Sometimes an excellent operating system can be made even better
- Ultra lightweight design, stunning 'full HD' video resolution, improved battery/SD card arrangement, solid still images mode, Face Detection technology
- SDHC media not cheap, no external microphone jack
The HDC-SD9 is an evolutionary upgrade of the SD5. While the majority of changes are arguably minor, they combine to lift the camcorder head-and-shoulders above its predecessor, not to mention the majority of competitors.
Price$ 1,869.00 (AUD)
When it comes to releasing new hardware, Panasonic certainly isn't a company to rest on its laurels. Early in 2007 it unveiled the world's first high-definition SD/SDHC camcorder (the HDC-SD1); a model that was superseded less than six months later by the HDC-SD5. Now, barely a year since the technology first made its appearance, the prolific manufacturer is aiming for a blistering hat trick with yet another SDHC model – the HDC-SD9. While it remains a fairly nominal upgrade, the HDC-SD9 does benefit from a host of significant improvements, making it a punctual yet worthy successor.
So what's new about the HDC-SD9 to justify its (arguably premature) existence? To be honest, when we first got our hands on the unit we were plagued with a vivid sense of deja vu. In terms of appearance and components, it feels almost identical to its predecessor, sporting the same trio of 1/6-inch CCD sensors, 10x optical zoom lens, AVCHD video codec and 1920x1080 pixel resolution.
However, further investigation uncovers some intriguing new additions; including – crucially – the ability to record footage in 'full' 1080p HD (the previous model offered interlaced video only). Dubbed '25P Cinema Mode', this recording option offers rich, true-to-life colours that mimic the feel of celluloid; handy if you're into short filmmaking. Other new features include a 75x burst shooting mode for still photos, Face Detection, which automatically adjusts the exposure to present faces in the best possible light, and Intelligent Shooting Guide.
Intelligent Shooting Guide is a new shooting mode aimed squarely at the entry-level user. It basically acts like a know-it-all friend; alerting you when you're doing something wrong with handy on screen messages. In theory, this is supposed to help you create error-free footage from the moment you start shooting, but during testing, we found its advice to be a bit hit-and-miss (at times it neglected to mention we were panning too fast, despite shaking the camcorder like a maraca). It also assumes you know basic shooting terminology; which might leave the odd novice in the dark. With that being said, it remains a very interesting feature that is bound to improve in future hardware releases.
In terms of design and build quality, the HDC-SD9 could pass for the SD5's genetically enhanced twin brother. Measuring 65x67x126mm and weighing just 275g, it is slightly smaller than its predecessor, making it the world's most compact 3CCD HD camcorder (a distinction previously held by the SD5). While this might give jittery-handed individuals moment for pause, the advanced image stabiliser thankfully goes a long way to making your footage shake-free. The old adage 'practice makes perfect' naturally applies here.
Another notable difference between the HDC-SD9 and HDC-SD5 is the placement of the battery and SD card slot, which has been shifted to the back of the unit instead of directly underneath. This is a huge boon for frequent tripod users, as you no longer have to unscrew the camera to remove cards or swap batteries. Taking a cue from JVC's Everio range, Panasonic has also moved the directional stick – used for menu navigation – so that it resides near the LCD. While it feels more naturally placed due to its close proximity to the menu screen, it also required two-handed operation when selecting modes or making adjustments. Personally, we kind of prefer the old back-mounted stick, but it remains a teensy quibble. (Incidentally, the menu is well laid out and simple to use, with plenty of manual options for a hands-on approach, including focus, audio, aperture and shutter speed.)
One thing we would have liked to see changed is the lack of an external microphone jack. As it stands, you're stuck with the SD9's inbuilt microphone. It's just as well then, that the 5.1-channel surround sound it captures is of a particularly stellar quality. Home theatre owners will naturally benefit from this hugely; with the subtle combination of ambient sounds putting you back in the moment where the footage was captured.
As you've no doubt gleaned by now, the HDC-SD9 uses SD memory cards to record video in the AVCHD format. Both standard-def and HD footage are supported, with a 16GB card capturing up to two hours of 1920x1080p video. During our testing, it gave a close-to-faultless performance despite some rather drab lighting conditions, with stunningly vibrant images enriched with razor sharp detail. While it did exhibit some minor noise issues at dusk, this is a common fault found in almost every camcorder including prosumer models. In any event, the Colour Night View went some way to alleviating this problem, offering smooth, monochrome-free footage. All up, we were hugely impressed with the quality of our output, including still images which we found worthy of making medium-sized prints with. This makes the SD9 one of the few camcorders on the market that can double as a compact camera; thus bolstering its value for money.
Unfortunately, the same cannot be said about the price of SDHC cards. Although the RRP has plummeted since its introduction, the media is still far from cheap. Currently, 16GB cards will set you back around $400 a pop; a far cry from the likes of DVD or Mini DV tapes. Of course, it could be argued that the benefits of SDHC media far outweigh the costs, including longer battery life, sound-free operation, smaller camcorder size and instant 'cable-free' playback on SD-compatible computers. Irregardless of its merit, it is becoming rapidly obvious that flash memory media is where the future of camcorder technology currently lies. Also sweetening the deal is the inclusion of a 32GB SDHC card in the sales package.
The HDC-SD9 will be available in March for an RRP of $1869. A $2299 kit version will also be available, including a mini-HDMI cable, a VW-BN1E DVD burner for computer-free disc copy, and Pinnacle software for AVCHD editing.
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