You know the drill—HDD and flash memory-based high-def camcorders are hot as blank tape and disc models fall out of favor. Recently we reviewed two newly introduced hard disc drive editions—the JVC GZ-HD40 and Canon Vixia HG21. Now it’s Panasonic’s turn for a new AVCHD high-def model but this one only records to SDHC cards. Since there’s no drive, disc or tape mechanism it’s incredibly compact and lightweight (13.4 ounces loaded versus 19 for the HG21). And after getting a world of grief from reviewers including yours truly, the company has moved from a trio of CCD chips to three CMOS sensors. Hopefully this will bring Panasonic back into the game but there’s a lot more to camcorders than imaging devices. Let’s see if our friends from Osaka have something to cheer about—or if they have to go back to the drawing board…
Features and Design
I’ve always been enamored with flash-only camcorders. They’re so small they’re barely larger than a handful. And they’re so feathery you can carry them around all day with barely a twinge in your arm. Panasonic, Canon, Samsung and Sony also have high-def memory-card camcorders that use either SDHC or Memory Stick Duo media. Now that the cost of cards has fallen through the floor and capacity is hitting the roof, you can store hours of video on a single chip. In the case of the HDC-SD100, Panasonic supplies an 8GB SDHC card capable of storing an hour’s worth of best quality 1920 x 1080I video recording at 17 Mbps. Drop it down to 1440 x 1080I and you’ll be good for 3 hours. As of this writing, 32 gigs is the highest capacity available so you can grab another 4 hours of best quality footage for another $175 or so. It’s definitely not the 120GB of the Vixia HG21, Sony HDR-SR12 or JVC GZ-HD40 but there are always tradeoffs in life—and in this case, it’s the added weight of HDD models.
The all-black HDC-SD100 measures 2.56 x 2.835 x 5.433 (WHD, in inches) and weighs less than a pound with battery and card installed. The camcorder looks fine but this observation will highlight the attention shown in the HG21 versus the SD100. Once you snap in the Panasonic’s battery in the recessed slot (a good thing), you’ll notice it has a dark gray exterior rather than the matching black of Canon’s battery which blends with the rest of the body. Yes, I know this is picky but it’s indicative of the lack of follow through shown by Panasonic engineers.
And yes, my friends at Panasonic continue to make the similar dumb move of placing the mini HDMI connection in the battery well so you have to remove the battery then connect the DC-in to watch your videos on TV or the PC. Adding insult to injury, this model even has the USB out in the same location. What is wrong with these people? All they have to do is take a walk to a CE emporium and just pick up a competing Canon or Sony. They’ve figured a way to make this work. Then again the Panasonic folks probably think everyone has an HDTV with a SDHC card slot that plays back AVCHD videos. Ye gads! At this point I was almost ready to send the thing back, but the Siren call of the 3 CMOS sensors beckoned…
The front of the SD100 is dominated by the 12x Leica Dicomar lens which translates to 42.1-505 in 35mm terms. Again this is great for bringing distant subjects very close, but I prefer a wider opening view for landscapes and group shots. The lens has a built-in cover and a ring that can be taken off to add 37mm filters as well as optional wide and tele conversion lenses – so there is a solution for my “wide” desires. It costs around $200 though. To the left of the lens is a flash for helping the 2-megapixel stills (1920 x 1080); at that resolution, they need it. Below the lens is a compartment for a mic input as well as the recording lamp and remote sensor. Now wouldn’t it be easy if Panasonic dropped the mic input and used that compartment for the mini HDMI out? Just asking…
The right side has a nice sculpted look and fit for your hand. There’s the main mode on/off switch as well as another to switch between the .44-inch electronic viewfinder and the 2.7-inch LCD screen. The diopter adjustment for the EVF is here as well. The adjustable Velcro strap is not as comfortable as the HG21 but it’s not like wrapping your hand in barbed wire—it’s fine.
The left side has the swing-out LCD screen rated a solid 300K pixels; it’s much better than the Canon HG21. The glossy black exterior is peppered with logos and model numbers. This should be toned down a bit because near the front are “3MOS,” “Advanced O.I.S.” nomenclature. Tidy this up, boys. Under these words is a switch to change between full auto and manual while the Cam Func button lets you choose a specific function that can be adjusted by twisting the ring around the lens (shutter speed, iris, white balance) or leave it for manual focus (default).
