Even though high-def, DVD and hard drive all stand at the vanguard of a new digital movie-making age, there remains something comforting about the mini DV tape format. And one can imagine that this easy-going, contented relationship is likely to ensure that the 'old fashioned' tape media will be going strong for a few years yet.
What's remarkable about the shift in emphasis away from tape, towards disc and hard-drive recording technology, is that it means the arrival of a new mini DV camcorder doesn't have anything like the same impact on news pages that it did two or three years ago. But by looking away you'll miss the fantastic bargains that are now arriving in mini DV ranges from virtually all the leading manufacturers.
The Panasonic NV-GS320 has some simply outstanding qualities: it's a three CCD model, (a benchmark of high image quality), it features a lens from the respected Leica Dicomar company and it's capable of producing three-megapixel still images. This comes on top of a desire to make the camcorder easy to use and incredibly affordable considering its impressive specification sheet.
There are no elaborate disc housings, nothing particularly 'funky' and certainly no sign of ground- breaking design yet, underneath its lack of style, the NV-GS320 still succeeds in being an intelligently put together camcorder.
There's a top-loading tape compartment to allow you to swap tapes over easily, even when the camcorder's on a tripod, a nicely resistant zoom lever provides enough control to makes it easy to create fast (crash) and precision zooms, and there's an overall feeling of uncluttered design and ease of use.
Menu navigation is straightforward; press the menu button at the back of the GS320 and then use the joystick controller to its right to select or deactivate features. We particularly like the fact the menu is divided into four simple categories, basic, advanced, setup and language, so you don't end up with your head stuck in a confusing maze of different screens.
Not so compact
It's worth bearing in mind that the GS320 is not as small as some of the mini DV camcorders on the market; it's dimensions certainly mean it fails our coat pocket test (well, we did manage to put it in an overcoat pocket, but it looked like we were trying to smuggle a carton of orange juice out of the supermarket).
The extra size is nothing major to complain about though, and it does mean that the external controls on the GS320 get to be sensibly located, and therefore beneficial to the user. There's simply nothing on the left flank of the camcorder - not even anything hiding behind the 2.7in widescreen LCD. This is definitely a refreshing design moment as it means you don't have to constantly have the screen open to use the camcorder, a factor that usually causes a massive drain on battery power.
Experience has perhaps led to one change with regard to the GS320's sockets and battery options. While the AV out socket is located under a plastic cover near the front of the camcorder, the DV (FireWire) output, USB terminal and DC-in point are all on the back of the cam - behind the battery.
This means that in order to use these terminals you have to run the GS320 on mains power - you can't hook up with the battery in place. It's certainly a step that means you won't ever run out of juice when transferring video or stills from the camcorder.
When you want to shoot creatively you need to know that your camcorder is under your control. And while the GS320 doesn't have all the high-end enthusiast features it does incorporate many of the most important ones.
You can shoot in either 4:3 or 16:9 mode - with the 2.7in widescreen LCD suiting the latter option best, and a five mode program AE provides presets for common shooting situations, such as low light, sports, and surf and snow.
What's even better however, is the inclusion of manual focus, white balance and shutter speeds. Manual focus is handled by the joystick controller, and the white balance menu is divided into auto, indoor and outdoor presets, and user controlled manual. Best of all though is the range of shutter speeds, which in video mode ranges from 1/50 sec to 1/8,000 sec and in digital stills mode from 1/25 sec to 1/2,000 sec.
No hanging around
For convenience we also like Panasonic's Quick Start mode. This has the GS320 up and running, and ready to shoot video in 1.7 seconds; a speed which will help to ensure you don't miss out on too many one-off moments (or that you'll only have yourself, not the kit, to blame if you do).
Digital still image recording has its own mode, and sees images stored to SD (or SDHC) media cards. There's a wide range of image sizes to select from; if you want to record at 16:9 then both 2,048x ,152 and 640x480 are available, while 4:3 recording provides the following settings: 2,048x1,512; 1,600x1,200; 1,280x960; and 640x480.
The GS320 also has the ability to function as a webcam, using Motion JPEG compression and with an image size of 320x240 pixels and frame rate of 6 frames per second (fps). To use it as a webcam you'll need to load the supplied Windows only software onto your PC fi rst - though you'll also be able to record live video once you've don't this.
The GS320 has all the attributes to deliver outstanding picture performance, but we have to confess to being disappointed by some of the imagery it delivers. The biggest letdown has to be the large amount of picture instability (jitter) that appears on our test footage. Even in relatively simple scenes such as a park there is noticeable movement.
In the main, colours are accurately recorded - so credit to the auto white balance - but we did notice reds seem more vibrant than they ought to, a sign of too much gain perhaps? More positive points include a solid autofocus performance. There is little in the way of hunting, instead the cam stays locked on focus, most of the time.
Zooming in for close-ups, the GS320 does actually produce images with a high amount of detail and clarity and its autoexposure performance is also to be credited, as it produces authentic, balanced footage.
The cam's audio performance is acceptable, with a consistent soundfield, crisp dialogue reproduction and a music response that's on a par with camcorders in the same price band. Disappointingly there's neither a headphone or mic socket either.
It's not a disaster, far from it, but the GS320 doesn't quite have the performance level its feature list hints that it's capable of. Instead it's just a reasonably performing model, but one that does at least give users a decent selection of manual overrides to get creative with.