Panasonic's ground-breaking HDC-SD1, released earlier this year, wasn't the first video camera to allow HD video recording to truly flash media. But it remains the best 3CCD HD solid-state video camera by a mile - partly because it combines great optics with a relatively new system of compression called AVCHD to cram lots of complex picture and sound data into the incredibly small space that is an SD card.
Even as the SD1 continues to make its presence known in the marketplace, Panasonic has sprung a surprise on us in the form of the HDC-SD5, a new 3CCD model that shares many of its predecessor's characteristics. The exception is that this model produces the full 1920 x 1080 HD resolution as opposed to the SD1's 1440 pixels in the horizontal plane.
What's more, it's deceptively simple and uncluttered appearance hides a comprehensive set of digital and analogue connections in addition to some fantastic full-specification HD pictures and sounds.
Unlike its SD/DVD hybrid sister product, the HDC-SX5, the SD5 doesn't have a viewfinder and users have to rely on its widescreen 2.7-inch LCD screen for monitoring, although there is a choice of either silver or black body finishes.
Its main feature is its ability to record HD movies to high-capacity SD cards, with a single 4GB SDHC Class 6 card being supplied with every product.
The battery slot and SD card slot now share a compartment that's hidden away on the underside of the main body, whilst the Component Digital and AV output sockets sit behind a flap inside the LCD screen recess.
Behind the hand-strap is another contoured flap which hides the required HDMI port (for the output of full HD signals to HDTV and other devices) in addition to a USB Mini-B port. Unlike its predecessor, there's neither a headphone output nor external mic input jack socket on this model.
The main power dial at the rear of the cam provides access to both video and stills recording and playback functions, and is accompanied by a menu button and a waste bin.
Menu navigation and function selection is made with a mini-joystick, which is positioned on the rear far right, between the Mode Dial and the strap.
The SD5's three CCDs now deliver the full 1920 x 1080i HD specification (as opposed to the SD1 offering 1440 x 1080i), and images benefit from an improved Leica Dicomar 10x optical zoom lens.
Panasonic's excellent OIS (Optical Image Stabilisation) is also provided which, for the same reason, is vital in order to maintain hand-held stability.
A particularly useful new feature is something called PRE-REC, which means that you don't have to miss the beginning of that unexpected start to a piece of action as the camera powers up.
When activated, the camcorder continuously records three seconds of video by putting it into a cache, so you'll never miss that all-important goal or collapsing wedding cake.
With all recording taking place to an SD/SDHC card, it's important to have a means of archiving recorded clips and images, whether all or selected 'playlists' of items. Apart from having the useful ability to divide and trim clips within the camera itself, you can also export to DVD as either HD or SD.
Thanks to an optional VW-BN1 external DVD burner, it's possible to copy out the contents of your SD or SDHC card to DVD in a range of disc formats - including Blu-ray - via a supplied Mini-AB connector using the SD5 as the control device, and whilst monitoring operations on your TV.
When connected to the camera, standard 12cm discs can be played back from the burner to TV via the SD5's HDMI connection, which makes it a handy Blu-ray as well as standard DVD playback device. It's also worth noting that all files can be transferred to a PC, using the supplied HD-Writer software; or Apple Mac, which requires the latest iMovie '08.
Not only does the SD5 function well in manual mode but it's also pretty good in full auto as well.
Thanks to a new Intelligent Contrast Control - the result of continual monitoring and adjustment of picture contrast whilst recording in changeable light - it's possible to get a very good contrast ratio in addition to impressively good colour in good light.
Even in less than optimum conditions, the SD5 turns in an impressive performance, with image grain noticeable only when using the camera in particularly gloomy environments in which it's unreasonable to expect any self-respecting camera to work anyway.
Manual control is activated by a switch that's found inside the LCD recess and gives users access to iris, shutter, white balance and focus.
Using a graphical display in the LCD screen, adjustments are made by operation of the mini joystick to, firstly, choose the appropriate option (pressing the joystick to confirm) and the right and left clicks to vary settings up or down as appropriate.
So, to adjust the iris up or down simply flick the joystick right or left as you're recording, using the onscreen display as your guide. It's a standard Panasonic feature and once you get used to it, surprisingly, it works well.
Another of the SD1's features that's missing here is the 5.1ch surround sound microphone; instead, a standard stereo mic is to be found which points upwards above and behind the lens. Perhaps 5.1 sound isn't a priority, and the stereo is good - although it does suffer a little when even receiving even slight contact from wind.
However, it's the full-HD picture quality that most people will be really interested in, and in that respect the SD5 certainly doesn't disappoint. By careful monitoring of focus and exposure you'll get pictures that look absolutely fabulous when connected via the supplied HDMI cable on even a modest sized HD-Ready TV.
Thanks to the latest MPEG4-AVC/H.264 high-definition compression system, recordings and playback of HD clips to SD card was staggeringly good. In addition to this, it should be added, digital stills matched their quality at 2.1 megapixels in 16:9 aspect ratio.
In cutting some of its predecessor's features, is Panasonic giving us less - or is it merely coming to terms with what the target users actually want? Certainly, the increase in specification to 1920 horizontal pixels is a definite plus, as are the enhanced optics and improved OIS.
The option of the VW-BN1 DVD burner will undoubtedly attract many of those users who don't wish to opt for the SD5's sister product, the 'hybrid' SD/DVD HDC-SX5, especially since it can be used as a high-definition player when used in conjunction with the camera itself.
As a high-quality consumer video camera that's both highly functional and great to use, the HDC-SD5 has just about everything that the newbie could want.
Add to that the fact that it shoots fantastic full high-definition movies to completely solid-state media and it's fair to say that we have a real winner on our hands.