Panasonic kept the PV-GS320's design very similar to last year's PV-GS300, though thankfully they moved the manual focus selector as well as the USB and FireWire jacks out from behind the 2.7-inch LCD screen. However, Panasonic moved that manual focus selector to the right side of the body, to a spot that is difficult to access while shooting. Since there aren't any buttons below the LCD, that might have been a better spot. While Panasonic does a nice job of partitioning its menus, and you can access most manual functions with a few quick button presses, advanced shooters who are used to having dedicated buttons for functions such as white balance won't find any here. Instead, you access most of these types of functions by pressing the joystick, which brings up a menu that's separate from the main menu. In many cases this worked well, but some videographers prefer dedicated buttons, especially for oft-used functions such as backlight compensation. Our biggest gripe is that there's no focusing ring, even though the specs on Panasonic's Web site say there is. Instead, you need to use the joystick to focus; an annoying exercise, to say the least.
We were impressed by the PV-GS320's optical image stabilization. In our field tests, it did an admirable job of taming shake in our handheld footage, even with the lens zoomed to its 10x maximum. Autofocus wasn't the fastest we've seen, but it was certainly plenty quick for a consumer camcorder and did a nice job of keeping our subjects in focus when panning. As always, it's a bit slower when shooting in dimmer environs, but overall, we were pleased.
While the camera does include an unpowered accessory shoe, there is no microphone input--a notable omission compared to the PV-GS300. There's also no headphone output. Panasonic does include a useful built-in wind filter and the built-in stereo mic does have an audio-zoom feature, but we would have expected to find an external mic input. You really know MiniDV is approaching the end of its life as a format when manufacturers start pulling out useful features such as this.
This model's three 800,000-pixel CCD sensors really shine when it comes to image quality. Our footage had nicely saturated, accurate colors with relatively little noise compared to single chip models we've tested recently. We saw plenty of finer detail and in-focus portions of our footage were very sharp. Even indoors, with only moderate ambient lighting, we captured video with admirable saturation, though noise became noticeable but tolerable. Only when shooting in very dim light did noise become very intrusive, though we were surprised to find that colors weren't as washed out as we would've expected. Panasonic's MagicPix mode is supposed to help when shooting in dim conditions--and does help a bit--but it also yields a choppy look, as though the shutter speed is drastically reduced and the overall dynamic range of the footage is compressed a bit in this mode.
Still images can be captured in both 4:3 and 16:9 aspect ratios in sizes as large as 2,048x1,512 pixels. While certainly not as sharp as you'd get from a dedicated still camera, we were impressed with the shots we captured, which were suitable for uncropped 4x6-inch snapshots, though close inspection will reveal noise and plentiful image artifacts. However, given that there's no built-in flash, don't expect to get decent still images if you don't have plenty of light.
If you don't like bothering with fancy controls but can appreciate the value of good image quality, then the Panasonic PV-GS320 may be just the camcorder for you. It does a great job of capturing high-quality video in auto mode and provides just enough manual control to satisfy the needs of beginners and some advanced amateurs.