Panasonic has gotten things right in quite a few areas. Without resorting to low-light mode, the VDRM70B seems to have an uncanny knack for using available light to the best advantage, although you might notice a small delay as the aperture adjusts to the ambient light and the focus follows along. On the subject of light, the Backlight setting worked well, but the VDRM70B's low-light mode is basically a waste of time compared to similar features on Sony's DVD camcorders. The VDRM70B was unable to focus on the shadowy images it detected, and even stationary subjects drifted in and out of focus as the camera seemed to be latching onto nearby light sources instead of the object itself.
The zoom is silky smooth, and with the variable-speed switch it can move at a crawl or a hair-raising pace. The autofocus tracks almost anything short of a wild zoom and pan, provided that the lighting is consistent. The built-in Digital EIS (electronic image stabilization) works well with the 10X optical zoom.
Both the viewfinder and the LCD panel share data screens, so there's no penalty for using one rather than the other. The real choice between them is whether you want or need the swivel of the LCD and how much battery power you have to spare. Battery life depends on how much you're using the camera against how long it idles or is off, and whether you're using the LCD or the viewfinder. Don't count on getting through an hour's worth of recording with the stock 1,360mAh lithium-ion battery, even if you're very frugal. An optional 2,100mAh version (CGA-DU21) with twice the rated runtime of the original should give you a better chance of getting there -- and with fewer power gymnastics. You can power the camera from the recharger, but you can't simultaneously charge the battery.
The built-in microphone was sensitive enough to pick up background noise. Attaching the Panasonic VDRM70B to the outside world is easy via a USB port hidden behind the retracted LCD panel or through a custom A/V cable that plugs into a port under a drop-down cover in the front -- where you'll also find a connector for an external stereo microphone.
Overall, the Panasonic VDR-M70's image quality is reasonable for its price class -- if you remember that you're paying a premium for a DVD-based camcorder. The difference in quality between the adjacent recording-quality modes is almost unnoticeable, but there's a marked increase in graininess between the best and worst modes.
Tonal separation wasn't a problem, and most colours appeared reasonably accurate. Yellows, however, tended to the red side. This trait increased as the available light diminished.
The 40X-240X digital zoom worked surprisingly well for about four-fifths of its full travel, even with the camera handheld. Beyond that, image stabilisation has little to no effect, especially at 240X where a tripod is a must. You probably won't use the digital zoom, though, because image quality degrades to that of reality-TV police videos; life becomes a blur.
Edited by: Lori Grunin
Additional editing by: Nick Hide