If you thought the Panasonic HDC-SD1 was small, just wait until you see the Panasonic HDC-SD5. It's a 3CCD hi-def camcorder that records to flash memory, and is available now for just under AU$2,000.
The HDC-SD5 is sold by itself for AU$1,899 but there are also two higher priced bundles. For AU$1,979 you can get the SD5 with the VW-DN1E DVD burner, which plugs straight into the camcorder. If your budget can stretch to AU$2,199 you'll get the SD5 with a burner, 4GB SDHC card, HDMI cable and Pinnacle Studio 11 Plus video editing software.
The SD5's well-spaced controls include a button to pop the LCD screen out, and a nifty joystick
Panasonic has re-profiled the SD1's tiny shape to make the SD5 easier to hold. A gently upward-sloping section at the back rounds out the shape and makes it more grippable. The zoom rocker is satisfyingly large, and a nifty joystick is well positioned for changing settings with the thumb.
The SD5 is small enough and light enough for a handbag or jacket pocket. Some argue that a little more heft is useful in a camera to make it steadier. It's a personal preference, but we found that despite its compact dimensions, the SD5's snug fit in our hand made it weighty enough.
The 2.7-inch LCD screen pops out at the touch of a button. The monitor boasts a whopping 300,000-pixel resolution and has a wide 170-degree viewing angle. You can set the brightness of the screen to one of two levels.
One of the advantages of flash memory is that there are no moving parts in the recording section, which means the SD5 should be resistant to impact and harsh conditions.
The SD1's 1,440 x 1,080-pixel resolution has been improved to 1,920 x 1,080 pixels. Other features include a stereo microphone, 10x optical zoom and optical image stabilisation. As on Panasonic still cameras, the SD5's lens is designed by Leica.
The SD5 will pause recording when it's held upside down, so if you forget to stop shooting when you drop your hand to your side and walk around, you won't get lots of footage of your feet. A pre-record mode also captures video 3 seconds before you press the shutter, so as long as it's pointing in the right direction you won't miss anything spontaneous. Still pictures can also be captured while video is being recorded.
Another interesting feature is intelligent contrast control, which measures ambient light intensity and adjusts contrast accordingly. This is designed to prevent blown-out highlights in bright parts of an image and black-outs in shadowy parts.
The SD5 is also compatible with Panasonic's Viera Link. Connect the SD5 to a Viera TV via an HDMI cable, and you can operate the camcorder using the TV remote control. The camcorder also comes with its own remote.
One small feature we thought was a nice touch was that the screen displayed actual numerical values for how long the battery would last, and an estimated amount of footage a memory card would hold.
The SD5 produced excellent video in our tests. Colour is vibrant and contrast well-handled. Backlit subjects are given plenty of detail, and there's a pleasing richness to footage. Footage shot in low light wasn't as crisp as we'd like, but the camera didn't struggle just because it was taken indoors, as some camcorders can.
We found that focus lagged behind the zoom. On some occasions, we found that any zooming over the 5x mark would stay unfocused, even if we had only zoomed slowly. This was generally only an issue in darker conditions, but we frustratingly found the manual focus unfriendly when we tried to fix things.
Sound quality was also strong. We weren't sure why the microphone was placed in the top of the camera rather than at the front, but sound was clear and uncluttered. Wind noise reduction was rather patchy, but results were certainly better with it than without. The zoom mic function, which links the range of the mic to the camera zoom, also worked reasonably well.
Panasonic claims battery life is around 55 minutes in real-life conditions, frequently using the zoom and switching the SD5 on and off. In practice we found that it would manage over an hour on a full charge, even with the LCD on maximum brightness.
The major problem with flash memory is capacity. HD footage packs more information into each frame, which means more data and bigger files. Only those who purchase an SD5 as part of the most expensive bundle get a free SDHC card — a 4GB one, no less. So, during our testing we used a 1GB SD card and that was able to hold about 20 minutes of footage. Whichever package you buy, if you're planning on taking the SD5 on holiday, you'll need to pack lots of SD or SDHC cards — or set aside some time away from the pool for in-camera editing.
The Panasonic HDR-SD5 is a little camcorder with big ideas. It records excellent HD video and has a number of clever features. If only the memory was there to match. If you're going to shell out for lots of memory cards, you might be tempted to simply buy a camcorder with a decent-sized hard drive, such as the similarly priced Sony Handycam HDR-SR7. Still, SD cards are relatively inexpensive, and if you're happy to fill your pockets with them the SD5 won't disappoint you.