They may only be small numbers now because they cost so much but high-def camcorders are definitely the future of home video. Panasonic is helping out by lowering the cost of entry to below $1,000–$899 USD to be exact for the new HDC-SX5 that’s due any week now. And it’s a rather unique AVCHD camcorder since it records at a full 1920 x 1080i—the upper limit of the format—compared to the usual 1440 x 1080i of models we’ve review before such as the Sony HDR-CX7 and Panasonic’s HDC-SD1 . Now AVCHD matches HDV, the tape-based format whose quality we like so much —at least on paper. We’ll get into this as we dig deeper into the innards of this camcorder. The new 3-CCD HDR-SX5 is a “hybrid” in that it records HD to SD memory cards or 3-inch blank DVDs. How this ugly duckling performed was the $900 question as we waited for the battery to charge up…
Features and Design
I must admit the HDC-SX5 is one ugly camcorder. After recently using very slick-looking flash memory HD models from Sony and Panasonic, this one suffers badly by comparison. The biggest problem is the placement of the battery. With card-based cams, the battery is neatly tucked into the housing—here it sticks out from the back like a sore thumb. If you use the pull-out viewfinder, your cheek rests against it. Good thing there isn’t a logo on the end since your face would get branded! I know the engineers needed room for the DVD drive but I haven’t seen something so poorly designed in a long, long time. When you put your hand into the Velcro strap your thumb rests against the battery which is a bit annoying a first but then you realize it forces it to rest on the record button. I really don’t think they were trying for this result but who knows? The battery also back-weights the unit so it feels uneven. Basically it’s a mess and if this camcorder didn’t offer Full HD, I probably would’ve returned it to sender. I may be overreacting a bit but that’s why I always urge any prospective purchaser of a digicam or camcorder to actually hold the darn thing before you buy—with the battery installed—not just picking it up while it’s attached to a post in a big box retailer. If they won’t do it for you, take your business elsewhere. Let me get off my soapbox and continue our tour by moving to the front so we can get away from the freaking battery (by now you know I really don’t like it).
As always the front of any camcorder is dominated by the lens, in this case a 10x Leica Dicomar optical zoom (700x digital). Don’t bother engaging the digital zoom since the resulting footage is filled with digital noise. It has a twist off ring so you add an optional lens hood or filter. Next to the lens is a flash to help with digital stills since they’ll need all the help they can get as top quality is just 2MP (1920 x 1080 pixels). As I’ve noted many times before, it’s the rare camcorder that takes decent stills and if you can shoot HD video, why bother? Yes, I know there’s always the off chance you might want a still but a 4×6 is about as good as you can get.
You’ll also find a cooling outlet, a recording lamp and the white balance/remote control sensor on the front.
The top is fairly simple with a stereo mic (not 5.1-channel surround) and a hot shoe for connecting optional mics or lights. You’ll also find the wide/tele zoom switch that also acts as a volume control during playback and a dedicated button for taking snapshots.
The right side is dominated by the DVD drive and it accepts practically any type of disk—DVD-RAM, DVD-R, DVD-RW and DVD-R DL (dual layer). A DL disk holds up to 26 minutes at top resolution while a 4GB SD card that you can load at the same time records 40 minutes of 1920 x 1080i video. A standard single layer disc holds 14 minutes. The comfortable strap is on this side as well.
Image Courtesy of Panasonic
The left side has the flip-out 2.7-inch widescreen LCD monitor. When closed there are a few unobtrusive logos. Underneath the screen is a compartment for A/V, component and USB out; an SD card slot is right next to it (it’ll hold 8GB maximum). Once you pop open the LCD you’ll see a very good monitor that’s rated 300K pixels. Colors are very accurate colors and there’s little smearing. On the body is a switch to change between Auto, Manual and Focus along with keys for Disc Copy and Power LCD Extra to boost the brightness of the screen. The speaker is here too.
