Panasonic HDC-SD900 £899
17th Feb 2011 | 15:35
A Full HD camcorder brimming with manual controls and 14.2MP stills
Panasonic HDC-SD900: Overview
Panasonic is quite possibly trying to hit every target with the HDC-SD900 – and it may just do it. This is a Full HD 1920 x 1080/50p camcorder, which benefits from three 2.53MP sensors, uses the AVCHD recording format and has enough manual features and creative functions to keep even the most demanding movie maker happy.
The sub-£900 price only adds to the prospect that this could already be one of the best camcorders of the year. However, if you're thinking it's got all this functionality and can fit into a coat pocket you'll have to think again.
The SD900 is – relatively, you understand – a chunky camcorder, rather than a svelte pocket-friendly model. But thank heavens for that, because it means you can find and easily use the controls, and there are neat design touches such as the inclusion of a widescreen electronic viewfinder, 3.5-inch touchscreen LCD, manual control ring (for focus and zoom etc) and all the input/outputs you need.
The camcorder sits among two other similar models in Panasonic's 2011 3MOS range. While the SD900 records to SDHC and SDXC cards (it can record to SD but it's not recommended and our advice is not to try), the HS900 and TM900 provide alternative storage options.
The HS900 features a 220GB hard drive and SD card recording, but is heavier and costs over £1,150. The TM900 comes in at under £1,000 and uses a 32GB flash memory along with SD card recording. In terms of other major specifications the three camcorders are the same.
What's worth bearing in mind is that though the SD900 is the most affordable option of the three, you'll need to have at least an 8GB card installed in order to record for any practical duration. More SD cards mean more investment.
The SD900 offers the potential for 3D moviemaking, as do its siblings, and for that matter models in the less-expensive Panasonic 1MOS HD range. 3D recording is achieved by purchasing an additional 3D conversion lens, the VW-CLT1, which costs in excess of £200.
If you then also have a 3D TV and the appropriate glasses, it's possible to watch the movies you've made in 3D. On consumer camcorders, this is a technology in its infancy, and so please be prepared for your results to be a little less Hollywood than your ambitions might suggest.
What's certain to attract excitement and scrutiny is the way the SD900 has every base covered. It's a camcorder that likes to think it has the answer to everything. And, in the many ways, it has.
Aside from manual control over focus, white balance, shutter and iris – through the menu and using a rotating control ring around the suitably up-market Leica Dicomar lens – there are superb functions such as the Digital Cinema mode that alters shutter speed to create film-like footage. There's also the option of Timelapse recording at 10sec, 30sec, one minute and two minute intervals.
The advanced functions keep on coming too, with a Zebra pattern over-exposure warning mode, picture adjustment settings (for sharpness, colour, exposure, white balance) that can be made during recording, and a Histogram option giving vital information on exposure levels.
The creativity that's possible is quite stunning in its breadth, and it even extends to audio quality with mic level adjustments available, as well as our particular favourite: bass setting.
This mode lets users select from 0dB, +3dB and +6dB bass settings for the mic, and in many respects quells the oft-quoted criticism that camcorder's built-in microphones aren't capable of bass-y enough reproduction.
Trust us, there's even more to explore on this 'advanced feature' front.
Panasonic HDC-SD900: Performance
'Ease of use' is a subjective term, and can be confusingly used in reviews. How? Well, the SD900 is easy to use, in the sense that finding, activating and employing many of its controls is straightforward.
However, getting the most from its lengthy list of features isn't easy: it takes time and practice. But you won't be any the poorer for that. Finding the most appropriate, appealing or effective settings involves a journey of discovery.
The HDC-SD900 produces sumptuous, detail-rich images with precious few areas for complaint. It's an outstanding performer.
The auto white balance reproduces accurate colours, which give scenes an authentic, lifelike quality. Reds are calm rather than too vibrant and blues and greens have a natural resonance.
The SD900's autofocus is similarly effective and efficient. It detects subtle changes in the scene and acts decisively to return the image to pin-sharpness. With our test footage we attempted to throw it off course with ambiguous, difficult footage but it reacted quickly and with accuracy in all but the most-trying conditions.
What's easy to love about a camcorder that's so flexible and adaptable as the SD900 is that you notice so much more about your movies when you play them back. The intricacies of flowers, the sinewy flight of seagulls, these details come back to you in Full HD glory.