Flip open the lens and you’ll find some of the same issues that bugged me when reviewing the HDC-HS9. While the screen is a good one, there are no controls on the bezel such as the handy joystick found on Canon, JVC and Sony models. Here Panasonic put this control on the body, making it very awkward to move through menus and make selections. And it’s not even a joystick, more like a button with knurled edges you push in the direction of the four points of the compass. Hopefully this gets changed next year because if nothing is updated, Panasonic will fall even further behind the Big Three. There are a number of other controls here including Menu, Delete, O.I.S., Disc Copy and Open to pop open the door covering the SDHC card slot. Lift a nearby small sliding door and you’ll find component video out and a combo A/V out/headphone jack. There’s a small speaker and iA and Pre-Rec buttons. iA is intelligent auto where the camcorder interprets the subject front of it and picks the proper scene mode (Portrait, Scenery, Spotlight, Low Light and Normal). The Pre-Record function is a good one. Press it and the camcorder is constantly recording 3 seconds of video to internal memory and then deleting it. This way if you’re a little slow hitting the record button, you get those extra 3 seconds.
On the top of the unit you’ll find a 5.1-channel mic, a compartment for a cold accessory shoe (too bad), the wide/tele toggle switch and a shutter button for taking stills.
At the rear is the viewfinder (it’s fixed not a pull-out like the HG21), the record button and that battery which covers the HDMI/ USB outs and the DC-in connection. On the bottom is a metal tripod mount and battery release.
What’s In The Box
Since this is an SDHC-card based model, Panasonic gives you a nice 8GB Class 4 bit of flash memory. This way you’ll be good for a solid hour of top-quality recording once the battery charges up. You get a one hour battery, AC adapter, component, A/V and USB cables, a remote and CD-ROM with HD Writer 2.6E software for editing and burning discs. Also in the box is a 156-page owner’s manual that could use a good edit by someone with English as a first language.
Once the battery was ready to go and the card slipped in, it was time to see if 3MOS was better than one.
Image Courtesy of Panasonic
Performance and Use
The HDC-SD100 features a trio of 610K pixel CMOS sensors. Multiplying 3 x 610 gives you 1.83MP – not even close to the single 3-plus megapixel CMOS sensors of top level Canons and Sonys. That’s why it only takes 1920 x 1080 stills compared to 3 and 10, respectively for competitors. Still I’m a NY Mets fan so I will always root for the underdog and wanted to give it thorough shot, even with all the faults already outlined.
As I do with all camcorder reviews, I started off in Auto, moved to scenes modes and finally full manual. Video was set at the highest quality–“HG” 1920 x 1080I. Gridlines were also engaged; unfortunately this only works in manual mode rather than iA. One would think beginners could use gridlines to help with horizons but I guess Panasonic engineers don’t think so. Another brilliant move…but I digress.
It was a sparkling stretch of cool Fall weather with bright blues skies, fields of colorful mums, the usual October clichés in the northeast. Still I’m a sucker for dramatic color—it’s also a good test for the video recording capabilities of this AVCHD model. I also took some scenes indoors, a gathering of friends and so on, taking snapshots along the way.
Before getting into performance, I have to say handling the SD100 is a mixed bag. On the plus side, the camcorder is very easy to hold and the auto focus is fast with little grabbing. Moving through the entire focal length is also very speedy. When using manual focus, a magnified screen appears so you can dial in the sharpness. However, I really dislike the menu system for adjusting fades, self timer, Magic Pix (low light shooting) and so on. It’s filled with cutesy icons only our friends across the International Date Line could love. Basically it’s tired and old showing Panasonic is hardly spending anything on camcorder R&D. The Help mode is decent, displaying various descriptions in a scrolling pattern.
Now it was time to review the material on my 50-inch Panasonic 1080P plasma HDTV. Since this set has an SDHC card slot, it was a breeze checking out my efforts using the built-in movie player.
Let’s cut to the chase. Although improved from the older 3CCD system found in the HS9, the new 3MOS system is not in the same league as the recently reviewed Canon, JVC and Sony camcorders – and there’s more to it than just the imaging device. The Canon HG21 lens, for example, delivered much sharper videos with extremely accurate focus. The Canon’s exposure was better as well. With the SD100, extreme telephoto scenes of treetops had little of the detail captured by the Canon—or the JVC or Sony for that matter. Colors were a bit off with a slight haloing effect and a type of florescence that was very unreal. The same held true for the stills even with the flash trying mightily to improve quality. And when shooting in low light, there was digital noise by the bucketful although it was better than the 3CCD system. It did not compare to the HG21.
On a more positive side, the surround sound mic did not turn gentle Fall breezes into tornados and Panasonic’s O.I.S. did its usual fine job of smoothing out the shakes from handheld videos.
From my perspective Panasonic tossed a Hail Mary pass, hoping a new 3MOS system would resuscitate a camcorder line-up that is being left in the dust by the Big Three (Canon, JVC, Sony). Although the pass made it down field (improved quality), the ball was batted away by its competitors. At $1,099 list, you’re much better off spending the extra cash and buying—in this order—the Canon HG21, Sony HDR-SR12/SR11, JVC GZ-HD40/HD30.
• Improved video over 3CCD system
• Very good LCD screen
• O.I.S. good as ever
• Video not competitive with the Big Three
• Poor placement of HDMI/USB outs, 4-way controller
• Outdated menu system