First Impressions of My New Panasonic HDC-SD1 CamcorderMarch 31st, 2007 — dan.lin
Being new parents to our 10 week old daughter we decided to get ourselves a HD camcorder so we can capture all the little moments early on. Having looked around in the market for awhile we decided on getting the Panasonic HDC-SD1 based on the following criteria.
1. Tapeless recording to removable media
2. 3 CCD for better color saturation
3. Compact in size for easy transport and handling
4. 1080i or higher for best quality playback on our TV set
Right off the bat the first criterion narrowed us down to just a few choices. We looked at the Sanyo Xacti HD1 and HD2 pretty extensively and was really close from pulling the trigger when we first heard about the HDC-SD1. The Xacti would have been great regardless but the fact that the HDC-SD1 is a 3-CCD camcorder is what sealed the deal for me. The other main difference in picture quality is the Xacti shoots in 720p vs. the Pany’s 1080i. It isn’t that big of a deal for most people and some may even prefer the progressive mode but we are happy so far with the decision.
The HDC-SD1 uses the new AVC-HD format co-developed by Sony and Panasonic. Compared to the previous consumer HD format (HDV) which records in MPEG-2 at a bitrate of 25 Mbits, AVCHD is based on H.264 (a variant of MPEG-4) and records at only 18 Mbits. Although the bitrate is lower than HDV, the higher and more advanced compression actually produces equal if not better quality images. HDV also shoots non-square pixels producing videos at 1440×1080 where as AVCHD shoots at a full 1920×1080.
One of the biggest complaints so far in all the reviews on the Web is the lack of editing solutions for the recording format. As of today, there are no NLEs that support this format. Ulead’s DVD Movie Factory 6 apparently is able to edit AVCHD videos but I have not tried it first hand so I can not comment on the effectiveness of the application. What I really need is for my NLEs of choice (Premier Pro for Windows and Final Cut Pro on the Mac) to add native support for this new format but that may not come for awhile. For the time being, I am stock piling video footage on DVD data discs for that day when my computer is powerful enough and Adobe and Apple decide that AVCHD is a worth while format to support.
The camcorder is about the size of a can of soda (or beer if you prefer. and Bud Light I do) and comes with a decent amount of gear to get you going immediately out of the box. A 4 GB SDHC card is included that will allow you to shoot 40 minutes of footage at the highest setting. This is ideal for someone who wishes to back up to standard single layer DVD-R or DVD+R discs as they store just over 4 GB of data per disc. Also in the box is a USB cable for connecting the camera to the computer as well as component and composite cables for outputting to your TV set. No HDMI cable is included but you should be able to pick one up for about 15 bucks online. Just don’t get fooled by your local Best Buy or Circuit City into buying a $100 cable. HDMI is a digital interface and it will look the same regardless which cable you use. The only difference will be the sturdiness of the cable so find one that looks like it will last awhile. One of the quirks with the camcorder is that it does not have the battery attached to it externally as most camcorders. It makes for a very clean exterior but prevents the use of a larger capacity battery. Fully charged the battery will last you about an hour so sooner or later you will need to buy a second battery. You can however power the camcorder on AC but while it is plugged in, you are not able to charge the battery at the same time. The battery door on the unit has a covered port that might be used in the future as a dummy insert which connects to a large external battery pack that can be mounted below via the tripod mount. As of today no such battery pack exists but it would be very nice when it does.
SDHC card, AC, Composite, Component and Mic-In ports.
HDMI and USB2 ports. (Quit eyeing my stack of quarters!)
Top of the unit with its built-in 5.1 surround microphone setup. Probably not gonna get a whole lot of definition in the surround sound is my guess.
LCD screen in the open position. Duh.
Battery door. Note the little plastic notch that comes out to reveal a port for future external battery pack. Perhaps.
Back of the unit where a normal view finder would be. Except here we just have the dial for changing camcorder functionality and a joystick for controlling menu options.
LEICA lens!!! (whatever.) and the 43mm lens mount for wide angle and telephoto adapters.