The camcorder is capable of smooth movement and even on fast-moving action we didn't see evidence of artefacting or excessive picture noise. The 35mm wide-angle lens also ensured we crammed as much of a shot as possible into the frame without having to move miles away.
And the 3.5-inch touchscreen is an absolute gift for both framing/composing shots and replaying them to see if you got what you needed.
The 0.27-inch electronic viewfinder is good to see, since viewfinders are a forgotten feature in the age of the LCD. However, while it's not as small as some we've seen, it's fair to suggest that the majority of users will choose the LCD instead.
Where it is easy to criticise a camcorder's audio performance is usually because of a lack of flexibility. The built-in mic may give middling performance but it's the inability to do anything about this that causes the aggravation. You're stuck with what you've got – or you have to record audio separately.
The SD900 doesn't fall into this trap: its mic-level adjustments, bass settings and range of mic options (surround, focus, zoom mic and stereo mic) neatly circumvent the obvious problems. Also include the external microphone input and you have a practical and productive set of controls.
The 'bare' audio isn't exemplary but it is clear, crisp and even on dialogue. The bass settings rescues a rather tinny performance on recorded music by providing a tangible sense of low-end sounds.
Photography settings are almost as impressive as movie recording, particularly since they concentrate on features that benefit snapping rather than being gimmicky.
The maximum resolution of 14.2MP is excellent – and the end results are detailed and sharp – while the 13.3MP 'compromise' quality you get when shooting stills while in movie mode puts many other camcorders in the shade.
The touch shutter function, used on the touchscreen LCD, adds a neat rapid-shooting element to the SD900's functionality and the flash is flexible enough to have settings for different brightnesses. Users will also love the fact that Histogram, Luminance, Picture Adjust and Zebra functions are available in photo mode as well as movie record mode.
Sockets and software
There is no area of complaint when it comes to the Panasonic HDC-SD900's range of sockets. HDMI (mini) output is for connecting to a high-def TV, USB 2.0 for computer connectivity, AV for non-HD device connection, and DC-in for charging up the battery.
There are also sockets for an external microphone input and headphone output: the latter so you can monitor the audio you are recording, and is a brilliant feature to have, too.
Software comes in the form of the Windows-only and rather simplistic HD Writer AE 3.0. Editing is best performed through a standalone software application. Panasonic's user manual indicates that the SD900 is compatible with Apple's iMovie 11.
Panasonic HDC-SD900: Verdict
As much as it is easy to gush about the SD900, this camcorder is not going to meet everyone's tastes. It is both a sizeable product and a sizeable investment, and it also lacks the cutesy element of fast YouTube upload that's to be found on pocket-friendly models.
However, as a movie-making device for enthusiasts, semi-pros, film students and low-budget producers, it is exceptional.
Superlative video recording is matched by digital photography functions, but what really seal the deal for the SD900 are its advanced features. Accessed through the exemplary 3.5-inch touchscreen LCD, there is such a rich, treasure trove of modes that it's hard to think what else you could possibly have wanted to include.
The Digital Cinema mode genuinely provides a different style of footage, while the Zebra warning provokes your creativity and nudges you towards using the manual features. The manual control ring is smooth and resistant where it needs to be, and while it can lead to fingers occasionally appearing in front of the lens, eradicating this involves practice rather than a design rethink.
Simultaneous recording of photographs while in movie mode may have limited wow factor but since those stills are 13.3MP it becomes a brilliant addition.
The Leica Dicomar lens and 3MOS sensors might be behind the superior movie recording but what we particularly enjoyed was the wide-angle nature of the lens. No more edging backwards and backwards until everything's in the frame (or the cameraperson falls into the hotel pool).
And, as Panasonic Viera TV owners will find, if you do get the chance to use Viera Link, the timesaving nature of controlling the SD900 camcorder using your TV remote is fantastic.
Ultimately, what we most liked about the SD900 is that it pushes you towards being a better filmmaker, but in doing so doesn't forget to give you the tools you need to do the job.
It may be more productive or entertaining to insert your own top tip or amusing anecdote here, because there is so little you can criticise this Panasonic model on.
Perhaps the viewfinder does feel like an unnecessary throwback – if you're going to include one why not design it to be properly large and make a feature of it? The audio quality from the built-in microphone is only adequate, but then we do also recommend you buy/use an external microphone. You don't need to save on space – this is a chunky camcorder after all.
If you have the money, and also the need, for this level of Full HD camcorder then the Panasonic HDC-SD900 has to be near the top of your shopping list. The SD900 is as essential as camcorders can get.