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Five years ago, I finally took the plunge and purchased my first DV camcorder. In a market saturated with different brands and formats, I decided upon what was the smallest, lightest 3CCD camcorder available at the time: the Panasonic NV-GS180.
With a 10x optical zoom, wind noise reduction, stereo microphone, low light mode and 1/16" Optical sensor, this tiny device packed a rather big punch for the money. But how does it fair compared to today's offerings, and is it still worth hunting down this discontinued model?
Although DV is limited in its scope for quality, the NV-GS180 handles itself very well. Although the image quality is never going to match up against prosumer cameras with 1/3" or 1/6" sensors, it nonetheless displays bright, vivacious pictures in all but the lowest of lights.
With 3CCDs, the colour reproduction is spectacular and produces stunning results with most material. Unlike the CMOS driven cameras so prevalent by today's standards, the split channel colours are captured with a naturalistic vibrancy and without the 'jelly' panning and 'flibbing' experienced by lesser models.
I also feel compelled to note that whilst the low light conditions are somewhat temperamental, they're surprisingly good when it comes to grain; the NV-GS180 fights the effects of fuzz wherever it can!
If there were any complaints to be had, it'd be the image sharpness; footage can look a little soft round the edges, especially when autofocusing in action-packed scenes. Filmmakers looking for hard, crisp edges from their video may be disappointed by the occasionally hazy results.
In another surprise result, audio from the camera is pretty darned good too. Not only does it feature stereo sound, from an age when camcorders were usually stuck with mono, but the clarity is sharp and supple.
You won't be getting 'studio' quality of course, but then from a built-in microphone you'd expect nothing more. Even though most camcorders have surpassed the technology nowadays, some companies could really take a lesson from the Panasonic NV-GS180's approach to capturing sound.
For a camera of the size, it's also nice to see a hidden port available for an external microphone too. Although it's a 6mm connector, rather than the more useful XLR or 3.5mm jack, it still affords you more opportunities for collecting your audio than most camcorders.
Another reason you'll want to take a good look at the NV-GS180 is its approach to manual settings. If you feel confident enough to take it off 'auto' mode, you'll be rewarded by a diverse range of customization; everything you can do with a regular manual camera you can do with the NV-GS180.
Having said that, you'll find that setting up a particularly 'artsy' shot can be difficult with the camera. All the options are menu driven by a mini-joystick toggle; it means selecting manual options can be an exercise in mechanical frustration: after ten minutes of twiddling with the settings you'll soon be craving a jog dial or lens ring!
Still, it's undeniable that for a camera aimed at the consumer market, it comes with all the options and settings you'd expect from a unit twice the size and price. The NV-GS180 certainly put up strong competition in its day...
Being a DV camera, tape transfer requires a standard 'IEEE1394' firewire connection. Those looking for an easy 'drag and drop' approach to editing should most-definitely look elsewhere for a camcorder.
Still, the NV-GS180 is happily compatible with most hardware setups and comes with a copy of the Panasonic drivers for your PC to avoid most incompatibility issues.
The only element of note should be that the camera is Firewire 400, not Firewire 800; therefore, if you're using a new MacBook for your editing exploits then you'll need to take this into account before you buy your cabling.
Speaking of which, you'll almost certainly have to dip into your pockets again to purchase the wire. Whilst the camera includes various connectors, it doesn't come with a Firewire cable - a slightly cheap move by the crew at Panasonic, but not a shock considering it's industry practice to exclude such 'optional extras'.
The NV-GS180's recording time is far from slack. At a full charge, you can expect well over an hour from a broken-in Li-ion rechargeable battery.
Seeing that the included pack is only rated at 640mAh, you may want to consider purchasing a slightly bigger capacity to increase the record/standby time beyond the default: Whilst you needn't be paranoid about a fully charged unit, it won't take long to deplete the charge with the built-in 2.5" colour LCD monitor switched on all day.
Treat the device's power conservatively and you'll find that the unit rewards you with a more-than-reasonable lifespan before you need to hit the power supply again. A charge from empty to full will take approximately two hours, so be sure to bring a spare battery if you'll be shooting 'on-location' at a wedding - you don't want the camcorder to cut out mid-way through the best man speech!
Considering the age of the unit, the NV-GS180 still feels like the nimble device it was half a decade ago. While I could hardly recommend the camcorder now that 720p and 1080p are the norm, I'd certainly not complain if it's the only thing I had to hand.
I recently used my unit to create a video display for a group of professionals who complemented and applauded the quality of my footage. While I'm no amateur videographer, I'd still share my credit with the NV-GS180 due to its hassle-free handling of the occasion. Colour and sound were captured with crisp clarity, the manual settings allowed for a certain degree of artistry, and the on-board stabilisation, zoom and viewfinder made the experience trouble free.
If you can find the NV-GS180 for pocket-change at a car boot sale or market stall, then I'd heartily recommend giving it a go, especially if you're looking to film your next adventure holiday without risking the safety of your brand-new £1,000 DSLR.