Want to know a secret? Not all products are made to be the best. In fact, most are made to satisfy a specific target audience. In the case of Panasonic's VDR-D210, it looks like the company's aiming for people who primarily shoot video in auto mode but might feel the need to make an occasional tweak for special situations, such as backlighting. Given that audience, this camcorder should suffice, but if you wince when you see subpar viewer-submitted video on the news, you should know that you'll get better-quality video if you spend a bit more for a camcorder with more than this model's lone 680,000-pixel CCD sensor.
Top among this camera's features is its 32x optical zoom lens, which sports a decent maximum aperture range of f/1.8 to f/3.7. That's not as fast as the lens in Panasonic's more-expensive VDR-D310, which has a maximum aperture of f/2.8 at its maximum zoom, though that's only 10x, not 32. Given the D210's extremely long zoom, you'll be happy that Panasonic saw fit to include optical image stabilization instead of the more-typical and less-effective electronic image stabilization found in a lot of budget camcorders. In this case, the stabilization does an admirable job of keeping your footage steady throughout most of the zoom range. Of course, at its full 32x zoom, you'll still need to use a tripod if you want really steady footage, but we were still quite impressed with this camcorder's stabilization. While Panasonic includes a small photo button behind the zoom rocker, there's no SD card slot, so "still" images are recorded as seven seconds of still video onto a DVD. Bottom line, if you want to shoot still images with a camcorder, the VDR-D210 isn't for you.
The D210 is on the smaller side for a DVD camcorder. Obviously there's a limit to how small you can make one, since the DVD assembly takes up a fair amount of space, but the lens barrel isn't very big compared to some other models. Most buttons are placed appropriately, though the Menu button is a bit of a stretch if you have small hands and you try to press it with your right thumb. It might have been better if Panasonic switched the Menu and Trash buttons, though the company may have been worried that people with larger hands might accidentally hit the Menu button. If you're rough with your equipment, you might want to look out for the D210's lens, because Panasonic doesn't include any sort of lens cover. Even a manually operated cover would've been nice. Other omissions include a video light (though most built-in lights aren't very useful anyway) and subtle niceties, such as a rubberized grip along the stop of the DVD assembly instead of the plastic one Panasonic includes.
Panasonic's menus might not be as intuitive as one might like, but they are convenient to use once you get to know them. In addition to Setup and Disc Setup sections there are also Basic and Advanced sections. We probably wouldn't call optical image stabilization an advanced feature, but by creating two categories, Panasonic effectively keeps most functions on one menu page, thus keeping scrolling and hunting to a minimum. You can also access commonly used functions, including white balance, iris, shutter speed, backlight compensation, fade on/off, soft skin mode, and the MagicPix low-light shooting mode, by pressing the joystick. Some videographers, especially more advanced shooters, like dedicated buttons for some functions, such as backlight compensation or white balance, but you can't expect such luxuries in a DVD camcorder at this price. Perhaps the most irksome thing about the D210's menus is the lack of text labels for the scene modes; you have to memorize the icons if you want to make an informed choice. If you're the type who only picks up your camcorder occasionally--for a kid's birthday or a vacation, as we suspect many of the target customers for this model would--this could become very annoying.
Like most DVD camcorders, the D210 records its video onto 8cm (approx. 3-inch) Mini DVD-R/RW/RAM discs and is also compatible with dual-layer DVD-R discs. On a single-layer disc, you can expect to fit about 18 minutes of video footage in the camcorders highest quality mode. Once you finalize a disc, you can simply drop it in your DVD player and watch what you've recorded immediately. Unfortunately, you must plug in the camcorder to finalize a disc, and you have to remove the battery to plug in the camcorder because the power jack is behind the battery. If you haven't checked the diagrams in the manual before the camcorder prompts you to plug it in, you may find yourself cursing up a storm when you can't find the power jack.
Video from the VDR-D210 is good, but not great. Colors are well-saturated, and the white balance does an adequate job of neutralizing colors under different light sources. While the footage is fairly sharp for a camcorder with a 680K-pixel sensor, there's also quite a bit of noise, even when shooting in plenty of light. Low-light performance in the normal shooting mode isn't very impressive, and the night mode doesn't really help to bring out any detail in the murky footage. MagicPix mode actually does help bring out a little detail in those dark shadows, but because it relies on slowing the shutter speed, video becomes absurdly choppy in dim lighting. Although the D210's autofocus isn't the fastest we've seen in this category of camcorders, it's responsive enough to satisfy most people but fails completely in extremely dim situations, so don't be surprised if you have to use manual focus to get that shot of your child blowing out the birthday candles.
If autofocus is very important to you, you may want to check out the Canon DC100. It has a very impressive autofocus system, and its video quality is about the same as this Panasonic. If you like Panasonic camcorders, you can step up to the VDR-D230 if you want an SD card slot for capturing still images, but since they top out at 640x480-pixel resolution, they're not really suitable for snapshot prints. Stepping up to the VDR-D310 would make more sense if you want to stay with Panasonic's line. Its three CCD sensors can give you better low-light performance, but it also costs a lot more than the VDR-D210, so if you don't want to spend a lot, the D210 might be the camcorder for your budget.