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Home / Photography / SD Camcorders

Panasonic SDR-SW21 Review

By Mike Perlman, Thursday 2 July 2009
Panasonic SDR-SW21
Panasonic SDR-SW21
Panasonic SDR-SW21
Panasonic SDR-SW21
Panasonic SDR-SW21
Panasonic SDR-SW21
Panasonic SDR-SW21
Panasonic SDR-SW21
Panasonic SDR-SW21
Panasonic SDR-SW21
The waterproof Panasonic SDR-SW21 gets a new look for 2009. But is that all she wrote? Read the full Panasonic SDR-SW21 review here to find out.

Review summary of the Panasonic SDR-SW21:
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Panasonic SDR-SW21 It's tough to be a standard-definition camcorder these days, let alone an underwater model. Despite the hefty HD competition out there, we feel that the Panasonic SDR-SW21 etched its name as a reliable all around rugged cam that will suit the needs of many consumers looking for something to toss in their beach bag. Plus, Panasonic is one of the few manufacturers to actually offer a waterproof camcorder aside from Sanyo. The crux of our woes stemmed from the SDR-SW21's likeliness to last year's Panasonic SDR-SW20. Both camcorders were virtually identical aside, from a few architectural tweaks. So, if you can find last year's Panasonic SDR-SW20 online for a much more wallet-friendly price, you won€™t be missing out on much. Release: April 2009. Price: $400.
Pros: Lived up to its rugged claims. Compact and portable. Great manual controls.
Cons: Standard-definition video quality is so 2003. Almost entirely unchanged from last year€™s Panasonic SDR-SW20. Uninviting interface.
Very good
Full Panasonic SDR-SW21 Review:
Design - Good

There haven't been any major architectural changes between the Panasonic SDR-SW21 and last year's SDR-SW20. In a way, we liked the SDR-SW20's design better because it had more visual charm, resembling an old flashlight or portable radio from the 70's. The two-tone color scheme was hot, and we especially liked the textured LCD exterior. For 2009, Panasonic abandoned those blueprints and opted for something different. Gone is the textured LCD exterior, making the SDR-SW21 more slippery under the sea. The lens is more pronounced and the two-tone styling has been whittled down to mere trim. Port enclosures appeared to be the same systems, utilizing plastic latches and rubber gaskets to seal in the essential bits. From an aesthetic standpoint, it seems as though Panasonic has taken the same camcorder from last year and placed it in a shiny new chassis.

That's not to say there aren't any new features, which we'll get to later on. It's just that the design potion of this camcorder is probably the most drastic change, which is a sign that a manufacturer didn't want to toil much with the inner workings. The waterproof capability had been boosted to two meters (6.5 feet) compared to last year's 5-foot max submergence, but the 4-foot shockproof distance was carried over from the SDR-SW20. The Panasonic SDR-SW21 handled a relentless day of monsoon-like weather that has been plaguing the northeast for a about a month straight. It also survived a dip in the Coney Island ocean and a nice video session underwater in a bathtub with Mr. Vincent van Gogh, which we'll see in a bit.

As for shock protection, the SDR-SW21 withstood three vicious plunges on a hardwood floor and a few sidewalk smashes as well. We were still able to pick the brave little SD card camcorder up and continue shooting. The Panasonic SDR-SW21 also ships with a detachable buoy, just in case shooters get plowed by a prodigious wave and lose hold of the camcorder. The buoy actually did its job and prevented the SDR-SW21 from sinking to the bottom of the unknown in a few occasions.

Interface and Menus - Mediocre

Next to nothing has changed. Nope, barely a thing. And this is an area Panasonic needed to revamp drastically. We had a hell of a time with the SDR-SW20's LCD cavity button configuration€”an arc of small buttons that fenced in a round four-way directional pad. The buttons were difficult to press and we had to use extreme force in order for an option to take hold. There were no controls on the LCD panel, which would have been highly convenient while shooting underwater, and the Mode dial was stuffed up in the top right hand corner of the LCD cavity. Well, in 2009, the song remains the same. Our biggest problem with this interface was that selecting manual controls and other options was a laborious chore. These buttons just didn't want depress and we found ourselves slamming our fingers at the inside of the camcorder, much to the dismay of onlookers.

