to the limitations of the mechanical controls--it's large and smooth, and it's located in the traditional spot around the lens. The zoom switch, however, is the worst control on the camera and is difficult to manipulate with any finesse. The final lens-related feature is the optical image stabilizer, which does an excellent job of smoothing out handheld camera work without degrading the image and is a great improvement over the PV-GS200's electronic stabilizer.
While the viewfinder provides a bright and clear picture, the flip-out LCD is mediocre in both size and brightness. I found the LCD difficult to use outdoors in daylight, an annoying limitation for casual users who rely on the LCD to compose their shots.
The PV-GS250's built-in microphone performed well within the limits of small built-in mics. There is a discernable advantage to the Panasonic PV-GS250's three chips, at least in well-lit situations. For example, daylight exteriors are recorded with a vibrancy and subtlety throughout the spectrum and are noticeably superior to the typical single-chip image. The lens on this camera is sharp and contrasty as well.
Unfortunately, in low light, this camera loses its advantage over the single-chip competition. Low-light images are murky and noisy, which is presumably due to the small size of the PV-GS250's CCDs. Like most consumer camcorders, the PV-GS250 offers special low-light modes, but its MagicPix option relies on a slow shutter that will make any motion unacceptably blurry.
In the photo department, Panasonic claims this camera is the equivalent of a 3.1-megapixel still camera. But that's not the native resolution of the sensors, and while the PV-GS250's still images are decent by camcorder standards, you can do better with a dedicated still camera.