Ok, confession time. Right here, right up front: prior to being given the Panasonic HDC-SD100 to review, I hadn't used a camcorder since the late 80s, when my father brought home a bulky gray plastic box that sat on his shoulder and chewed up VHS tapes. On the other hand, I've been in the digital camera review business for a while now, so I've used many cameras' video recording features and have a general feel for how this stuff works. Right? Maybe not. Think of me as an advanced amateur.
What It's About
Like many new HD camcorders, the SD100 shoots for the elusive "prosumer" market segment. The goal here was to create a camcorder that is ideal for neophyte filmmakers on a budget who still want acceptable HD image quality and some advanced features. As such, the camcorder produces some inventive features not seen on other models in its class. First of all, unlike many HD camcorders on the market that are limited to 1080i recording, the SD100 is a true progressive HD camcorder, recording full 1080p video. This means that the video the camcorder shoots requires no deinterlacing in order to be edited---it is progressive by default.
The camcorder records to SD/SDHC cards only, unlike its bigger brother the HDC-HS100, which uses a hard drive. This is both a blessing and a disadvantage: due to the lack of a hard drive, the SD100 is smaller and lighter, and the video can be taken from computer to computer via a memory card without bringing the camcorder along; but on the flip-side, using the camcorder means buying additional cards whose storage space doesn't come close to matching the HS100's 60gb.
Four different recording qualities are available on the SD100, cryptically labeled HA, HG, HX, and HE. The first three are varying flavors of full 1920x1080 HD, while HE is the only one to dip into lower resolutions, at 1440x1080. HA mode offers the highest quality recording at a data throughput of 17mbps (roughly 1 hour of video on an 8-gigabyte SDHC card), compared to 6mbps in HE mode (3 hours of video on the same card). While the HG and HX modes provide a pickup in recording efficiency, the increased video compression is noticeable.
The camcorder records in the now-ubiquitous AVCHD format, which has gradually taken over the consumer and prosumer markets from HDV. Using the H.264 codec, it offers a quality of image close to HDV at a significantly lower bitrate. More importantly, it allows camcorders to record to flash drives (like SDHC) and hard drives. To record its images, the SD100 uses a new "3MOS" system, which uses three CMOS chips to create a composite HD image via the HD Crystal Engine image processor. Panasonic claims that using CMOS chips, rather than the CCDs used on previous camcorders, reduces power consumption and increases low light performance.
How It's Designed
The SD100 is a tiny piece of machinery,and weighs in at less than a pound with the battery pack installed. When used with the provided hand strap, it feels like a natural extension of the arm---the ergonomics of the camcorder are almost perfect. The record button and the shooting/playback mode control are directly under the right thumb, making them extremely easy to access. On the top of the camcorder, the right index finger sits on top of the zoom control and still image capture button. A diopter and a toggle to switch between LCD and electronic viewfinder viewing are nearby.
The SD100's viewfinder is one of two notable features that aren't found on other camcorders in its class. While the viewfinder is small and fixed, and of noticeably lower quality than the main LCD screen, it still provides substantial relief on extremely bright days. The other unique feature on the camcorder is a multi-function lens ring, which lets the user manual focus and zoom, as well as control a bevy of other settings. A small switch just ahead of the LCD housing changes the camcorder from manual to auto-focus and zoom. A button below it labeled "CAM FUNC" brings up a menu that allows the user to change the ring's function between white balance, shutter speed, and iris control. This is really a handy function, and the control works perfectly.
The LCD screen itself is a brilliant piece of work, displaying 300,000 pixels across 2.7 inches, with a viewing angle of 170 degrees both vertically and horizontally. The video it displays is fast and fluid except in the lowest of low light, and makes it easy to frame great shots. A warning will pop up often (perhaps too often) in the lower left corner of the screen to tell you if you're panning too quickly, and when in playback mode, the control display shows in the lower right corner.