We understand that it takes a lot in order to waterproof an interface, but we'd like to see controls on the LCD panel and improved buttons on the next incarnation. The Panasonic SDR-SW21 lost major points because we found no change at all in its interface. We could go out right now and find an old SDR-SW20 and it would function exactly the same. We did like the dual Record buttons€”one in back and one on the right side of the camcorder€”because it gave us an additional ergonomic option. The zoom toggle was the same deal, smoothly shifting back and forth via a rocker design. The zoom toggle was one of the few leftovers we liked again this time around, but on the whole, Panasonic needs an extreme SW makeover. Menus were of course top notch and easy to follow. Next to Canon, Panasonic has some of the most intuitive menu designs in the biz. As far as accessing them underwater, we suggest you assess the shooting environment, apply your selections out of the water, then dive in.

Shooting Features - Good

This is a realm we were hoping to discover some shiny new goodies in, but unfortunately, we did not have a successful investigation. Nearly all of the SDR-SW21's shooting features were carried over from the SDR-SW20. This isn't a terrible thing, for Panasonics are some of the fiercest manual control machines on the market. What other standard-definition camcorder offers Iris control with Gain? We also had independent Shutter control and White Balance, all from a handy little four-way directional pad quick menu. Manual Focus was also available in full Manual mode, so the SDR-SW21 was no slouch to in-depth picture adjustment. The thing is, neither was the SDR-SW20.

A new Web Mode was tacked on this year, allowing shooters to capture videos up to a maximum of 10 minutes in length and then upload directly from the camcorder. JVC has capitalized on the YouTube mode, which is now becoming a standard amongst consumer-targeted SD camcorders. The SDR-SW21 featured an Underwater mode, just like the SDR-SW20. We found the Underwater mode to simply tweak the White Balance to a much warmer color temperature to compensate for underwater lighting. However, half of the environments we shot in looked better without the Underwater mode engaged, so it's more of a gimmick than anything.

A few Panasonic classics like Magic Pix and Pre Record were offered again this time around. However, Magic Pix transformed every scene into a seizure-inducing dream sequence in environments with ultra low lux readings because the shutter had to drop down significantly. Pre Record did the job without a hitch, offering three seconds of prerecorded buffer to tack on to the beginning of our clips. However, between the SDR-SW21's Gain and 30-second shutter minimum, we were able to achieve a low light performance that was above average in the standard-definition camcorder world.

Hardware and Connectivity - Mediocre

Surprise! Actually, no, there are no surprises again. The Panasonic SDR-SW21 was stuffed with the same 690,000-pixel 1/6-inch CCD as last year's SDR-SW20. So, that means an effective pixel count of 340,000, which is almost as low as you can go these days. Unless you're the Sony DCR-SR47, which needs a lot of help in the imaging department. The 10x optical zoom was a nice touch, but we saw that on last year's model as well. The Panasonic SDR-SW21 used Electronic Image Stabilization, but we'd rather have Optical.

The Panasonic SDR-SW21 shoots MPEG-2 video in three different quality settings and records to SD/SDHC cards. A Lithium Ion battery pack is the sole portable power source for the SDR-SW21, though be prepared to buy lots of backup packs, as ours drained faster than a whiskey sour in Ted Kennedy's living room.

For connectivity, the Panasonic SDR-SW21 offered AV, USB and DC. The AV jack is proprietary, so the Panasonic cable must be used. For editing on a MAC, we had to use an MPEG converter in order for the file types to be recognizable, but most shooters will probably opt for the Web Mode upload tool.

