I’ve been considering adding some video segments to Navagear, and being the gear geek that I am, have been keeping an eye out for an interesting, bleeding edge camcorder to get started with. Since catching word of the Panasonic HDC-SD1 in the gadgets and video blogs a couple months ago, I’ve been eager to get my hands on it. And unexpectedly finding it in-stock at a Circuit City in Seattle put me over edge.
Notable features of the SD1:
- Shoots high definition video in a new format called AVCHD
- Records to postage stamp-sized SDHC memory cards
- Has a microphone input (necessary for good quality audio recording)
- A decent range of manual controls for creative control
- 10x zoom range
New High Definition Video Format
In order to cram high definition videos into a small amount of space, Panasonic and Sony teamed up to create a new format called AVCHD. The SD1 records about 40 minutes of 1080i video onto the included 4 gigabyte memory card. Right off, I bought an 8 gigabyte SDHC card (Transcend brand), which gives an additional, nice, roomy 1 hour and 20 minutes of recording. When the card is full, you just transfer the videos over to your computer, and clear out the card for new stuff.
An important note is that the new AVCHD format makes for some serious complications in watching and editing your footage. None of the mainstream video editing products currently available can edit AVCHD directly. The situation is only slightly better for viewing the footage on a computer, as PowerDVD 7 and the newly released Nero player can play back the recordings on a PC. Ahem. Well, sort of. You need a pretty honkin’ fast PC. And Nero, which has a downloadable trial version that I’ve tried, has some serious audio synchronization issues.
The camera itself includes composite and HDMI cables for hooking up to a TV for viewing, as well as a USB connector for transferring videos back and forth between the camcorder and a computer.
Included in the package is HDWriter, a software application for transferring videos to a computer and doing some very simple editing. However, it does not allow you to save the footage to other formats, and while you can actually view the video, it’s only in a small, non-resizable window. It’s a really minimally functional piece of software, and doesn’t follow reasonable user interface conventions. Seriously, Panasonic, stick to the hardware.
If you’ve shot any video with a DV camera with the intent of editing it on a computer, you’ve seen that transferring the footage takes as long as the recording itself. The camera has to play back the contents on the tape at normal speed, while the computer captures it. With a memory card, the transfer is much faster—on the order of a few minutes to transfer an hour’s worth of footage.
The SD1 uses a new card format, called SDHC, which looks exactly like an SD card, but won’t work in many of the card readers out there. So, until you lay hands on an SDHC card reader, you need to transfer your footage with the included USB cable. Strangely, this exposes one of the camera’s quirks: you have to have both the battery and the external power plugged in for the transfer mode to work. This can be really inconvenient, especially if you are on the road, because you’ll need the AC adapter, the USB cable, and the AC-adapter-to-camera-cable all plugged in. And you can’t charge the battery while everything is plugged in—it has to come out of the camera and go on the AC charger.
This is one of the main criteria I had for a new camera—a microphone input is a necessity for good quality audio, as the built-in mics on most cameras pick up all kinds of noise you don’t want. The SD1 has a somewhat gimmicky surround sound mic on top, with 5 little pickup areas, and there are settings in the menus that can filter out some wind noise, and create a more directional effect when zooming in on something. But the mic input is what makes this camera usable for more than just family memories. The record level is even settable, and the Automatic Gain Control can be switched off, which is very unusual in a consumer camcorder. There’s even a little VU meter that shows on the display while recording—hot diggidy!
Unfortunately, the SD1 is missing the other side of the audio equation: a headphone jack. This is needed so that you can hear what the camera is hearing, and make adjustments before it’s too late, i.e. when you are playing back your video later. Actually, I’m a little confused as to whether there might be a headphone capability. According to a reviewer at SimplyDV, who got to a nice preview junket for the camera’s launch, there is an adapter for the A/V plug that allows headphone out. I haven’t been able to find any other reference to this capability, though, so the jury’s out.
Under the port covers on the left and right sides of the camera are a range of connections. On the left you find a slot for the memory card; an AV connector for plugging into standard TV inputs; a component out for analog inputs on an HDTV; 1/8 inch stereo mic input; and the DC power adapter plug.
On the right hand side of the camera is another port cover, hiding the USB and HDMI connectors. The USB lets you connect the SD1 to a computer for transferring video and stills from to and from the storage card, and HDMI is a digital interface that carries both audio and video signals to newer HDTVs.
On the bottom of the camcorder are the tripod connector and battery compartment. The standard tripod threaded socket is metal, so should hold up to regular use.
The covered battery compartment limits the ability to add higher capacity batteries, so if you want to shoot more than about an hour, you will need to be prepared to switch to a new battery. And as mentioned before, the battery is only charged outside the camera on its charging cradle.
To be continued…
Check back, as I’ll get into the controls and use (pretty good manual options and easy handling) of the HDC-SD1, and finally the actual quality of the video (nice color and low light performance, but not super-sharp).