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Panasonic SDR-S150 Digital Camcorder

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Video tapes are so twentieth century. They’re heir to data loss, they’re noisy, they break, they don’t work well in extreme environments, they’re bulky and they’re annoyingly linear. They make an interesting noise when you step on one, but so do cats.

The Panasonic SDR-S150 camcorder doesn’t use videotape. Bypassing the whole mini-DVD and micro-hard drive circus, it stores its video on SD memory cards. As a result, it’s tiny, quiet, rugged and cool as hell.

About the size of an adult’s palm, the SDR-S150 will fit into an adult’s jacket pocket. It has almost no warm up time. Its view screen flips out of one side of its case and it’s ready to record.

The SDR-S150 is all the best bits of all the best camcorders in one box. It uses a three-color image sensor system not dissimilar to the ones in Panasonic’s professional broadcast video cameras, although this one doesn’t require a camera person with padded shoulders to drag it around. Most consumer camcorders use single-chip image sensors. The SDR-S150 has markedly better color and video performance as a result of its more sophisticated sensor.

The Leica Dicomar lens in the SDR-S150 qualifies as very nice optics. It provides a ten-times optical zoom at f 3.0. It includes an automatic lens cover that withdraws itself when the camera is switched on, and returns to cover the lens when it’s powered down.

The controls of the SDR-S150, such as they are, fall naturally beneath one’s fingers – but it requires very few of them. Aside from powering the camera up, fiddling the zoom and pressing the record button, there’s not a lot to adjust.

You can configure the SDR-S150 through its extensive on-screen menus to address issues like video resolution, white balance and such. The menu interface is decidedly intuitive, and requires little recourse to the camera’s manual.

In fact, the SDR-S150 offers a rich selection of manual controls to allow it to cope with unusual situations. You’re unlikely to need them, and perhaps even more unlikely to remember how to work them by the time circumstances crop up that demand them, but they’re available for the adventurous.

The SDR-S150 can also take still images – it even includes a pop-up flash for still photography in low light, and PictBridge interface for printing. At three megapixels, however, it’s a poor substitute for even a modest dedicated still digital camera.

The audio quality of the SDR-S150 is surprisingly good. It has a top-mounted stereo microphone, but perhaps more to the point, it doesn’t have a noisy tape- or disc-drive for its microphone to pick up.

Unlike tape-based camcorders, the SDR-S150 will let you play your individual video clips in any order you choose. Switched to its clearly misnamed VCR mode, it displays a matrix of thumbnails on its view screen, which can be selected through a rear-mounted four-way selector button. You can also delete unwanted clips in any order.

The SDR-S150 stores its video as MPEG-2 files. You can configure it for several levels of compression, trading video quality for recording time.

The SDR-S150 can accept up to four-gigabyte SD memory cards, but these as still fairly scarce and expensive as of this writing. Two-gigabyte SD cards, by comparison, are cheap and hard to avoid. Depending on the degree of MPEG compression you select, the SDR-S150 can store between 25 minutes and one hour and forty minutes of video on a two-gigabyte SD card. A fully charged battery will run it for about an hour and half.

It’s worth keeping mind that you can probably store enough two-gigabyte SD cards to shoot an entire feature film in a space smaller than a single video tape.

One thing worth noting about the two-gigabyte SD card that ships with the SDR-S150 is that there really is one in the box. SD cards are about the size of a postage stamp, and most devices that include them place them conspicuously in the center of the packing foam, or somewhere else you can’t miss them. The one that came with our SDR-S150 was a tiny blue card in a blue anti-static bag taped to the underside of the box cover which is, perhaps not surprisingly, blue. It took a lot longer to find the SD card than it did to otherwise get the camera up and running.

The SDR-S150 is unquestionably the slickest compact camcorder at any price, and at well under a thousand dollars on the street as I write this, its price is pretty reasonable. It completely nukes the issues that have leeched themselves onto the sides of lesser camcorders – size, weight, complexity, fragile media, noise and bad video are all history while peering at its view screen. It makes shooting video fun, which is really what these things are supposed to do.

The ability to instantly erase your really embarrassing clips is a bonus.