While the component video output ports and SD card slot are smartly placed inside the LCD panel cavity (meaning under the LCD when it's closed), the decision to put the menu joystick control there as well is a bit questionable. Even more questionable is the call to put the USB2.0 and HDMI ports behind the battery slot. Yes, this means that in order to connect your camcorder directly to your PC, or to a HDTV via HDMI, the camcorder needs to be running on AC power. Furthermore, the HDMI port is the mini-HDMI type, meaning you'll need an adapter to use it with the average HDTV.
Other nice bonuses on the SD100 include a hot-shoe for external flashes and other accessories, a five-way microphone for 5.1 surround sound recording, and a jack for an external microphone. A dedicated button for a "pre-rec" mode allows the camcorder to continuously buffer three seconds of video until you decide you've caught something worth keeping.
Finally, on a purely aesthetic level it's a very pleasing piece of machinery. For one thing, the body has been very carefully designed to conceal all of the elements that are used only rarely (the hot shoe, the mic port, the SD card slot, etc). The only exception to this rule is the battery, which sits almost entirely exposed at the rear of the camcorder. This was undoubtedly done to make the behind-the-battery USB and HDMI ports easier to access in a hurry, but it sticks out like a sore thumb. The plastic casing is a sleek, subtly glittering black on the LCD side and a matte, slightly textured black on the grip side. The leather hand strap feels like it's made to a quality that will last for a good long while, and the metal lens ring has a very solid feel (not to mention extremely fluid movement).
Video Quality and More
The quality of video produced using HA mode (the highest-quality full 1080p mode) is very good indeed. As I noted in the opening paragraph of this review, I've not used HD camcorders before, so I cannot compare it to the quality produced by competing camcorders. But on my computer screen, on my standard definition television, and on a borrowed HDTV in full 1080p glory it looks just great. The image is fluid, the colors are remarkably true to life (if perhaps slightly on the oversaturated side), and the sound is surprisingly good and full-sounding with the on-board microphones. As usual with Panasonic camcorders, the "Mega" Optical Image Stabilization is well-implemented and produces very clear images in all but the most demanding conditions.
If I have to nitpick the image, I can say that I did notice some small amounts of fringing, and perhaps some over-sharpening in the imagesparticularly in extremely bright light. In extremely low light the performance falls off dramatically, with heavy grain/noise and a loss of color definition, but I have a feeling you'd be hard pressed to find a camcorder in this price/feature range that doesn't suffer a similar fate. AVCHD is a very compressed format, which on the one hand allows for extended recording on flash media, but on the other hand makes it susceptible to these symptoms. One other small quibble is that while the 42-505mm zoom range of the 12x optical Leica lens is very nice, I would have preferred to see a wider wide anglewhen shooting indoors and in other cramped spaces, it's very hard to produce shots with a proper sense of scale since the default wide angle is somewhat telephoto to begin with.
But on the whole, and particularly in ideal lighting conditions, I have to give major compliments to the tag-team of the lens, 3MOS sensor system, and HD Crystal Engine image processor. Given the price, this is a supremely capable camcorder. I could see students or amateur filmmakers producing viable low-budget short films or documentaries using it.
As a still camera, unsurprisingly, it doesn't fare as well. The camera's still image function reveals how poor the individual frames look when the video is not in motion. Nevertheless, this function can be useful if you simply need to document a moment and don't worry too much about the quality of the pictures.
The AVCHD video format is very easy to work with these days, and most major editing and video effects programs (including Adobe After Effects and Premiere, Sony Vegas, Apple Final Cut, and others) fully support it. Panasonic's own editing and burning software, HD Writer, is simple enough to use, though somewhat sluggish and initially confusing.
Given its list price of about US$1,000, the SD100 is in direct competition with the current class leaders from Canon, the HF10 and HF11. What the SD100 offers that these camcorders do not are small but vital touches like the hot shoe, manual zoom/focus ring, and viewfinder. In this sense, it truly does try to embrace its role as a prosumer model, offering some of the advanced touches normally found only on pro camcorders in conjunction with class-comparable image quality, size, and weight. I feel comfortable calling it an unqualified success.