- Waterproof/shock-proof/dust-proof design, underwater footage is surprisingly clear, cheap asking price
- No hand strap hampers on-land shooting, screen is too reflective, swapping SD cards can be difficult in wet conditions
For a first-time attempt at an underwater camcorder, the SDR-SW20 is a fairly solid performer. If you already own a camcorder, it will suit perfectly well as a secondary unit for oceanic holidays.
Price$ 769.00 (AUD)
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As we enter the simmering heart of summer (it says here), most camcorder enthusiasts would rather be swimming in the water than shooting on land. On the one hand, beach and poolside frolics offer a perfect opportunity for memorable home movies, but on the other, you naturally want to be part of the fun yourself. In an attempt to address this shoreline dilemma, Panasonic is set to release the company's first waterproof video camera; unimaginatively dubbed the SDR-SW20. (Personally, we would have gone for 'Shark H2O cam', or something.)
Missed name opportunity aside, the SDR-SW20 is a fairly decent little camcorder that combines the freedom of underwater functionality (up to 1.5 metres) with the convenience of SDHC memory cards. SDHC is clearly the star of Panasonic's 2008 camcorder line up, with its flagship range of high-def models all adhering to this format (see our review of the HDC-SD9). The benefits of flash memory based camcorders are numerous; including playback convenience, reduced camcorder sizes, prolonged battery life and the ability to hot-swap between camera and computer.
However, we're not altogether sure that it's the best possible format for underwater use. Although the SD card slot is safely sealed behind a lockable rubber-lined hatch, swapping between cards can be quite problematic; particularly if you're a long way from shore. When you factor in wet hands and blowing sand, we have to wonder whether a built-in hard drive might not have been a more sensible option. With that being said, the SDR-SW20 will record around three-and-a-half hours of standard-definition video onto the included 4GB SD card, which should get you through a day's worth of shooting. (Naturally, higher capacity cards will help to eliminate this problem, though they also ramp up the overall cost. Expect to pay up to $400 for a 16GB card.)
In terms of design, the SDR-SW20 is playfully retro, resembling the kind of portable FM radio that our dads took to the beach in the 80s, usually to keep tabs on the cricket. The silver casing is complemented by a rugged pockmarked surface that covers the left-hand side. This is designed to assist with camera grip; a feature necessitated by the complete absence of a hand strap (instead, you get an adjustable wristband). While the lack of a hand strap is bound to grate when shooting video on land, it does allow you to shift the SDR-SW20 around into a variety of positions while underwater. We found the most effective way to shoot aquatic footage was to hold the camcorder like a battery-operated torch. Handily, Panasonic has supplied an additional recording button near the lens for this very purpose.
During our testing, we found the SDR-SW20's LCD screen to be highly reflective; a concession presumably made by its underwater proofing. Often, we were forced to shade the screen with our free hand, causing us to flail about ineffectually with both arms fully occupied. If you favour your forelimbs while snorkelling or whatever, this is obviously an issue to be mindful of. As you would expect, the majority of camera functions are selected from within the menu screen, eliminating the need to fiddle with dials and buttons while underwater. (AV, USB, and DC ports are all housed inside a small plastic enclosure.)
When it came to shooting video, we found the SDR-SW20 to be surprisingly decent. In our test footage, tropical fish stood out in sharp, vibrant contrast against the murky blue backgrounds, while video shot out-of-water remained relatively crisp and noise free. For an entry-level, standard-definition camcorder, it should certainly satisfy, though as with most budget models, bright lighting is pretty much a pre-requisite to attaining decent footage. The lens comes equipped with a 10x optical zoom. While this is a little on the weedy side, it probably wouldn't be possible to get steady underwater footage at higher magnifications. Likewise, the inbuilt microphone is quite rudimentary, but at least it (sort of) works underwater.
In addition to being a certified water-baby, the SDR-SW20 is also dust and shock-proof, with the durable resin chassis absorbing heavy knocks. The rugged design also protects against drops of up to 5 feet, which is sure to become a frequent blessing due to the missing hand strap (provided you're not built like Goliath, that is).
Considering this is the first time Panasonic has wet its toes in the underwater camcorder market, the SDR-SW20 is a fairly solid offering. While it gets the job done underwater, on land it's left slightly floundering. All up, an adequate effort.
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