Panasonic SDR-S26-K digital video camcorder

Standard-definition flash memory camcorder with ultra-powerful 70x optical zoom

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Panasonic SDR-S26-K
  • Panasonic SDR-S26-K
  • Panasonic SDR-S26-K
  • Panasonic SDR-S26-K

Pros

  • 70x optical zoom, attractive lightweight design, novice-friendly iA mode

Cons

  • Poor night mode, 'Web Mode' is a poorly implemented gimmick

Bottom Line

The Panasonic SDR-S26-K digital video camcorder is a solid performer in the standard-definition space. It offers an impressive array of features for the asking price, the highlight of which is its ultra-powerful 70x optical zoom.

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The Panasonic SDR-S26-K is an ultra-compact camcorder that records standard-definition video to removable SD memory cards. Its main claim to fame is its 70x optical zoom lens, which is considerably more powerful than the average entry-level camcorder (most models offer an optical zoom of between 10x and 40x). This makes the Panasonic SDR-S26 an excellent choice for outdoor shooters, as you’ll be able to get intimately close to distant objects without affecting the picture quality (provided you’re armed with a tripod, that is).

It also comes packed with plenty of consumer-friendly features (some of which work better than others). This includes an Intelligent Auto (iA) mode with inbuilt face detection, a dedicated Web button for one-step YouTube uploads and an Advanced O.I.S stabiliser for shake-free recordings. While image quality isn’t stellar, it remains more than reasonable for the asking price of $549.

The Panasonic SDR-S26-K comes in a choice of three colours: red, black and blue. We tested the latter version, which sports a curious sky-blue finish rather than the typical navy shade. It’s a bit unconventional, but not unpleasant to look at it. (We’d take it over boring old silver any day). With dimensions of 107x56x65mm, the Panasonic SDR-S26-K isn’t quite so compact as its pint-sized predecessor — the Panasonic SDR-S7 — yet it should still slip comfortably into a bag or jacket pocket without weighing you down.

Thankfully, the Panasonic SDR-S26-K has managed to avoid the protruding ‘ghetto booty’ battery that has marred so many of its siblings (see the Panasonic SDR-H80-K, Panasonic HDC-SD20-K and the Panasonic HDC-SX5 for some unsightly examples). Instead, the battery remains tucked inside the camera’s body, which lends the device a much classier appearance.

On the imaging front, the SDR-S26-K camcorder shares the same 1/8in CCD sensor and 380k pixel count as the SDR-H80. These are not particularly impressive specifications, even for the asking price. Most modern digital camcorders offer CMOS chipsets, which are said to provide more reliable video quality in low lighting. Despite these considerable handicaps, the Panasonic SDR-S26-K managed to impress us during testing. When we used the camera in optimum lighting, our footage exhibited accurate colours that were relatively free of noise. Naturally, things rapidly changed for the worse when we moved to a dimmer environment, though the grainy results were still acceptable for private home viewing. Unfortunately, the lack of an inbuilt lamp or decent night mode means you can’t really use this camera in the dark.

For navigation, the Panasonic SDR-S26-K uses a traditional joystick interface, which is located on the outside of the LCD cavity. We’ve never been fans of this arrangement, as it means you have to use both hands to make menu adjustments. On the plus side, the stick is responsive and easy to use, which is not something that can be said of every camcorder's control scheme. Considering its low price tag, there are a decent array of modes and features available on this camera; including face detection technology, adjustable iris and shutter speeds, multiple white balance modes, manual focus, 16:9 and 4:3 recording ratios, face framing and the usual digital effects and scene modes. For novice users, the standout feature will probably be the iA mode, which adjusts camcorder settings to suit the situation at hand. (It’s essentially an automatic Scene mode, but it works, and that’s all that really matters.)

We were less enthused with the SDR-S26-K’s Web Mode, however. This ‘feature’ merely shuts off recording after ten minutes — which is the maximum length for a YouTube video. While this does save you the trouble of having to trim down your movies, it also means there’s no room for error (for example if the blog or skit you’re shooting goes over by a couple of seconds, the camcorder will refuse to record the extra footage.) We’re willing to give camcorder gimmicks the benefit of the doubt, but broken camcorder gimmicks are another matter entirely. Panasonic really needs to go back to the drawing board with this one. (On another note, do we really need to clutter YouTube with more unedited videos? The Panasonic SDR-S26-K’s Web mode clearly encourages you to upload directly from the camera, which is rarely a good thing.)

Aside from that one caveat, the SDR-S26-K is a decent little performer. It might not be the smallest flash-memory model on the market, or the most feature-packed, but the inclusion of that 70x optical zoom more than makes up for any shortcomings.

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