It's no surprise that Panasonic, along with competitors like Sony and Canon, are pushing the high-definition camcorder market hard. After all, we're now buying HD-Ready televisions like there's no tomorrow, so what's the point of having them if we'll only be watching standard definition video from the likes of MiniDV and regular DVD camcorders?

Along with its sister product, the HDC-SD5, the new HDC-SX5 is one of two new AVCHD camcorders from Panasonic that are designed to take advantage of our new high-def displays by offering the full 1920 x 1080 pixel high-definition resolution.

The main difference between the two models is the ability of the SX5 to use not only high-capacity SD cards but also 8cm DVD discs for recording and playback. The SX5's added ability to record and play standard definition DVD is a further bonus.

Design and layout

Unlike its small SD5 sibling, the SX5 is a large and chunky beast - and for good reason. In addition to facilitating the recording of Full HD video to SD and DVD media, it also allows clips to be copied from SD to DVD within the unit itself.

What's more, the increased functionality means that its power requirement is much higher too - after all, spinning DVDs at a consistent speed requires a lot more battery power than is needed to write to an SD card.

The result is a large Lithium-ion battery pack that juts out of the back in such a way as to get in the way of a user's nose when using the colour viewfinder during recording.

That said, it does give an impressively long operating time in both continuous and interrupted modes: we managed to get much more than the quoted 50 minutes' continuous mode time when recording to DVD at the highest HQ setting and 95 minutes to 4GB SDHC card.

The SX5 is quite cleverly designed, if a tad bulky for those users looking for a cam that can be slipped into a pocket or bag.

Its impressive glossy grey and black two-tone finish certainly makes it look the part, but it's when used on a good tripod that its mass comes in useful. With the exception of a few buttons that sit inside the 2.7in widescreen LCD recess, all the main operating controls nestle around the main multi-function Power Dial under the operator's thumb position at the rear.

On the top is a tiny, touch-sensitive zoom toggle (which doubles as a playback volume control), an intelligent accessory shoe and an upward-facing stereo mic just above the main lens.

Dominating the whole of the right side of the body is the 8cm DVD compartment into which a full range of recordable and rewritable disc formats can be loaded. The SD/SDHC card slot is to be found on the lower left of the body beneath the LCD screen when closed.

A fair share of the SX5's features are accessible from buttons placed around the body, but it's when you dig down into the well-designed menu system that you discover many more useful options.

For a start, there's stuff like a Zebra pattern generator option - this provides a visual guide to parts of the picture that are at risk from over-exposure and is particularly useful when recording under manual control. The provision of Colour Bars is equally useful in helping to visually calibrate playback devices.

However, it's the everyday features that will impress new users - or switchers from conventional formats - the most. We particularly like the SX5's ability to accept high-capacity (currently 16GB) SDHC cards; even at the highest of three quality settings, you're likely to get almost four hours of AVCHD recording on a single tiny SD card.

What's more, thanks to the onboard DVD drive, you have the capability of backing up your AVCHD clips from the SDHC card to all the main format 8cm discs at the click of a single button, placed conveniently inside the LCD recess.

Another feature that many users will find very useful is the new 'Pre Rec' function: when active, the camcorder will continually write a snippet of standby video into a buffer memory even though you're not actually recording.

If something happens suddenly and without warning - such as sneaky goal being scored or somebody starting a wedding speech before you've had the chance to hit the red button - you won't miss it because all you have to do is to press Record for the camcorder to continue from that point on. It's a great feature because it means that you don't have to record continually in the hope of not missing something important.

You only have to look carefully at the playback from either SDHC card or DVD to realise that the AVCHD format, which uses the MPEG4-AVC/H.264 compression system to shoehorn a mass of data into a tiny space, is incredibly efficient.

Not only does it handle the very best images from the SX5's three generous 1/4" CCDs superbly well, but it retains every ounce of detail, colour and depth as well. Its handling of movement through the frame is much better than expected for such a compression system, too.

Panasonic's optics have always been good, and on this model the 10x optical zoom Leica Dicomar lens can be trusted to deliver pin-sharp pictures through the range and, coupled with an excellent Mega-OIS (Optical Image Stabilisation), it's actually possible to shoot rock-steady images while zoomed in fully and hand-holding.

Quite why there's a 700x digi-zoom option is anybody's guess, but at least the provision of manual control over focus, exposure and white balance is good. For this, the mini-joystick - to be found mounted in the centre of the main mode dial - makes it easy to change settings and values while recording, thanks to a very good graphical interface.

Output cabling is supplied for Component digital and AV, but not for HDMI, for which there's a socket inside the battery compartment (where you'll also find the AC connector).

Not only is digital playback absolutely fabulous, but AVCHD playback is also stunningly good on a standard analogue widescreen TV as well.

With such heavy compression being employed in order to bring us the benefits of true tapeless high definition at full 1920 specification, Panasonic has taken a bit of a gamble in removing some of the features of the SX5's short-lived predecessor in order to cap the price.

However, while the disappearance of the DX1's mic input and headphone might be a source of regret for a few, there's no doubt that this isn't a concern for many users - whether first-timers or upgraders to HD - who want a good choice of tapeless media coupled with superb quality pictures and sound. In that respect they really can't go wrong with the HDC-SX5.