Picking a camcorder has always involved tricky choices between competing formats. Forget old-school battles between VHS-C and 8mm. You're now looking at a minefield of different digital recording formats…
The advantage of camcorders that use SD cards is their size, and the Panasonic S26 proves this. Unlike video cameras that use DVDs, Mini DV tapes or hard-disk drives, the removable flash memory card means there are no moving parts to bulk up the recording mechanism. If you want a movie camera you can carry around, this is it. You can almost wrap the fingers of one hand around the S26.
But it's not the only mobile camcorder that shoots video and fits in your pocket. So, what makes it stand out? There's a 2.7-inch fold-out LCD screen, and a joystick-driven menu system that offers a range of tweaks. But its main selling point is its 70x zoom.
An optical image stabilisation system aims to produce steady shots. This works at low image magnifications, but fails to give wobble-free footage when the full power of the lens is unleashed. Even on a tripod, the 70x setting is shaky.
The long lens is made possible by using an image sensor, so don't bother looking for an HD setting; maximum image quality is limited to 625-line standard-definition. Using the top XP mode, you can record around 50 minutes of video on a 4GB card. Slot in a 32GB card and use LP mode and it can keep shooting for more than 26 hours straight.
The low resolution and handy form factor make this a useful machine for authoring online footage. There's a Web Mode button that keeps file sizes down. But in Top Quality Mode, the footage lacks punch, and the variable bit rate used means you get mosaic effects when shooting moving subjects. Lowlight footage is murky, and the VGA stills camera offers less resolution than a mobile.
The convenience of the SDHC format makes it is easy to transfer files. The S26 offers Mass Storage support – connect with a USB lead and your Mac sees all the files.
But here ends the Apple support. Video is recorded in the .MOD format (also used by JVC Everio camcorders) which Mac apps don't recognise. You can change the extension manually (or by batch command) to .M2V so that VLC plays it.
For iMovie and elsewhere, you'll need a conversion app such as Aimersoft Video Converter. Is it too much effort for what you get?