The HS900 is the evolution of previous Panasonic models that we've tested, such as the HDC-HS700, and, visually, there's not a whole lot of difference between the two models. At 66x72x146mm and 455g this is a solid camcorder, but the round shape and comfortable holding strap don't make it too much of a strain on the hand and wrist while shooting. We tested the HS900 directly after testing Panasonic's SD80 and SDRH101 camcorders, and while we had some small issues with the placement of the recording button on those models, the more generous dimensions of the HDC-S900 make it easier to get along with.
This isn't to say that the HS900 doesn't have its own design quirks. The basic controls for mode selection, zoom and still-camera shot taking are where you'd expect them to be, but there's also a few key controls snuggled in on the side normally obscured by the LCD display, including all of the input ports hidden under a plastic flap, and the option button for switching to 1080/50p shooting mode. The HS900 utilises a touchscreen for the rest of its controls via a menu setup that sits to the left side of the 3.5-inch LCD display screen. It's a simple set-up, and while touchscreens aren't to everybody's tastes, it works quite well.
One minor design oddity that we noticed while shooting was that if we had opened the A/V slot cover, it sat below where the viewfinder folds back. If you quickly close the viewfinder to switch it off, it's possible to leave the flap itself hanging out and exposed, which could lead to it breaking off.
The HS900 sits at the top of Panasonic's line of 3MOS Full High Definition camcorders, along with the cheaper AU$1499 SD900. The chief differences between the two models aside from price are recording media and the inclusion of a manual focus ring on the HS900. The SD900 has SD card storage, whereas the HS900 offers the option of SD card recording as well as a 220GB internal hard drive. Both models feature an effective 7.59-megapixel (2.53 megapixel x 3 if you wish to be technical about such things) video-shooting mode, as well as 7.59-megapixel still-shooting mode. A hotshoe attachment on the top allows for accessory attachments, save for the HS900's other big selling point: 3D video.
Audiences in cinemas seem to be cooling towards 3D, but that hasn't stopped technology companies from bolting it onto their products with reckless abandon. In the HS900's case, bolted on is exactly the right phrase to use. It's not a natively capable 3D camcorder in the way that some competing models are; instead, it uses the AU$449 VW-CLT1 3D conversion lens to add 3D capabilities to its own lens. This sits directly in front of the manual focus ring, which means that you lose its benefit every time you shoot in 3D.
For basic 2D recording, the HS900 does a stellar job in both outdoor and indoor locations. We shot some test footage of a birthday party indoors, and the colour reproduction, even when subjects moved into shadows, was very good indeed. For amateur videographers, the intelligent auto mode handles most changes well, but you're really only going to get the most out of a camcorder like this by switching over to the fine manual controls. Again, the shape and size of the HS900 assists this nicely, making manual adjustment quite comfortable. Panasonic supplied CNET Australia with the VW-CLT1 3D conversion lens for testing. Fitting it to the HS900 is an interesting affair of connecting screws and calibration steps, but it's all quite logical. What you do lose is the manual control for everything but changing the white-balance settings, as well as the nicely balanced feel of the camcorder. That's not a huge surprise, given that the lens is almost as large as the camcorder again, but it's a consideration if you really fancied some handheld 3D shooting, as it very quickly becomes tiring. It's also quite vital to get the calibration steps right every time. The HS900 will remind you of this if the lens is attached when you power it on, and if you skip forward quickly without doing it, you risk having some serious infringing vignetting happening to your captured video.
Panasonic supplies its own software for grabbing video off the HS900, HD Writer AE, but it's Windows only. We encountered problems with connecting the HS900 up to a Mac running OS X 10.7 Lion; it simply wouldn't detect the HS900 as any kind of external drive. That may well be a Lion-specific issue, but at the time of writing we couldn't find a solution for it. HD Writer AE is quite easy-to-use software for the entry-level crowd, making import and simple editing a painless task.
The HS900 is a top-notch camcorder at a solid asking price. We weren't as thrilled by the inclusion of 3D as we might otherwise have been, but then, as we've noted, it's awfully easy to do 3D filming badly in any case, and the added cost of the 3D conversion lens isn't too much of a burden to bear.