Human beings are naturally attracted to anything small and cute. Newborn puppies, Shetland ponies and Kylie Minogue all have their tiny proportions to thank for their general public approval.
The same logic applies to gadgets – and with good reason. You don’t want people questioning how pleased you are to see them when in fact you’re just packing the latest technology.
In the past, however, camcorders haven’t been small and cute. The few which have managed to warrant the label ‘pocket friendly’ have usually lacked image quality and features. That looks set to change with Panasonic’s SDR-S7EB.
Small, compact, awesome
Weighing in at 182g with battery and memory card, it’s not much heavier than a mobile phone. At 41mm thick, it’s not much fatter either. Yet this is a fully functional camcorder, with the kind of quality and features found in models many times the size.
The SDR-S7EB has Flash memory to thank for its tiny proportions. SD and SD HC cards are used for storage, and now that 32GB units have recently hit the market and 16GB ones are around £50, the format isn’t far behind hard disks. The Panasonic shoots ‘standard definition’ video at a resolution of 704 x 576, rather than HD, and uses MPEG-2 compression with three different quality levels.
In XP mode, the data rate is 10Mbits/sec, dropping to 5Mbits/sec in SP mode and 2.5Mbits/sec when shooting LP. Even in XP mode, a 16GB card will store 3 hours 20 minutes of footage.
Fiddly to operate
The SDR-S7EB uses a 1/6in CCD with 800,000 pixels to capture its video. This is the usual size for an entry-level model, and also limits digital photography to a mere 640 x 480 – just good enough for putting up on the Web. But the optical zoom is still a healthy 10x, and a lens cover is built in.
The S7’s dinky size does have a few drawbacks, though. It’s not easy to operate like a regular camcorder, by resting it in the palm of your hand with your thumb on the record button. As there is no wrist strap it feels liable to slip out of your grasp at any moment. Fortunately, Panasonic has placed a second record button on the side, so you can hold it more like a torch. You can then just about operate the zoom with your thumb.
The tiny proportions also mean there isn’t much room for features to lure the more serious camcorder user. The body is too small to accommodate an accessory shoe, for external microphones or video lights. There’s no minijack for a microphone nor for headphones, either. The built-in ports only include a proprietary connector for composite video and stereo audio, plus USB 2 for grabbing video onto a PC or Mac.
PC and Mac compatible
However, Panasonic has still incorporated a decent level of control. Manual focusing requires the use of the little keypad under the LCD, which is also called upon for other configurations.
These include changing the shutter from 1/25th to 1/8000th, and the iris from F16 to F1.8. You can also add up to 18dB of video gain. The shutter and iris can be varied independently, too. Panasonic has even included its Pre-Rec feature. This keeps a few seconds of video buffered, which are then added on the beginning of a clip when you begin recording. That way, even if you hit record too late, you still get the shot you wanted.
But the SDR-S7EB doesn’t offer any of the clever new features like face recognition or shooting guides which are now appearing on the latest premium models from Panasonic and Sony.
A tempting prospect
All of this would be incidental if the SDR-S7 couldn’t deliver decent image quality, and with its 1/6in CCD, it was never going to give professional models a run for their money. But it is perfectly adequate for the intended market. In plenty of sunlight, colours are good and the image is sharp enough. Indoor shooting is also perfectly decent with sufficient lighting, although the image gets rather grainy in darker conditions.
It all sounds very promising, and you might expect such miniaturised appeal to come at a premium. But the SDR-S7EB is already available from some retailers for little more than £200. So if you’ve found camcorders too bulky in the past, the Panasonic offers similar image quality and features, yet it will fit in your pocket even more snugly than Kylie Minogue.