Toting around a 520g camcorder requires no more effort than lugging a one-litre bottle of designer water. But wrapping your hand around Panasonic's VDRM70B feels awkward almost immediately because of the built-in bulge needed to accommodate the 8cm mini-DVD discs used for recording. It takes some squirming and a little extra slack in the carrying strap before things start to feel reasonable.
Once you have the grip, the frequently used buttons are all where they should be: zoom under your forefinger and record/stop under your thumb. Your thumb is also responsible for pressing and holding a button that unlocks and operates the mode thumbwheel. You can use it to select recording video or still files on the disc or, if you have an optional SD card, to record stills on that. The last position on the wheel is not Off, so it is possible to accidentally leave the camcorder on.
Design aspects to file under 'dumb things to do': the manual-focus mode switch and the manual-focus control buttons are grouped under the LCD, so you have to flip it out to access them. That shuts off the electronic viewfinder, powering up the LCD as your viewing screen. Unfortunately, your hand can partially obscure the LCD while manipulating the focus controls.
That aside, our only real bone to pick with the VDRM70B's design is its monstrous battery pack. If you don't fully extend the viewfinder, you're guaranteed to smack yourself in the cheek with the battery pack. Even with the viewfinder extended, the battery will still rest against your face, and after about 20 minutes of continuous use, both the battery and the camera get noticeably warm.
The 1/4-inch, 1-megapixel CCD delivers a maximum effective 400,000 pixels for movies and 1 megapixel for stills. The three video-recording modes -- Xtra Fine, Fine, and Standard -- respectively deliver 18, 30, or 60 minutes of recorded video per disc side.
The Panasonic VDRM70B is another in an emerging lineup of mini-DVD camcorders that we feel are not quite ready yet for prime time. On the plus side, DVDs are more durable than tape. Mini DVDs, however, are irrationally expensive compared to their full-size counterparts and hold about a third of the data. Panasonic claim that 8cm single-sided DVD-R or double-sided DVD-RAM discs in their round plastic holders are available everywhere. After trying several highstreet retailers, though, I was forced to retreat to the Internet to order a few. On eBay, I did find aftermarket telephoto (2X) and wide-angle (0.42X) lenses as well as UV, polarised, and colour-correcting filters to increase the camera's effectiveness.
DVDs, unlike tape, aren't necessarily linear. They require the camcorder's operating system to keep track of where things are. That can add anywhere from a one- to a six-second delay between when you stop recording or insert a disc to when you can start recording again. The camcorder can host an optional SD card for stills, but that becomes mandatory if you want to take snapshots while using a mini-DVD-R disc. The VDRM70B can take stills with only DVD-RAM discs. If you are shooting stills, consider the optional flash unit, which connects to the top-mounted hotshoe.
The VDRM70B offers the usual list of menu options, allowing you to run the camera in anything from full-automatic to manual-adjustment mode, with backlight compensation, low-light mode, and a select group of exposure programs. You can even do limited editing if you're using a DVD-RAM disc. You use a tiny joystick embedded in the lower-left side of the camcorder to navigate and to select the various options.
Wide-screen fans will appreciate the availability of 16:9 aspect ratio, but don't use it unless you have a 16:9 display. This isn't letterbox, and trying to cram a 16:9 video image into a standard 4:3 display environment squishes the image in at the sides and distorts the proportions.