We were hoping for a big finale to the kit of 2007, but we didn’t expect one quite so, well, large. In the age of miniaturisation, there’s just no getting around the fact that the Panasonic NV-GS80 is rotund. The question is, who’s going to want something as large and outdated as this mini DV cam first appears?
Before we pass hasty sentence, we ought to consider Panasonic’s traditional strengths and weaknesses. Last year, the manufacturer continued its long-running support for DVD camcorders while also launching several new HD models that recorded AVCHD footage to disk or SD card.
You can’t argue that Panasonic doesn’t try to keep up with the trends in the camcorder market, and many of last year’s models were undeniably impressive. But, there was always someone slightly flashier than Panasonic in the DVD, HDV and AVCHD arena swanning off with the trophies.
Paradoxically, the GS80 could be just the right product for Panasonic to end 2007’s product range. Buyers of mini DV models, aren’t particularly looking for flashiness. Nor, for that matter, are potential GS80 purchasers looking for technical innovation.
Mini DV is the format for those who want a proven track record, ease of use, reasonable performance, straightforward export and editing, and a good price. Actually, looking at it like that, it makes you wonder why we spend so much time predicting the death of mini DV.
Solid, understated performance has long been Panasonic’s strongpoint when it comes to camcorders. Sure, it makes cool record players for people who insist on referring to record players as decks, but in the camcorder field the company has always side-stepped cool and produced simple, effective cams.
For a long time it’s been impossible to get excited about a Panasonic camcorder, but it’s also been almost impossible not to find them at the top of your list of recommendations when someone asks you what brand to buy.
Design and layout
At first glance, a profile view of the NV-GS80 disguises its throwback dimensions. It looks long, squat and sleek like a flash-based camera. But, add a third dimension to your view and you realise that in fact it’s quite a big camcorder, with most of it’s size being expressed as width. There is, of course, a limit to how small you can make a tape transport mechanism, and mini DV camcorders will always run foul of their own moving parts.
Having said that, it sits securely in the hand. Its short stature makes it easy to grasp, and its heavier-than-usual 450g makes it feel reassuringly solid, without being too heavy to be a burden to use.
The whole cam feels durable, and its few controls are neatly spaced and intuitively arranged. You’ll never need to look for a button – whichever one you need always seems to be under the fingertip you’d expect. It’s a clever arrangement and easy to manage when you’re designing a camcorder that has only eight controls and four sockets on it.
Strangely, the DV and USB sockets are beneath the battery clips, meaning the battery has to be removed for video and stills to be exported. This is fine when you’re at home and can power the cam using its DC input, but it’s likely to be frustrating for holidaymakers, laptop users and anyone wanting to export footage whilst far from a three-pin plug.
As you’d expect of an extremely low-budget camcorder using an ageing format, the NV-GS80 isn’t bursting at the seams with features. The ones it does have, however, are pretty good. For starters, it has an optical image stabiliser – still the best way of smoothing handheld shots and something we have never seen at anywhere near this price before.
There’s also a 32x optical zoom, providing the user with a lot of range for composing shots without the ghastly pixilation caused by a digital zoom.
The OIS and optical zoom are part of an imaging system that includes an ƒ1.8 lens, with a 37mm filter diameter, feeding a sub-megapixel 1/6in CCD. Granted, megapixel CCDs are found on everything from mobile phones to webcams these days, but its absence here isn’t a problem at this price.
The GS80 can shoot in 4:3 or 16:9 and has a 2.7in LCD screen for accurate framing of 16:9 images. It offers manual control of focus, exposure and white balance (albeit via menus rather than dedicated, calibrated controls).
There are various recording tweaks that can be used in dodgy shooting situations, such as backlight correction and soft skin mode. There’s also a wind noise reduction function that will drop your audio recording into mono but will save you from pops on blustery days.
More gimmicky features, such as fades and Colour Night modes, are also included, but the NV-GGS80 avoids tat in favour of a solid feature list that’s impressive at this price.
Ordinarily, budget camcorders do really well until its time to talk results. So it’s curious and satisfying to see the NV-GS80 buck this trend and impress in the performance stakes. It’s not perfect by any means, but it’s much better than you’d expect for under £200.
Picture quality is not without grain or the orange tinge associated with artificial light. There are times when natural light is cold and blue, but the GS80 doesn’t succumb to these problems to an overly detrimental extent; the problems are noticeable if you’re looking for them but may well escape the casual viewer.
Positively, the camcorder picks up a surprising amount of fine detail, and its auto modes respond with impressive speed whenever the cam is subjected to drastic changes in lighting or composition.
The audio quality is also better than we expected. There is very little bass and a lot of treble, so soundtracks do start to sound a little thin and somewhat tinny, but the general pickup and reproduction is loud and clear. Sounds are easily distinguished from each other and no mechanical noise is evident, even when working the chassis buttons or the zoom.
On top of its picture and audio performance, the NV-GS80 is easy to use. Despite its lack of physical controls, it is easy to access the camcorder’s features and functions usinga simple joystick and menu system.
It really is a pleasant surprise to come across an inexpensive mini DV camcorder that doesn’t feel like a cheaply produced afterthought to an over-hyped and underdeveloped tapeless range.
The NV-GS80 is far from perfect – but it is not meant to be. It’s not primarily aimed at moviemakers who want a staggering array of manual controls, exposure latitudes, built-in filter and a giant pixel count. Nor is it intended for the ‘shoot-on-the-move and upload to YouTube’ crowd who want no-frills miniaturisation, or even at the gadget crowd who don’t care what it does as long as it does it using a new codec.
The NV-GS80 is aimed squarely at the often-neglected basic purchaser – someone who wants simplicity, familiarity and convenience combined with good pictures and a reasonable asking price.
For holidaymakers, new parents or grandparents, and those recording video family trees or school sports days, this is the sort of camcorder that performs a basic job well. There’s little room left on the market for mini DV, but the GS80is a casebook study in why the format has been so popular for so long.