capsule review

Panasonic SDR-H200

At a Glance
  • Panasonic SDR-H200 30GB Hard Drive Camcorder (10x Opt, 700x Dig, 2.7

Not graced with sophisticated styling, the Panasonic SDR-H200 ($720 as of April 24, 2007) has no more in the way of extra features than competing models that cost $100 to $200 less. One possible reason for the high price is the camcorder's three-chip (red, green, and blue) CCD imaging system. In tests conducted by the PC World Test Center, our jury awarded the SDR-H200 scores of Very Good for both video quality and still image quality.

Less-formal videography yielded similar results: The SDR-H200 adeptly maintained accurate exposures when moving from bright scenes to shadow areas and then back into bright light. Colors, too, were accurate, though perhaps a bit too vivid. Image sharpness was about average, and the camcorder's optical image stabilization--with the 10X zoom on full telephoto--produced noticeably steadier video.

As a still camera, the SDR-H200 ranks with the cheapest point-and-shoots in sharpness, though it's fine for casual snapshots, delivering pleasing color and accurate exposures. Its three-CCD system has a true resolution of just 2.1 megapixels (up to 3.1 megapixels with digital enhancement), so enlargements won't look especially sharp.

Aside from its price, the SDR-H200 has no major shortcomings. But neither is it a thing of beauty to handle and operate. Zoom, still-photo, and start/stop buttons are large, easy to control, and fairly well placed; and the 10X variable-speed optical zoom works smoothly. But the camcorder's shape makes it awkward to use one-handed. Its 16:9 wide-format, 2.7-inch color LCD panel displays bright images, even in full sunlight, and a dedicated button lets you quickly increase or decrease the LCD's brightness--a welcome change from most camcorders, which bury that adjustment deep in their menus. But this is a critical feature on the SDR-H200 because it has no eye-level viewfinder.

Changing settings is relatively easy with the model's large-text menus and small but workable joystick. One appealing novelty is the automatic ground-directional standby function, which instantly stops video recording when you point the camcorder straight down. (You can turn this feature off if you like.)

The SDR-H200's oddity is the placement of the USB port behind the camera's rechargeable battery. You can't transfer photos or videos off the camcorder without plugging it into AC power. Panasonic gave the SDR-H200 manual focus, but it's hard to use in the absence of any on-screen distance-reference scale. Two settings on the mini-joystick may cause some initial confusion: the Auto/Manual mode and the quick-set option. If you want to set one of the five scene modes, for example, you'll find them under the Manual setting. Meanwhile, the Auto setting activates the unit's training-wheels mode: You get an abbreviated settings menu--but instead of being hidden, the unused settings are lightly grayed out. Getting comfortable using the joystick's quick setting (for backlight compensation, macro, low-light shooting, and other purposes) undoubtedly takes time.

Other than the fade in/fade out function, which you can apply while recording, no built-in digital effects are included with the SDR-H200. You do get shutter- and aperture-priority modes, but the latter is a bit idiosyncratic: Instead of seeing the familiar aperture "f" number, you get an obscure "db" gain value.

The unit comes bundled with Pixela's ImageMixer 3, which works with Windows XP but not Vista; the application made the process of creating a quick DVD fairly painless by video software standards. The video downloading and burning package for Mac users was more impressive, however. Indeed, Mac owners who can accept the SDR-H200's high price and ease-of-use quirks stand to gain the most out of this camcorder.

Tracey Capen

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At a Glance
  • Pros

    • High video and image quality
    • Long battery life

    Cons

    • High price
    • One-handed operation is awkward
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