The Panasonic PV-GS35's body has a minimalist set of controls. There are only four buttons--Quick Start, Menu, Manual Focus, and Light--as well as the mode dial, and the record, photo-capture, power, and zoom controls. You use a tiny joystick in the center of the mode dial to navigate menus and control playback. This has the advantage of offering true one-handed operation, as virtually all the controls are accessible with your right thumb. However, precise playback control is difficult with the joystick, so you'll want to keep the included infrared remote handy.
The menu system is a real improvement over those on earlier generations of Panasonic camcorders, both in appearance and ease of navigation. However, the tiny icons used for some of the manual settings will send you scurrying for the manual, as they lack text labels. Otherwise, the menus are clear and easy to use.
One bizarre engineering decision is the placement of the S-Video connector behind the battery along with the external power connector. You have to remove the battery and plug the camera into AC power in order to output via S-Video.
The camera's slightly above-average width is probably due to the design of the MiniDV eject mechanism, which opens to the top of the camera. This lets you swap tapes without removing the camera from a tripod. The Panasonic PV-GS35's feature set offers everything you'd expect from a camera in its price range. It provides a full set of automatic controls for focus, exposure, and white balance as well as an above-average suite of manual controls. You can manually adjust focus, iris, white balance, shutter speed, and (unusual in this affordable a camcorder) gain.
Of course, the most impressive feature is the lens, which offers a full 30X optical-zoom range. Note that the lowest end of the zoom range offers a wider angle than you typically find on cameras in this class, giving you more shooting flexibility for close subjects as well as distant ones.
Other features include a simple fader, backlight compensation, a skin-texture-softening mode, and a color slow-shutter setting. The camera has a rather weak built-in video light as well. Five automatic scene settings include sports and portrait modes. There's also a wide-screen cinema mode.
The Panasonic PV-GS35 includes USB and FireWire connectors as well as S-Video and composite outputs. It lacks an S-Video input, so you can't use the camera to convert analog videos to digital format. There's a microphone port for connecting an external mic, but you'll have to either hold it in your hand or buy a bracket, since there's no accessory shoe on which to mount it. Though the Panasonic PV-GS35's extreme lens reach must have presented some engineering challenges, the camera performs well throughout its zoom range. The large zoom rocker is easy to operate and to control precisely. Image stabilization is a must at extreme zoom ranges, and the PV-GS35's electronic image stabilization (EIS) does an excellent job of dampening hand movements. At extreme zoom ranges, though, the EIS creates an odd effect: instead of seeming to wobble a bit, as is typical, the image makes sudden, small shifts.
We generally found autofocus accurate but sometimes saw a noticeable blurring as the camera got its bearings after panning.
The smallish 2.5-inch LCD washes out in direct sunlight; you'll want to use the viewfinder in bright conditions. Neither display is particularly detailed, making precise manual focusing somewhat difficult.
The stereo microphone works well, though the left and right pickups are so close they always grab identical sound. The microphone also has a zoom feature: as you zoom the lens, the microphone's sensitivity increases to pick up more distant sounds. The Panasonic PV-GS35's video quality is good but not exemplary. The footage we shot was sharper and more detailed than we'd expect from a camera with a single 680,000-pixel CCD. We found color and saturation very accurate. The automatic white balance was quick to adjust to changing lighting conditions and never let us down during our testing.
In bright light, footage was crisp and sharp. In dimmer indoor conditions, the image picked up the visual noise typical in lower-end consumer camcorders. The PV-GS35's included video light wasn't a lot of help here. It has a very short range and is mostly useful for illuminating very close subjects.
Footage shot at extreme zoom showed an odd shifting effect due to the electronic image stabilization. Objects didn't really move any more than with similar EIS systems on other cameras, but the sudden shifts were somewhat disconcerting compared to the more subtle wobble you typically get when using image stabilization.
The Panasonic PV-GS35 shoots stills at VGA resolution, so it's mostly useful for quick e-mail snapshots. One slick feature is the ability to capture stills to the SD/MMC card while shooting video. Stills lacked detail, however, and indoor shots appeared grainy.