While the Panasonic NV-GS400 is highly regarded for its rare blend of automation and manual controls, its successor, the NV-GS500, doesn't so much improve on the NV-GS400 as simplify it. It retains the same lens and trio of CCDs as its predecessor, so videos and photos look almost identical, but many manual controls and features have either been moved to the menus or eliminated altogether. Point-and-shooters will appreciate the streamlined, slightly smaller and less expensive design, but more ambitious users will certainly be disappointed.
In fact, the Panasonic NV-GS500's only significant functional improvement over its predecessor is the ability to display widescreen video in its correct aspect ratio, thanks to its 16:9 LCD.
Superficially, the Panasonic NV-GS500 bears a strong resemblance to the NV-GS400, retaining its predecessor's classic handicam layout and high-quality metallic-silver finish. At 91 by 74 by 152mm and weighing 1.36Kg, this is a solid package that encourages two-handed operation.
The right side of the camera consists primarily of a top-loading MiniDV cassette door, under an adjustable wrist strap. The user's right hand is meant to grip the rounded door, which unfortunately lacks the comfortable rubber coating of the NV-GS400. In front of the door are ports for the AV cable and the MagicWire wired remote, a clever handheld mic that also includes buttons to stop and start recording, as well as control the zoom. Notably, the NV-GS500 lacks a headphone jack, rendering the camera a bad choice for any project for which audio quality is critical.
Under a standard 43mm-diameter removable lens cap, the front of the NV-GS500 contains the same optically stabilised 12x Leica Dicomar zoom as its predecessor. While the generously sized ring around the lens appears to be unchanged, functionally, it is now only a focus ring rather than the Multi Manual ring of the NV-GS400. A flash sits to the side of the lens, and the mic is located below it. A powered accessory shoe sits on top of the camera, along with a reasonably sized zoom slider and a still-photo button that's meant to be operated by a forefinger. An upward-pivoting viewfinder eyepiece at the top and the battery below -- the same battery that's used in all of Panasonic's recent three-chip consumer cameras -- occupy the camcorder's back.
The Panasonic NV-GS500 offers very few external controls and is clearly designed to be used when set on automatic. Aside from zooming and focusing, every other adjustment requires a trip through the extensive menu system, navigated by the tiny thumb-actuated joystick. While the menus are arranged in a reasonably logical fashion, this approach is not a practical way to make common adjustments -- for instance, you must toggle through four layers of menus simply to adjust the iris.