Image Quality - Good

When a manufacturer carries over the same imaging system from last year's nearly identical model, what do you think we get? Basically, the same image performance. We could not tell the difference between last year's Panasonic SDR-SW20 and this year's Panasonic SDR-SW21. With that in mind, let's see where the SDR-SW21's performance fits in compared to the competition. The SDR-SW21 definitely had the Sony DCR-SR47 beat by a landslide, but the Canon FS22 holds the standard-definition flash memory crown at the moment. The SDR-SW21 is probably most comparable to the Canon FS200's image performance.

We experienced great colors, despite the SDR-SW21's lack of color adjustment options. Detail was not too shabby either, and when we looked at the footage on our monitor, the SDR-SW21 was more impressive than we had expected. Typical flaws like contrast mishandling and lack of fine detail were present. Underwater, the results were great, and that's really what this camcorder is all about anyway. All frame grabs were captured from a MAC in the highest quality and saved as JPEGs. The quality if the JPEGs is not a representation of the actual quality of the video on our monitor, so we'll be basing all of our analyzing off of the video we reviewed.

  • Scene Test - Warriors, come out to play!

  • Color Test €“ Umbrella Girl

  • Motion Test €“ Mesmerelda the Mesmerizing Mermaid

  • A wretched day for a parade proved to be the true test of the Panasonic SDR-SW21, and we can see in the first frame grab that the camcorder fails to produce the sharp resolution of a high-definition model. That's okay, for in the second clip we got a taste of the SDR-SW21's color rendering, which was highly impressive. The unbrella girl's umbrella is pulsating with vibrant hues, even amidst the dreary lighting. At a shutter speed of 1/60, the SDR-SW21 was able to capture Mesmerelda with ease, and we noticed fluid motion during playback. We could have shot down to a 1/30 shutter, but the motion would have been sacrificed.

  • Shaprness Test - Gucci

  • Portrait Test - Pirate

  • Detail Test - Worst Bumblebee Ever

  • Despite the JPEG rendering, the actual video clip revealed some nice sharp lines along the Guccimobile, including some intricate detail within the droplets of water along the bumper. Portraits were handled well in terms of skin tone, though we couldn't get the advanced level of detail we wanted. The third frame grab displays not only a fairly impressive display of detail€”thanks to the right light€”but probably the worst Bumblebee impersonator we've ever seen.

  • Low Light Test €“ Dragon (18dB Gain)

  • Ultra Low Light Test €“ The Gathering (Auto)

  • Ultra Low Light Test €“ The Gathering (15dB Gain)

  • When the lights dropped, the Panasonic SDR-SW21 was prepared, but not without calling in an army of noise. It was great to take advantage of the Gain control, but just look at that poor dragon, engulfed by fuzzy pixels. In Auto mode, the SDR-SW21 tended to underexpose in low light, but we solved that in the final clip, using a 1/30 shutter and boosted gain. Still, we prefer the darker exposure because we are able to attain more detail.

  • Underwater Test €“ van Gogh's Last Days (Underwater Mode)

  • Underwater Test €“ van Gogh's Last Days

  • Underwater Detail Test €“ van Gogh's Last Days

  • Underwater shooting was not an issue for the Panasonic SDR-SW21. As we can see in the first frame grab, Underwater mode was useless. We shot manually in the second clip and it made all the difference. The detail up close was the best we could have achieved, and we even preferred it to the land footage. For an all-around vacation cam, the Panasonic SDR-SW21 will survive the Islands with gusto.
    Name Score Price
    Panasonic HDC-HS900 88% $1400
    Panasonic HDC-HS700 87% $1400
    Canon Vixia HF S21 86% $1400
    Canon Vixia HF S10 86% $1300
    Sony HDR-XR520V 85% $1500

    Name Score Price
    Canon FS22 66% $600
    Canon FS200 63% $330
    Sony DCR-SR47 61% $360
    Panasonic SDR-SW21 60% $400
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