“Panasonic's quality doesn't compare to the other models out there.”
- Ample HD storage; compact and lightweight
- Poor video and still quality; menu and icons need updating; poorly placed joystick
Hi-def camcorders are shrinking so rapidly, they make singer Amy Winehouse seem positively plump. A great example is the new Panasonic HDC-HS9, a combination 60GB hard disk drive, SDHC AVCHD home video maker that weighs 15.8 ounces including the battery. In fact, it’s barely bigger than your palm. This is an amazing technological feat—up to 7 hours and 40 minutes of real-time Full HD recording in a package measuring 3 x 2.9 x 5 (WHD, in inches). Small and compact is all well and good but how did this new camcorder perform against some decidedly bigger competition?
Features and Design
As mentioned at the get-go, this is one small camcorder featuring a primarily dark-silver case. There are touches of black, including the piano-black finish on the back of the LCD screen and in the area underneath the lens covering the remote control sensor. It’s not a beauty but just the fact it’s so compact is the key takeaway. This size—or lack of it—could possibly make it a fine traveling companion.
The front is dominated by a 10x Leica Dicomar zoom that translates to 42.9-429mm in 35mm terms, not nearly as powerful as the 12x zooms found on the recently tested Canon Vixia HF10 and Sony HDR-SR12 . As in the case of those two HD cams I’d prefer a more wide-angle opening focal length for landscapes but that’s my taste. You can twist the front of lens off in order to add optional filters and wide/tele conversion lenses if you want to go beyond the basic focal length. A built-in lens hood opens and closes when you power on/off. You’ll also find an adjustable flash to help with digital stills and a remote sensor located under the lens.
The right side is the casing for the 60GB HDD that saves 7 hours, 40 minutes worth of 1920 x 1080I Full HD video. Step down in quality and you can practically record for days. You’ll also find the Velcro strap that’s not as comfortable as competitors and decals proclaiming HDD Hard Disk Drive.
Underneath the gloss-black door on the left is a 2.7-inch widescreen LCD rated a solid 300K pixels. It works well in most lighting situations including direct sunlight which is a good thing since there isn’t an electronic viewfinder. When I opened the LCD, a slight chill went down my back since I didn’t see any controls on the bezel like those found on recent Canon, JVC and Sony models. For whatever reason, Panasonic engineers placed the controlling joystick on the body opposite the screen, putting it in a fairly awkward spot. Bad move—and it was an inkling of some additional negative things to come.
On the body are a number of controls along with the joystick including one to switch between auto, manual and type of focus, to engage optical image stabilization, one to access the menus along with Disc Copy, Delete and a dedicated button to boost the LCD screen (a welcome addition). Panasonic has been a leader in OIS for camcorders as well as Lumix still cameras and its system does a nice job of eliminating most of the shakes from handheld videos. Beneath the control keys is a compartment for the A/V, component and USB connections. The covering door is a bit cheesy and attached by a small piece of plastic. With the LCD open it’s hard to miss the lithium-ion battery that fits neatly into the body cavity. The battery is flush to the rear panel, making for a nice smooth line. Unfortunately—and this was a total mystery—the mini HDMI connector is located in this space. In other words, you can’t simply take the camcorder to your HDTV and connect it via HDMI using the battery to view your scenes. You have to connect the supplied DC-in cable to the input directly above the HDMI port to the battery charger and plug that into an outlet. In other words, this makes for a big-time hassle and is truly ridiculous. I wonder what Panasonic engineers were thinking when they came up with this scheme. Oh, you can take your SDHC card and plug it into a Panasonic plasma for instant gratification but that doesn’t do any good for the 60 gigs of video on the hard drive. Amazing stuff…
As noted, the rear of the HDC-HS9 is neatly designed. On the top right is a mode dial that lets you choose recording to either the HDD or SD/SDHC cards; playback is here as well. Note: you must have a Class 4 or better SDHC card to record AVCHD videos. Prices are coming down so it’s not too much of burden. To the left of the dial are keys to engage face detection (Panasonic calls it Face Clear) and Pre-Rec (pre record). When you tap this, the camcorder records 3 seconds of audio and video before you press the record button. This is a good real-world feature and helps you save a special moment when you’re a little slow hitting the record button. Underneath the battery is a compartment for the SD card and this has a solid door with a latch lock.
