Panasonic Announces True 1080i HD Camcorders, and They're Cheap, Too

Illustration for article titled Panasonic Announces True 1080i HD Camcorders, and Theyre Cheap, Too



The plot thickens in the HD consumer camcorder arena, where now Panasonic tops itself with a true 1920x1080i upgrade to its now already-obsolete HDC-SD1 and HDC-DX1 HD camcorders, calling this latest pair the HDC-SD3 and HDC-DX3.

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They're both recording in that beloved H.264 compression scheme that's so squeaky-clean and compact, with the SD3 using a high-capacity SDHC flash card (good for 90 minutes of 1080i video) and the hump-backed DX3 using an old-timey DVD, which we can certainly do without.

Check out the gallery below, and jump for pricing, availability and commentary.

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Illustration for article titled Panasonic Announces True 1080i HD Camcorders, and Theyre Cheap, Too
Illustration for article titled Panasonic Announces True 1080i HD Camcorders, and Theyre Cheap, Too
Illustration for article titled Panasonic Announces True 1080i HD Camcorders, and Theyre Cheap, Too

These two models ought to give JVC's similarly outfitted and outstanding $1799 HD Everio GZ-HD7 camcorder, which we've had our hands on and like very much, a run for its money. But then, that JVC camcorder has a 60GB hard drive on board, and the $1270ish Panasonic SD3 includes a 4GB SDHC flash memory card.

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Rolling out in Japan late this month, expect to see these two sharpshooters by late Spring here in the United States. While still a bit pricey for the mainstream, it won't be long before all camcorders are made this way.

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Panasonic HDC-SD3 and HDC-DX3 AVCHD Camcorder [I4U]

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DISCUSSION

Time to take some hype out of the pixel competition.

Any new HDTV will scale an image stream to fit the pixels native to the LCD or plasma screen. Some screens over 44" have 1920 x 1080p resolution. However, no present day broadcast video comes anywhere close. Most medium size HDTV screens are 1280 x 720p or 1280 x 1080i. The 1440 x 1080i resolution of the predecessor SD1 model already achieves the most definition that anyone with a medium sized HDTV would ever notice. The SD3 files will be larger. An expert will notice a difference on a large screen using a test shot, like the difference between Perrier and Evian. In real life shots, other factors draw much more attention; camera shake, shooting technique, light, editing, and (believe it or not) subject.

The AVCHD file format used by the newest Panasonic and some new Sony models cannot be played on existing versions of Windows Media Player or similar players. Nero and other media software firms are releasing updates equipped to handle the files, but they need a strong "horse" to work. This means a PC with a fast chip (3.2 Ghz mono or 1.5 duo) or a hefty amount of RAM (at least 1 GB). Lots of video RAM is also important. Otherwise, your system stalls and the replay is garbled.

The SD1 and SD3 both contain a color night vision or low light mode. Some claim the Sony version has truer colors, but "true" color is something of a fiction at night, given that the available illumination from street lights, candles, or lamps does not harmonize with the white scale of sunlight. I can attest that the SD1 low light mode can illuminate footage taken in a rather dark restaurant, but the slower shutter speed means you must avoid quick moves of the camera to avoid blur.

Panasonic has been slow to provide North American markets with accessories for the SD1 or SD3. The tiny battery is unique. Do not let retailers or on-line vendors sell you any generic "Panasonic videocam batteries" that may seem to be the same. You'll want at least a 2nd battery as backup and (better yet) a third to guard against eventual wearout or discontinuation. All manufactuers sin by making models depend on proprietary batteries that they fail to keep in production for more than two or three years, then change.

People who are happy to view home videos without much editing or enhancesment will save money by buying last year's Canon or Sony HD models that use tape or a DVD disk as the recording medium. The key advantage of the AVCHD format is that the higher compression allows use of flash media and yields clips in files that can be edited more dynamically. However, as stated, you need a strong PC and new software to do this.

If your viewing device is standard definition NTSC, the only reason to invest in a HD videoccam is if you think you may move to HDTV shortly and risk chosing between an HD-DVD, Blu-Ray player, or duo mode player. The software sold with the SD1 and SD3 requires a burner with Blu-Ray format.

Panasonic sells some HDTV screens with "SD slots," but the spec. sheets do not mention AVCHD compatibility. Most people assume the flash cards are good for temporary storage only. However, the prices are falling and, unless Blu-Ray burners and disks fall in price too, do not be surprised if by 2010 32GB SDHC cards become quite competitive as a permanent medium. The only trouble is they are so tiny they are easy to lose and give little space to label. But the beauty is that they transmit very fast and without the glitches and failures associatd with disk burners. Or am I the only person with a stack of botched DVDs? Thank heaven, the standard DVD disks are now so cheap. Blu-Rays, so far, are not.

Anyone who "steps up" to HD quickly discovers that any advantage in definition is thrown away if the hand held shots are jerky. A tripod, not pixel count, is the big reason why "pro" work looks better than home videos. The SD1 and SD3 image stabilizers help offset hand shake, but the cameras are so small that you still have to take care to limit jitters—epecially in zoom mode.

The SD1 and SD3 optical zoom toggles are very good, and the 12X magnification is handy. The cameras also allow substandial digital zoom, but the image quality degrades.

One bugbear about the SD1 is that you have to extend the LCD panel to access the interfaces and adaptors. Neither can you recharge the battery while it is in the camera. I see no reports the SD3 is different.

Bottom line: the Panasonic models are good if you prize compactness and simplicity of controls. The challenge is to get the right PC punch and software to work with AVCHD files. The SD3 may be worth the extra wait (lage 2007 in USA?) if you expect to own a very large HDTV screen. Otherwise, you save money and are just as well off with the SD1. People who are happy with no editing or can bear with the extra work needed to edit from tapes can save more money by buying discounted versions of the 2006 Canon or Sony HD vidocams, available in some places below $800.