Perhaps the most surprising feature the S50 has to offer is AF/AE, where focusing and exposure are set via a reference point in the frame. The first, focus-only version of this was introduced by Sony some years ago, and since then both Panasonic and Canon have introduced their own versions. But common to all these implementations is a very significant hardware feature – a touchscreen LCD. This allows you to indicate the reference point by simply pressing a spot within the frame.
The S50, however, doesn’t have a touchscreen. So its AF/AE system operates in a rather different way. To enable it, you must first be in Intelligent Auto rather than Manual Mode. You then press the AF/AE button on the LCD panel bezel, which calls up a target square in the centre of the frame. This must be positioned over the object you want to use as reference for focus and exposure, either by pointing the camera or moving the object so it’s central. A second press of the AF/AE button then sets this as the reference, after which it will be tracked as it moves. It’s a much more involved process than the touchscreen method, but it does the job. Seeing a feature like this in a camcorder costing under £250 is really quite amazing.
Not quite so amazing is the S50’s image quality, which isn’t significantly different from previous Panasonic standard definition models. In good lighting, colours are naturalistic and there is an acceptable level of noise. But the small sensor makes itself evident in low light, where colours become muted and ill-defined, with a general fuzzy grain across the picture. Most standard definition camcorders in this class perform similarly, so the S50 is not particularly bad relative to the competition. But, unfortunately, if there’s one area where the lower budget has made an impact, it’s here.
The Panasonic SDR-S50 is a relatively commendable camcorder. At £250, there are a number of decent competitors which are cheaper, such as our current favourite at this level, JVC’s GZ-MS120. But the SDR-S50 is sure to drop in price, and it has the edge over other models in its class on features. So if your budget can’t stretch to HD, but you still want a well specified camcorder, this is definitely one to consider.