Panasonic HDC-SD9 review

Panasonic's full High Definition camcorder, which records straight to SD card, is claimed to be the smallest and lightest in the world. So how does it measure up in its Best4Reviews test?

Mini DV, Blu-ray disc or HDD? It’s the question every camcorder user is asking these days when it comes to format choice. But Panasonic’s latest High Def palm model, the HDC-S9, is offering up another option – the common use SD or bigger capacity SDHC card for the storage and retrieval of both moving images and stills. Many rival units feature the format as an optional add on for storing stills only, and, although commonplace on digital stills cameras, it’s a surprising rarity to find a camcorder in the HDC-SD9’s class that allows the recording of both to card.

The fact that said memory cards are the size of postage stamps has also enabled the Panasonic device to be one of the very smallest and lightest full High Definition recording units available, while furthermore suggesting the possibility for future expansion of the HDC-SD9’s storage capacity, with Panasonic announcing their own brand 32MB SDHC card at the time of its release. By way of example, a 16GB card will allow six hours’ worth of HD footage.

The coding it utilises is the new H.264 technology which claims to allow high image compression whilst still maintaining full 1920x1080 pixels High Definition resolution – thus enabling more footage than ever to be squeezed into whatever storage capacity the user has available.

Another claimed world’s first for the camcorder brigade is built-in face detection, whereby the camera will lock focus on faces wherever they are in the compositional frame, adjusting exposure, white balance and contrast to deliver what it determines are the most flattering results. A built-in Intelligent Shooting Guide additionally warns novices of easy mistakes such as panning too fast, or shooting in lighting conditions that are too low, with on-screen prompts to that effect.

With the Panasonic HDC-SD9 you also get 5.1-channel surround sound via zoom microphone that handily cuts out background chatter, plus a 3CCD configuration – like JVC’s acclaimed High Definition GZ-HD3 reviewed elsewhere on this site – basically one for each primary colour and thus claimed to deliver more true to life results than just the (typical) one sensor sported by most other camcorders in its class can manage.

Sounds good, so how does the HDC-SD9 respond in practice?

As with its Lumix camera range, Panasonic’s HDC-SD9 camcorder is both intuitive to use and fast to respond. Like rivals, the lozenge shaped rechargeable lithium ion battery supplied is slotted onto the rear of the camcorder. Then all you need to do is slide your fingers under the side strap, flip open the good quality, 300k pixel LCD screen (stored flush to the unit when not in operation) and, courtesy of its 0.6-second quick start, you’re ready to begin filming Jaws 6: Fish Face in Space.

A 10x optical zoom range may seem modest for a ‘video’ camera, but lens quality is provided by the renowned Leica, with a multi coating on the glass helping to diminish lens flare, image ghosting, and other nasties. The zoom is also backed up with Advance Optical Image Stabilisation – a lens shift mechanism – to prevent the effects of hand wobble showing up on screen, especially when shooting at maximum telephoto (zoom) setting. Panasonic claims its system checks for hand-shake an incredible 4000 times per second. Whatever the maths, the result is commendably judder free shooting.

Ergonomics are also good. While the zoom lever, which doubles up as a volume control when watching back footage in-camera, falls under your forefinger, the record button is directly below your thumb. Maintaining the user friendly feel, a simple three-step slider just behind the zoom control lets you quickly swap between image capture, playback and off, while a slightly raised shutter for stills capture sits directly in front of it.

As you’d expect, the HDC-SD9 features HDMI output so you can hook it up to your HD-ready TV, plus bog standard AV cables for standard definition (non digital) sets. Another feature worth mentioning in such instances is Panasonic’s exclusive Digital Cinema colour function, claiming to ape Hollywood film making with lush hues, and when played back on TV’s with xv colour compatibility (you guessed it, Panasonic’s own Viera range) provides access to a wider colour range than conventionally recorded images.

What else could you wish for? An extra 60GB hard drive on board perhaps, but this would inevitably add to the bulk of the unit. As it is, Panasonic’s HDC-SD9 offers a streamlined option for those videographers who merely want to point and shoot with a unit that’s small enough to carry around with you at all times – and won’t leave an unsightly bulge in those baggy beach shorts.

But, while the Panasonic seems like a good mid range option, its performance in low light is not as good as the JVC we tested earlier, with image quality not as crisp overall. The HDC-SD9’s auto white balance performance is also variable, with colour casts at times, while its audio is not quite as ‘full’ sounding as we’d have wished. It therefore appears that you sacrifice a modicum of quality for a camcorder this diminutive, but, given the ease of use and responsiveness, many users may feel it’s a sacrifice worth making.

The Panasonic HDC-SD9 is small and perfectly formed, but appears more a triumph of design and engineering over performance - meaning that there are models out there (JVC's GZ-HD3) that will deliver better overall results for a similar price or a little bit more (£100+ in the case of the JVC). However the diminutive size of the HDC-SD9 may be worth a certain amount of compromise, and you wouldn't notice it falling short of others if viewing the results in isolation anyway.