The rear is dominated by that battery I love so much. Disconnect it and you’ll find the HDMI out. This means you have to take off the battery to access it for playback and connect the DC-in which is located to the left. What were these guys thinking? Also here is the pull-out viewfinder with diopter control. Controls to the right of battery include the main mode dial with center joystick. This is nicely designed and split into two portions for standard def or high-definition recording. You can choose to record HD to either the card or disc while you can only do SD video on DVDs (a DL disc records 35 minutes of best-quality standard-def footage). There are playback options for either setting. The joystick has a nice feel and quickly moves you through the menus. They’re fairly intuitive and after checking out the supplied owner’s manual you’ll learn what the icons represent without too much difficulty.
There are also keys for Delete, Menu, disc eject and the record button. There is one control that’s new—called Pre-Rec for Pre Record. This is a cool feature. Just press the button and the camcorder will record three seconds of footage into a buffer. This way if something great happens and you were a little slow hitting the record button, you’ll capture some of the action. Another nice feature is the fact once you put the camcorder into record mode, it pops to life when you open the LCD or pull out the viewfinder.
The Made In Japan camcorder has a tripod mount on the bottom. The HDC-SX5 comes with a good kit including battery/charger, various cables including DC-in, A/V, USB and component video. It comes with a remote and a CD-ROM with HD Writer 2.0E software that lets you transfer footage to a computer, burn discs and perform basic editing chores. It also has a 168-page owner’s manual.
After loading a 4GB card and a DVD-R DL disc, it was time to take some videos and stills.
Testing and Use:
One of the newest features of this AVCHD camcorder is its ability to record 1920 x 1080i video, the upper limit of the format as other AVCHD cams record at 1440 x 1080i. The SX5 has three 520K pixel CCDs so you might wonder how can it record 2.07MP? According to Panasonic engineers, they can do this by using a Pixel Shift system.
It’s rather arcane and delves into the 3CCD system; we won’t bore you other than to say Panasonic completely backs its claim. More important–how does it work in the real world?
The HDC-SX5 boots up in about 3 seconds, a little slower than purely solid state camcorders but this isn’t too terrible since the DVD has to get into recording mode. Starting off in Auto at highest resolution and recording to the SD card I took a variety of shots indoors and out—and yes, I tried it out at a night baseball game. I also explored the Manual options as well including focus, iris, shutter speed and white balance. After using the SDHC card, I recorded to DVD as well.
Once done, I connected the camcorder via component inputs to a 30-inch 16:9 1920 x 1200 LCD monitor and played back the various scenes using the unit’s joystick control. One huge advantage over tape-based HDV models is the instantly generated thumbnails. You simply chose the one you want, press the joystick and watch the video; this was done for the SD card and DVD disc footage. And the results? The video was possibly the most accurate I’ve ever shot, and slightly better than the Canon and Sony HDV models I’ve recently tested. The color gamut seemed to be much more realistic, particularly oranges and reds. I can say this without qualification—you will be knocked out by the video especially in daylight (not just bright sunshine). Where the camcorder fell down a bit was indoors; there was just too much noise especially when compared to daylight footage. The SX5 does not a video light so I would highly recommend one, if shooting indoors. Note: this is a similar complaint I had with other camcorders recently reviewed. One annoying factor was the literal noise (sound) from the zoom switch. If you quickly release it, a snap will be picked up by the stereo mic on the top of camcorder. Learning a gentle release motion will solve this issue.
Focusing was very quick and fast, even in low light with very little grabbing. And Panasonic’s optical image stabilization did a nice job smoothing the shakes from jittery hands.
As far as the digital stills were concerned—they’re for snapshots only at best. Images taken outdoors with good light were reasonable as were those with the flash but 2MP stills are not what HD camcorders are all about.
I don’t care how Panasonic achieves its 1920 x 1080i spec using three 520K pixel CCDs—the results were top notch. Besides the excellent high-def footage, the HDC-SX5 has a lot of pluses—quick focusing, OIS, an intuitive menu system and lots more. My only complaint—and it’s a big one—is the battery placement. If more time was spent on ergonomics and design, this one would’ve been an Editor’s Choice. But that clunky battery knocks it down several notches. And that’s just too bad…
• Excellent high-def video
• Records to SD or DVD
• Optical image stabilization
• Poor battery placement
• Poor battery placement
• And did we say poor battery placement?