High-definition camcorders really do represent something to get excited about. The camcorder market has laboured in recent years to find an innovation or technology that could really yank consumers into stores; DVD and Hard Disk Drive might have been easy concepts to understand, and camcorder prices have continued to plummet, but these steps haven't really ignited the imagination.
HDV, with its emphasis on image quality, transcends these more basic conceits. This is because it's about what you see on screen, and that makes it about improving the experience of shooting and watching home movies.
Panasonic's HDC-SD1, like Sony's HDR-SR1, uses the new AVCHD recording format. But, you'll find a catalogue of differences between the two models, something that is likely to make a buying decision a more complicated one.
The SD records HD images onto SDHC (SD High Capacity) removable memory cards, using an MPEG4 AVC/H.264 compression codec. The 4GB card (which is supplied) gives it the capacity to store 40 minutes of footage at the highest quality, and one hour and 30 minutes of movies using the lowest quality setting.
This is a long way from the 4-20 hours of footage available on Sony's SR1, which uses a 30GB Hard Disk Drive (HDD). But, with the cost of removable storage still continuing to fall, Panasonic's (strong) argument would be that consumers can buy extra SDHC cards to increase capacity at low cost, and there are benefits in having your movies on separate cards - as opposed to all of them on one hard-disk drive.
The 4GB storage card supplied with the sales pack is an SDHC version - the HC standing for High Capacity. An HC-type is your best bet for high-quality movies, in capacity terms alone, however, it is possible to use 256MB, 512MB, 1GB and 2GB SD cards to record movies.
The HDR-SD is smaller than its Sony competitor, but only marginally. It is lighter though, settling on the scales at 490g with its battery and SD card. The Sony model weighs in at 720g. There's certainly not much to choose between them in handling stakes however.
The Panasonic is remarkably comfortable in the hand, courtesy of a contoured design on the right flank that fits snugly into the palm. It's also easy to use as the main features are accessed via an onscreen menu and a joystick controller at the back of the camcorder.
We recommend that all moviemakers have a supply of spare batteries, and this is definitely the case with the SD1. There is no optical viewfinder, so all framing and reviewing has to be done via the 3-inch colour LCD screen - unlike Sony's SR1 this is not a touchscreen LCD. The lack of a viewfinder puts extra strain on the battery as it's constantly powering the LCD screen.
Recent Panasonic models have benefited from a Help mode that can be activated when using the joystick controller and menu system. Users get a short description of what a feature does, when activating the onscreen help. This is also on the SD1 and adds to its high ease of use mark.
The camcorder doesn't make any radical departures from the sort of filmmaking features that you'd find on conventional mini DV or DVD models, so there's the usual mixture of program AE modes and manual controls - including focus, white balance and shutter speeds.
Where it does differ is in the three recording modes available: HF, HN and HE. Select HF mode from the menu and you get the highest HD picture quality (1080i) possible, and can record for up to 40 minutes. Select another setting and your capacity increases as image quality drops. Unfortunately, the SD1 doesn't have the same versatility as Sony's SR1, which allows users to switch between HD and standard-definition (SD) footage.
To match the leap in image quality that HD footage delivers Panasonic has made an effort to ensure audio recording doesn't fall behind. The SD1 captures sound in Dolby Digital, and is capable of producing 5.1 channel surround sound.
On the top of the camcorder are the grilles for five internal microphones. The SD1 features Dolby Digital 5.1 Creator so with these mics you can record audio closer to the actual sound. The low bass area is sent to the 0.1 channel subwoofer and you can play back with 3D presence on DD5.1-equipped devices.
Playback options are limited to simply watching your clips and photos, with the odd slow-motion and frame-by-frame playback thrown in for good measure. It is possible to delete or protect individual clips and photos though. There's no such thing as Playlist creation however, as those familiar with DVD cams might be used to.
The camcorder does provide a great selection of sockets and connections. From an HDMI terminal that allows you to hook your camcorder up to an HD-ready TV and enjoy your images at the highest resolution, to component and AV outputs for connecting to analogue devices.
A USB port is included for transferring images to a computer, although the software provided on the CD-ROM is for Windows PCs only. It's very limited software - with only
For the majority of home moviemakers the image and audio quality possible with the SD1 is going to be streets ahead of what they're used to. Camcorders like this Panasonic model simply offer more clarity, fine detail and better colour reproduction than budget and mid-range models.
We viewed test footage via HDMI on a 32in HD-ready set, as well as using a composite connection on a 28in standard-definition set. The HD footage is exemplary. Filled with bags of detail - you can almost feel the texture of plants and flowers.
Images are solid and stable in HD, and the auto systems cement the high standard of performance, being incredibly reliable. Even the audio is a cut- above the normal on-camera standard - with a wide soundfield and crisp and clear delivery on most occasions.
With a standard-definition connection there is evidence of picture instability (jitter), which is noticeable at the edges of the screen, and on complex scenes where the camcorder is searching for a main focal point. However, the overall picture and sound quality is on a par with the best in high-end mini DV camcorders.
The Panasonic HDC-SD1is a camcorder that you're going to want to make movies on. It simply shouts out to be used, and to have the most made of its wide range of features. For such a great model there's not a lot of fuss either - it's just great at capturing knockout movie footage. The price tag will put it out of reach for some consumers, but this is a camcorder you really should want to save up for!