Panasonic SDR-SW20 Camcorder Review
The Panasonic SDR-SW20 ($399 MSRP) is an extremely compact camcorder designed for underwater use. Eschewing a traditional look and feel, the SDR-SW20 has a rough-textured finish that should make it easier to grip in the undercurrents. Shooting in standard definition with a modest sensor/processor set, the video quality won’t blow you away, but it is a simpler and more compact alternative to buying an underwater housing for the camcorder you already own.
Video Performance* (2.75)*
The Panasonic SDR-SW20 comes equipped with a single 1/6-inch CCD with a gross pixel count of 640,000 (effective pixel count of 340,000 in 4:3 aspect ratio, and 300,000 pixels in 16:9). This is the most elementary imaging system you can expect to find on a camcorder from a major manufacturer. Like we stated in the introduction, the video quality definitely won’t blow anyone away. If you own a high definition TV but you’re only budgeted for a standard definition camcorder, this may not be the one to get, as you’ll only see the flaws and low resolution magnified on the big screen.
|*The full chart at 3000 lux above; A 100% blow-up of the chart below shows the low resolution.*|
We tested the video performance by first bringing it into our testing labs and shooting a DSC Labs Chroma DuMonde color chart at an even 3000 lux. Under these conditions, the camcorder produced a poor image. We held it up in comparison to three other camcorders using similar, though not identical imagers, and it was the worst of the bunch. The image was exceptionally grainy and the resolution was very poor. The Panasonic VDR-D230, a DVD camcorder from last year with the same specs, produced a sharper image, though the color performance was about the same. The reduced performance could come from a difference in the lens or in the processing.
The Canon DC220 uses the same size imager and the same number of pixels. It produced much more saturated colors – oversaturated, by our standards, though some consumers may like them. The DC220 definitely retained more fine detail and the camcorder’s heavier application of in-camera sharpening worked to create a sharper image. Finally, we looked at the JVC GZ-MG130, which also had a 1/6-inch CCD. The image was not very sharp, but color performance was also very good amongst the competition, perhaps the best.
Because our charts are not submersible, we couldn’t do our more rigorous scientific testing. But we definitely wanted to see how the SDR-SW20 looked underwater. We dropped it in a modified 5-gallon water jug and recorded in 1/2-hour increments. As far as we could tell, the video looked as good as it did out of water. That is to say, this is hardly what you want to shoot a feature film on, but for little vacation videos where waterproofing is demanded, it’s fine.
Watch some clips from our in-house underwater testing**
Video Resolution* (5.28)*
The video resolution of the Panasonic SDR-SW20 was tested by shooting an DSC Labs video resolution chart at an even, bright light, then examining the playback footage on a monitor. At best, the SW20 was capable of producing approximately 325 line widths per picture height (lw/ph) of horizontal resolution and 225 lw/ph of vertical resolution. This horizontal resolution score is about the same as other Panasonic standard definition camcorders that we reviewed last year, including the PV-GS320 and VDR-D310. However, the vertical resolution was much reduced.
Low Light Performance* (3.31)*
The low light performance of the Panasonic SDR-SW20 was tested in three stages. First, we shoot the DSC Labs Chroma DuMonde chart at an even 60 lux and 15 lux. Under the 60 lux setting, the SW20 retained a respectable amount of light compared its bright light test. It’s likely that the camcorder was producing a lot of auto gain, because the noise is very high. This noise did nothing to help the fine detail resolution, as the picture looks fuzzy under the best of circumstances. Color retention was fair.
The Panasonic VDR-D230 produced a remarkably similar image – the same increase in noise and the same color decrease – but managed a higher resolution. The Canon DC220, which was oversaturated bright light, was still oversaturated in low light, but it was less objectionable here where a lower-end camcorder needs to scrap for all the color it can in low light. The JVC GZ-MG130 produced the strongest color of them all, but again the resolution was lacking.
At 15 lux, the Panasonic SDR-SW20 was virtually hopeless. There was almost no fine detail left. By comparison, the Panasonic VDR-D230 appeared brighter and noisier, indicating that it was using a higher auto gain setting. We’re not sure why the auto gain on the SW20 did not kick in quite as much. The best we could say about either of them is that the noise is monochromatic, certainly less distracting than the noise from the Canon DC220, which was marked by lots of blue. The JVC GZ-MG130 was the darkest image of them all.
The second part of the low light test determines sensitivity. We slowly and steadily lower the light until the camcorder is outputting a peak of 50 IRE (determined by a waveform monitor). The Panasonic SDR-SW20 was able to produce 50 IRE at 17 lux, a score that was actually better than any of Panasonic high definition camcorders this year. Considering that the overall image quality is far, far, far worse than its HD line-up, this simply proves that low light sensitivity is not everything.
The third part of the test involves shooting an X-Rite Color Checker chart at an even 60 lux, then outputting frame grabs of the video to Imatest imaging software to determine color accuracy, noise, and saturation. At best, the Panasonic SDR-SW20 was able to produce a color error of 13.6, a score that was significantly better than the last year’s standard definition Panasonic camcorders, but not as good as this year’s HD models. The noise measured 1.656%. This was noisier than the Panasonic VDR-D230, Canon DC220, and the JVC GZ-MG155. The saturation measured 63.6%.
Overall, the Panasonic SDR-SW20 is not a good low light performer. This could definitely be an issue if you’re serious about using this for underwater shooting down to five feet, where sunlight really begins to weaken.
The SDR-SW20 is equipped with Electronic Image Stabilization (EIS), which functions by creating a digital buffer around the sensor to compensate for jitters, resulting in fewer "effective" pixels. Optical Image Stabilization (OIS), the alternate and superior method, is better because it isolates the lens from the body of the camcorder and does not sacrifice extra pixels. The SDR-SW20’s small size and minimalist construction make it difficult to justify the need for OIS.
We tested the SDR-SW20 for resistance to shake using our custom-built camcorder shake emulator at two speeds: Speed One and Speed Two. Speed One simulates typical handheld shake while speed two is more similar to video recorded from a moving vehicle. The SDR-SW20 exhibited an 83.3% shake reduction at Speed One and a 3.7% shake reduction at Speed Two. These are the most unbalanced results we’ve ever attained, and it could be attributed to the ineffectiveness of the EIS system at higher shake frequencies coupled with the ultra-light body of the SDR-SW20 (which would do less to dampen induced shake.
Wide Angle* (9.6)*
We measured the SDR-SW20’s maximum wide angle using a vertical laser. The camcorder was set to Manual mode with EIS disabled and the Zoom pulled back fully. Video was then interpreted on an external monitor in order to achieve a true aspect ratio. The SDR-SW20’s maximum wide angle measurement is 48 degrees, which is slightly above average.
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