The camcorder buyer is a somewhat fickle creature. A couple of years ago, everyone and their dog fell crazy-in-love with DVD cameras, a format that shone as brightly – and briefly – as a shooting star. Nowadays, it's all about flash memory and hard disk-based models; otherwise known as the new 'black' in home movie making.
- Records to both SD cards and inbuilt 30GB memory, high quality 3CCD sensors
- Underperformed in dim lighting, lacks certain selling points found in its cheaper siblings, connectivity is a pain
The SDR-H280 is a well-rounded hybrid camcorder that offers high-grade standard-definition video. It might not represent the best value for money when compared to Panasonic's other SD efforts, but it certainly offers the best video quality.
Price$ 1,209.00 (AUD)
Galvanised by this explosion in HDD/flash memory sales, Panasonic has attempted to combine the two into one versatile package. Its latest range of standard-definition camcorders includes four HDD models (compared to one DVD model); all of which are equipped with SD-card slots for additional storage and recording. Among these, the 30GB SDR-H280 stands out as the premium, top-tier model; outclassed only by the high-definition HDC-HS9 . While it performed solidly for a standard-def camera, it lacks some of the beginner-friendly features found on the SDR-H40 and SDR-H60; two cheaper models that arguably offer better value for money.
Indeed, at first glance the SDR-H280 appears to be inferior to its two HDD siblings, despite being burdened with a higher price tag. Both the H40 and H60 come equipped with bigger hard drives (40GB and 60GB respectively) as well as larger optical zooms (an enormous 42x and 50x, compared to the H280's piddling 10x). What the SDR-H280 does offer however, is an advanced 3CCD camera system and Leica Dicomar lens for optimum image clarity, colour and gradation. (The H40 and H60 only sport single CCD sensors.)
This presents the consumer with an interesting dilemma – should you go for the superior image quality of the H280, or the higher memory and optical magnification of the H40/ H60? Personally, we think the latter option represents a better bargain; particularly when it comes to casual users. (If you're serious about image quality, you're obviously better off getting a high-definition model – many of which cost around the same price as the SDR-H280.) With all that being said, the H280 remains a well-rounded hard disk-based camcorder that offers superior high-grade SD footage. As such, it will mainly appeal to serious users who aren't ready to make the leap to HD.
During our testing, we were fairly impressed with the H280's video performance, although results did tend to vary depending on the shooting conditions at hand. Naturally, it faired a lot worse in poorly lit environments, where graininess swiftly enveloped the picture. While this is a common complaint levelled at most digital camcorders, the noise levels we encountered seemed slightly higher than normal. At 3.1 megapixels, its still image capabilities could never hope to compete with a dedicated compact camera, yet they remain adequate for occasional snap shots. All up, we wouldn't exactly class the H280's output as perfect, yet it should nevertheless satisfy the average user.
When it comes to design, the H280 is a curious throwback to camcorders of old. From its dull grey-and-silver finish to its protruding rear-mounted battery, it looks like a model from Panasonic's previous generation of camcorders. On the plus side, it manages to strike a good balance between weight and portability, with its slightly heavier dimensions helping to minimise shaky footage. In another nod to the past, the miniature directional stick is located at the back of the unit in easy reach of the thumb. We actually prefer this layout, as it allows you to access the menu without needing to use two hands (most new camcorder models mount the directional stick near the LCD screen).
The H280 comes equipped with an impressive assortment of manual settings (including shutter, gain and aperture), though most of these are controlled via the directional stick. This is especially problematic when attempting to adjust the focus, which requires minute precision (rather cheekily, Panasonic has included what looks like a focus ring on the lens barrel, but this is only used to open the lens cap). Other than an obligatory fade in/fade out function, the SDR-H280 does away with any inbuilt digital effects. This means you'll need to invest in some editing software if you yearn to film your friends in 'sepia', or whatever. The included night mode is also of little use, as it simply adjusts the exposure and shutter speed for an unattractive 'strobe' effect.
Like most standard-def HDD camcorders, the H40 records video in the MPEG2 format. Transferring your footage to a computer with the supplied software is fairly straightforward; though the placement of the USB port beneath the battery recess is bound to cause a few headaches. This forces you to plug your camera into a power socket whenever you want to access your HDD footage. As for editing on a notebook while on location – forget about it.
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