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Panasonic SDR-SW21 Waterproof Camcorder Review

A pocketable waterproof camcorder

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Panasonic SDR-SW21 Waterproof Camcorder Review

Photo courtesy Panasonic

The Panasonic SDR-SW21 is a standard definition camcorder that's waterproof to a depth of 6.5 feet and can absorb a fall from a height of four feet. It features:

Full specifications can be found here. Video samples recorded with the SW21 can be found here.

Panasonic SDR-SW21 At a Glance

The Good: Durable body, good feature set.

The Bad: Awkward Design

A Waterproof Camcorder for all Seasons

You don't have a lot of options when it comes to a waterproof camcorders, so Panasonic is to be commended for filling this niche. The SDR-SW21 can descend to a depth of 6.5 feet - so it's not for hard-core scuba divers but should be a useful companion for snorkelers and other water sport aficionados. Plus, it can survive a fall from up to four feet, which makes it a nice choice for outdoor adventurers (or the spectacularly clumsy).

I subjected the SW21 to a fall from about waist level onto a hard wood floor and dumped it in the tub under about 10-inches of water. It survived both ordeals with nary a bruise.

Video Quality Nothing to Write Home About

The SW21 is a standard definition model with a resolution of 704 x 480 at 30fps in the MPEG-2 format. The video quality isn't as crisp as other standard definition models (like Canon's FS200, for instance) but it's serviceable. Video shot underwater looked decent (see here). But in this high definition era, you can be forgiven for wanting more. Particularly because there are less expensive camcorders on the market today offering HD resolution.

If the video quality is OK, the still photos are another matter. The SW21 snaps under 1-megapixel images. Compounding the lack of resolution is the large amount of noise that showed up in the images, when they weren't blurred. It's better to avoid taking still photos with the SW21 entirely.

Good Optics

The unit has a 10x optical zoom lens. Despite the fact that it only offers digital (not optical) image stabilization, I found the SW21 remarkably steady when the lens was fully zoomed out.

So-So Design

The design of the SDR-SW21 is something of a mixed bag. On the plus side, it's pretty light (.5 lbs) and compact considering that it's reinforced for the elements. It comes in three colors - lime green, orange and silver, so it looks pretty cool too.

The exterior of the SW21 has a pair of record buttons: one at the back and one up near the lens. Flip open the LCD, and you'll find the rest of the controls. With no other controls on the exterior of the camcorder and none on the LCD display itself, activating additional camcorder functions means you'll have to turn away from filming. There is also a mode dial for putting the camera into still or video recording mode and for playback.

The buttons are smallish and rather flush with the unit, which is typical for waterproof devices that need to seal themselves against water, but that makes it harder to use. Forget about trying to use it with gloves on. The combination of flush buttons, a slightly cumbersome four way controller and less-than-stellar on screen menu make using the SW21 harder than it should be.

Good Feature Set

The SW21 is well stocked with features, including five scene modes, the ability to adjust the camcorder's aperture and shutter speed and focus manually. It offers a skin tone softening mode, backlighting compensation and a "MagicPix" setting for shooting in low light environments. The microphone records audio in Dolby two-channel stereo and there's also a "Web mode" that shoots YouTube-friendly video clips that are capped to a maximum of ten minutes.

The problem, as mentioned above, is that getting at these features is a bit harder than it should be. The SW21 uses something like a virtual mode dial on the screen for navigating through different shooting options, but it's not easy to use (although it's not rocket science, either). Given that all the controls are located on the inside of the camcorder, using the controller to operate the manual zoom or adjust other settings is often a clumsy experience.

A Niche Product

You should really only consider the SDR-SW21 if you're constantly subjecting yourself (and gadgets) to water or small falls. Its standard definition video quality is fine enough, and its optical zoom holds up better than most in the shake department, but the cumbersome design makes the SW21 harder to use than it should be.

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