New camcorders promise HD for the novice

The HDC-HS9 boasts a 60GB hard disk

Panasonic’s HDC-SD5 was the surprise camcorder hit of 2007, ending the year as the number one-selling HD model. Its HDC-SX5 hybrid sibling has won a few critical plaudits, too. Now Panasonic has launched follow-ups in the shape of the HDC-SD9 and HDC-HS9 at its

HD Networking Convention 2008

in Valencia, Spain.

First previewed at CES in January, the new camcorders pack a lot of technology to help the novice video maker. The HDC-SD9 is the pure SD memory-based version, and is slightly smaller than its SD5 predecessor. The HDC-HS9 is quite a bit fatter, as it also incorporates a 60GB hard disk.

Other than that, the two models have basically the same specification. Both use a three-CCD light sensor system, with one chip for each colour channel. This makes for improved colour fidelity. They both have optical image stabilisation, too, which keeps shaky camerawork stable without the quality issues of the cheaper electronic variety. But these features are nothing new from the previous models.

What is new is the extra electronics Panasonic has added on the top. First of all, these camcorders at last record Full HD. Not only are they capable of 1,920 x 1,080 video, they can shoot with progressive scanning, where their predecessors still used interlacing. Using the H.264-based AVCHD format, the top data rate has been bumped up to 17Mbps, too.

This is the highest we’ve seen in an AVCHD camcorder yet, although you will only fit half an hour on a 4GB SDHC card at this rate. Panasonic’s new 32GB SDHC card would be a better bet.

New technologies for the novice

Another new addition to the electronic wizardry is Face Detection, a technology starting to become familiar in digital cameras. This picks up human faces and then ensures they are exposed correctly. So if your subjects are standing in front of a bright sky, they won’t look too dark. The SD9 and HS9 can now perform the same trick with video, although Sony is also introducing something similar in its camcorders.

To further assist the novice, Panasonic has added the Intelligent Shooting Guide. Unlike other technologies for making camcorder usage easier, this merely lets you know when it thinks you are doing things wrong. It’s still up to you to correct the situation. For example, if you are panning too fast or shooting a backlit subject, or you have Low Light turned on when the lighting conditions are fine, the Intelligent Shooting Guide will suggest how you can improve matters.

The SD9 and HS9 don’t have the facility to add your own external microphone, which does limit them to the point-and-shoot user. But they do have the ability to record 5.1 sound using an array of five microphones arranged in a cross.

These allow the camcorders to position sound front and back, but also enable a couple of other useful abilities. As well as making the Zoom Mic more effective, they are also called upon for the Focus Mic function. This cancels out extraneous noise coming from sources not currently in the video frame, reducing background sound.

Panasonic has also carried the Digital Cinema Colour it is introducing with its VIErA TVs over to the new camcorders. This uses the xvYCC colour space to create even more faithful and vibrant images, but you will need a Panasonic VIErA TV which also supports Panasonic’s Digital Cinema Colour to see the end results. For the budding Eadweard Muybridges, the new camcorders can shoot 2.1megapixel still images in a burst of up to 72 in three seconds – perfect for analysing how your pet dog runs or to find out what’s wrong with your cricket batting.

Is that a camcorder in your pocket?

Both camcorders are officially on sale in the UK right now, so should be available from your favourite online shop very soon. In terms of raw camcorder capabilities, the SD9 and HS9 aren’t a huge leap away from their predecessors. But with the market veering away from enthusiastic hobbyists towards the novice, they both look like worthwhile improvements.

The HS9 is already apparently selling very well in Japan. But for sheer gadget desirability the SD9 wins hands down. It’s so small and light there will be little excuse not to have it on you at all times.