The top of the camcorder has a 5.1-channel surround mic, a small speaker along with the wide/tele switch and a button for taking snapshots. The maximum resolution here is 1920 x 1080, basically 2MP images—something barely worth the trouble. What’s sorely missing is a hot shoe for an accessory light. The bottom of this Made In Japan unit has a metal tripod mount.
The Panasonic HDC-HS9 comes with a solid kit—other than SD card and HDMI cable. There’s the battery rated 60 minutes of continuous use, charger, various cables, remote and CD-ROM with HD Writer 2.5E software for saving material on the PC and burning disks. There’s also a good 144-page owner’s manual.
After charging the battery, setting the date and loading a 2GB Class 6 SDHC card, it was time to start recording.
Image Courtesy of Panasonic
Performance and Use
The HDC-HS9 records 1920 x 1080I video and uses a trio of 1/6-inch 520K CCDs as imaging devices. 3CCD systems use dedicated sensors for red, green and blue colors (RGB) and—in theory—should deliver high-quality video. I set the camcorder to the highest-quality option (HA at 17 Mbps), started off in Auto with grid lines (nine boxes) enabled, and then proceeded to explore the various manual options.
As mentioned, this camcorder is extremely compact so it’s fun to carry around. The controls are nicely placed and it’s a breeze to operate in Auto—as is every other camcorder. You simply adjust the zoom, press record and that’s the end of it. Since it’s a HDD model, you’re recording in less than 3 seconds.
The HDC-HS9 has onscreen help which is quite handy in some instances. If you pan too quickly, a warning appears to slow down. If you’re in a tough contrast situation such as shooting a sunlit window
it tells you to use Intelligent Contrast and the icon appears to do that. Unfortunately the joystick is still in that weird location, so you fumble a bit making the change. Overall this tutorial is a good thing but a control on the LCD screen would make all the difference in the world.
There are only four scene modes (sports, beach/snow and so on) and a few manual adjustments. These include focus, white balance, iris and shutter speed, hardly the stuff to make a cinematographer’s heart go pitter-patter but it’s fun to experiment with. The camcorder also has a 1920 x 1080I 24 frames per second setting in case you’d like a film-like feel. I prefer the pop of standard video but again, it’s nice to have this option to try out.
While working with the manual options I came to this inevitable conclusion: Panasonic really needs to rethink the onscreen menu system. While moving through the basic parameters is well done, the use of miniscule icons in conjunction with the awkwardly-placed joystick control is a bust. Back to the drawing boards, gentlemen.
Image Courtesy of Panasonic
An added note: you’ll find a dedicated face detection setting (called Face Clear). Unlike the Sony HDR-SR12, it only works with stills not video as well. It handles up to five faces and did a decent job. Once I made a dent in the hard drive and SD card indoors and out, it was time to play them back on a 50-inch Panasonic plasma.
After popping out the battery and connecting the AC power to the HDC-HS9, I was even more peeved about the hidden HDMI port. This design knocked the rating by a good half point. Sheesh. On a slightly more positive note, the camcorder has EZ Sync that works with Panasonic HDTVs so the remote controls the set.
Once all the cables were connected it was time to review the footage. In a word—it was bad—especially compared to the JVC GZ6, Canon HF10 and Sony SR12. Scenes shot indoors in standard mode as well as with the low light and MagicPix settings engaged were all filled with noise and not in the same league as the recently reviewed models. Material taken outdoors in plenty of sunshine was “off”; it did not look real with a touch of florescence to it, like the unit was on acid. This was very disappointing and it was readily apparent the three 520K pixel CCD system is old news and has been left behind by the sensors employed by Canon, JVC and Sony. On the plus side, sound quality was good and the camcorder focused quickly and accurately.
As far as the stills were concerned, these 2MP photos were barely worth taping to the refrigerator door.
Although all of these camcorders use the AVCHD format to record 1080I video, Panasonic’s quality doesn’t compare to the other models. It’s definitely not worth the money ($999 list, $750 real world) and you should seriously look elsewhere if you want a new high-def home video maker. I know the 60GB Sony HDR-SR11 costs $400 more but the quality is so much better it’s worth every penny. If Panasonic doesn’t rethink the way it designs its AVCHD camcorders, it will become irrelevant as Sony, Canon and JVC walk away with the prize—and consumers’ dollars.
• Compact and lightweight
• Ample Full HD storage (almost 8 hours)
• Poor video and still quality
• Menus/icons needed updating
• Poorly placed joystick and HDMI jack
• No hot shoe
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