The lens of the unit is Leica branded but in today’s world, that might just be a marketing ploy to gain some brand credibility. The pictures do look very good so I’ll leave that decision up to you. The camcorder will also take a 43mm adapter for added telephoto or wide angle abilities. The rest of the camcorder is pretty minimalistic with much of the manual controls buried within the menu system via a miniature joystick near your right thumb. It takes a little getting used to but it is not too bad. I will mostly use it on auto mode as it is not a camcorder intended for professional use. There is no viewfinder which I am assuming is an intentional omission to save space as well as costs. Panasonic is making the assumption that consumer camcorder users will mostly use the flip out screen for monitoring and they are probably right with that assumption. The only thing the viewfinder would have been nice to have is to conserve battery life since the standard battery does not particularly last very long. Getting the files off of the included 4GB SDHC disc is a little bit quirky as it required you to have the AC adapter plugged as well as the battery in place. Once it is connected the camcorder is automatically recognized under Windows XP as a Mass-Storage Device and file transfer via USB2 is fast and trouble free.
The easiest way to get your AVCHD video on to your TV right now is to connect directly to the camcorder using an (not included) HDMI cable. The quality if the video is astounding. Color reproduction and sharpness are as good as anything I’ve seen coming out of a consumer camcorder. Both indoors and out the camcorder handles the light very well on auto mode. Playing the video back on the computer is still a bit of a challenge. The files the camcorder produces have a .MTS (Mpeg Transport Stream) file extension. Using CoreAVC Codec you will be able to simply rename the files to .AVI and play them back from Windows Media Player. However if your machine is not top of the line the playback will be unacceptably choppy. I have tried it on my Pentium 4 2.8GHz desktop with 2GB of RAM as well as a Centrino 2GHz laptop with 1 GB of RAM and neither of which is fast enough to produce good enough frame rate on playback.
There are just a couple of other hands-on reviews on the net right now at the time of this post that talks about developing a work flow for this video format. Most of them required multiple applications for decoding and remixing the video and audio stream back into the format of your choice. Having read and tried some of the solutions online, I decided that I need to find a solution for me that is much simpler and straightforward using software packages I already own on my system.
What seems to work well for me right now is transcoding the .MTS files using Nero Vision 4 (Part of the Nero 7 Ultra edition Bundle). Nero Vision 4 is a similar software package as Apple’s iMovie on the Mac platform. It has basic editing features and will allow you to burn the resulting project to standard definition DVD-Video compatible with regular players at 480i or 480p. It also has an export to video feature that is semi-customizable to produce down-sampled DV footage to allow advanced editing capabilities in an NLE.
One product that specifically has caught my interest is the HD-Connect MI by Convergent Design. It allows you to plug in an HDMI signal and hardware transcodes on the fly to a HDV stream via IEEE-1394. This is definitely a work around for the time being until AVCHD is widely supported. At $700, you need to really dig deep to find reason for this right now. Especially when you can buy a consumer HDV camcorder such as the Canon HV10 for not much more. I still think its a cool product and maybe someone will make a similar box for less money with just component-in and 1394-out (HDV).
These are just some first impression of having played with the HDC-SD1 on the first day. I am generally very pleased with the video quality of the camcorder as well as the portability. It is however a first generation AVCHD device so if that scares you maybe you will want to wait. I didn’t have the luxury of waiting as my baby girl refuses to pause her growth while Panasonic irons out the wrinkles. Once the editing solution appear this will be a great solution for home-based HD content creation. Many people are making predictions on when that’s going to happen but I will spare all of us but omitting my own at this point. For what I am looking for right now it is the perfect product in the market today. Circuit City and Fry’s Electronics are selling them in store for $1299 while Amazon.com has it for $1100 with free shipping and no sales tax to most U.S. shipping addresses (you know what that means.) Check back later and I will be talking more in-depth about this camcorder once I have had more time with it.
Update: (April 2nd, 2007) Akihabaranews.com has a video overview of the camera. It should give you a pretty good idea of what it looks like, how it operates and physical dimensions. That’s if you can stand the music in the background long enough to watch the whole thing.