Amazingly for a camcorder at this price, the image stabilisation system is optical rather than digital, so is much more effective and won’t affect image quality detrimentally. Panasonic is even offering its Active Mode, which we first saw in the premium HDC-TM350. This adds an extra layer of jog-resistance on top of the standard OIS, although you can revert to the latter if you want. The Active Mode is particularly effective at smoothing the kind of wobble caused by shooting when walking, and we’re not sure why the original mode is still available as there’s no reduction in image quality. But Active Mode is not quite as good as Canon’s Power IS, as seen in the LEGRIA HF M31, at keeping things steady when zoomed in, even if it is pretty effective.
During regular non-manual shooting, the S50 calls upon Panasonic’s Intelligent Auto system. This attempts to detect conditions and set the camcorder accordingly. For example, if faces are detected then the Portrait scene mode will be enabled. When illumination drops below a certain level, Low Light mode will activate instead. Intelligent Auto will even switch to Spotlight mode to capture very bright objects, and use a Scenery setting to avoid blown-out skies in sunny outdoor conditions.
So the S50 does a decent job of making point-and-shoot usage relatively idiot proof. But there are also the usual Panasonic manual settings still available. Switching to manual mode using the button on the camcorder body enables a host of extra functions via the joystick on the edge of the LCD. In particular, the shutter and iris can be adjusted manually, and both can be set independently as well. Panasonic even provides the ability to add up to 18dB of video gain on top of a fully open aperture.
The joystick is also called upon for manual focusing, which as a result is rather fiddly to operate. You can also call up various other functions, such as turning on backlight compensation, or the Intelligent Contrast system which ensures detail is preserved in very bright and very dark regions. Overall, the S50 has a very healthy range of controls, which sets it apart from cheaper Internet-focused pocket camcorders. Naturally, though, you don’t get any enthusiast features like an accessory shoe or minijacks for headphones or an external microphone. You wouldn’t expect them in a diminutive standard definition camcorder at this price anyway.