Panasonic HDC-SD100

A compact, high-definition Panasonic camcorder with a 3-chip sensor.

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Panasonic HDC-SD100
  • Panasonic HDC-SD100
  • Panasonic HDC-SD100
  • Panasonic HDC-SD100

Pros

  • Compact size, external audio jack, 24p progressive scan mode

Cons

  • Poorly thought out design, below par image quality, too expensive

Bottom Line

The Panasonic HDC-SD100 provides a great set of well-implemented tools that are in the right place at the right price. Unfortunately, poor connection placement and poor imaging make it hard to recommend this camcorder.

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Panasonic's small and conveniently packed HDC-SD100 camcorder uses a three-chip image sensor, a rarity in the consumer camcorder market these days. But the Panasonic HDC-SD100 HD uses that three-chip sensor to make up for each individual sensor's anaemic 1/6in size. There are many great features on the HDC-SD100, but image quality unfortunately isn't one of them.

The Panasonic HDC-SD100 is very comfortable to hold and shoot with. Panasonic uses a lens ring that gives the HDC-SD100 great manual control, and the ring is truly intuitive. You can use it to adjust the focus, iris, shutter speed, and white balance. The Panasonic HDC-SD100's manual tools provide an easy way to deal with challenging shooting environments when the stock camera responses just aren't enough. It's much more effective than jumping through menus.

The focus assist that pops up when you are focusing (giving you a zoomed-in sample of the image to focus on) is a great and well-implemented tool. We did find it curious that, in adjusting the white balance settings, you have access to preset values only; you cannot, for instance, smoothly change the color temperature by 100-degree increments.

The Panasonic HDC-SD100 has a viewfinder; cute, but most people won't use it and many people will accidentally hit the EVF/LCD switch on the top of the camcorder and then be confused as to why the video isn't showing up on the LCD (when you change from LCD to EVF, the LCD turns off). This is usually a power-saving feature, but looking through a viewfinder on a small camcorder hurts the video due to added hand movement.

The component out port, AV/headphone jack, and SD card access are conveniently placed and protected on the side of the Panasonic HDC-SD100 (though we have some concerns about the longevity of the SD card release; it feels a little cheap, like it would just stop working over time). However, the power, mini-HDMI, and USB connectors are behind the battery. This means you're forced to plug the Panasonic HDC-SD100 into an external power outlet to pull data off the card (without a card reader) or to use the HDMI connection. When we did transfer video from the Panasonic HDC-SD100 to a PC, we had no problems importing the movie files.

The Panasonic HDC-SD100 HD captures 5.1-channel surround sound that works surprising well. In addition to the onboard microphones, the camera provides an external audio input in the front. It's a great implementation; you have the sound-in jack up front, and the headphone jack to the side. With these items plugged in, the cables don't conflict with each other when they are both being used by the more discerning shooter. If you're planning to do anything remotely professional (like podcasting), separate audio-in is key.

Panasonic will extol the virtues of three-chip imaging sensors and tell you how great they are in low light and detail. Unfortunately, none of this is evident in the Panasonic HDC-SD100. To be blunt, the image quality was just okay in good light (3,000 lux) and a mess in low light (300 lux).

The loss in detail in low light situations was dramatic, and 300 lux isn't even what some would call true low light. The lesson here is that a 1/6-inch sensor is not enough for a camcorder at this price point. It's not about the colour or even the graininess (we would expect some degradation in low light here), but the image just gets much softer in resolution tests. This kind of problem is normal for small cameras like the Flip Mino, but at the price point Panasonic is selling into, this is unacceptable.

As something of a consolation prize, the Panasonic HDC-SD100 does shoot at 24p (progressive scan video at 24 frames per second), which is a great feature and something every camcorder should have when consumers are shooting for output to a computer or LCD. The Panasonic HDC-SD100 saves the video at 17 megabits per second; normally, we like to see a little higher rate (like Canon's 24Mbps) but we don't think the higher bit rate would capture any more data through the sensors that are provided.

The still photo quality is okay, capturing shots at 1,920 by 1,080 pixels. But the small sensor size also adversely affects photos. In both video and stills, size does matter. The Panasonic HDC-SD100 HD features facial recognition and optical image stabilisation, which both work well.

One of the unique features of the HDC-SD100 (which we'd love to see in other camcorders) is the integrated menu explanation system. As you are going through the menus on the HDC-SD100, short SMS-length descriptions of each feature pop up. These work remarkably well and speed up the acclimation process a great deal. In conjunction with the surprisingly well-engineered joystick, the camcorder settings are some of the easiest to navigate of any camcorder that we've tested.

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