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Once in a while we get to try out products that aren’t just interesting or cool but mark the start of a revolution. The Panasonic HDC-SD1 camcorder is such a device – a camcorder that can capture images at 1080i resolution without the need for tapes. It’s not the first consumer level High Definition camcorder on the market, with Sony's HDR-HD3 being its second stab at the market. However, while the HD1 and HD3 record onto MiniDV tapes the Panasonic HDC-SD1 records onto SD card. While HDV is a great format, I’ve always felt that it almost anachronistic to be using tapes in 2007 when it has been outmoded in every other sphere.
Another important selling for SD1 is its use of 3CCDs, rather than the single one found on most consumer level camcorders. This should help it deliver far greater detail and colour accuracy. The next standout feature is being able to capture sound in 5.1 and finally the capture has Panasonic’s well regarded Optical Image Stabilisation system to reduce the effects of camera shake.
One thing I noticed immediately was that it’s virtually silent in operation as you would expect from a device with no moving parts, which makes a pleasant change from the motor noise I’m used to from my own DV camcorder, which at three and half years old suddenly feels old and clunky compared to the Panasonic. What enables the use of SD cards is that Panasonic employs the new AVCHD codec, developed jointly by Panasonic and Sony. Rather than MPEG2 or DV, this codec employs H.264, as used in devices such as the Apple iPod and HD DVD and Blu ray discs.
The benefit of AVCHD is that it enables very high resolution images to be captured and stored in relatively compressed small format, making the use of flash memory practical.
The actual resolution of captured footage is 1,440 x 1,080, which of course doesn’t match the horizontal resolution of full HD (1,920 x 1,080). Panasonic says the reason for this is that Full HD would put too great a strain on the processor causing too much heat and reducing battery life. However, this is the same res as used by HDV, so it’s not a backwards step.
Panasonic has sensibly bundled a 4GB card with the SD1, which is enough for 40 minutes of footage at the best quality setting, 13Mbps CBR. The AVC codec is capable of 24Mbps maximum, but Panasonic has stuck with 13, presumably to save storage space and battery life. 40 minutes is still shy of the one hour that’s standard on DV, but 8GB SDHC cards that will double that are starting be become available for around £50, and you can expect the price to plummet over the next year. The ‘Normal’ and ‘ ‘Extended’ modes uses Variable Bit-Rate and will give you one hour, or one hour 30 minutes on a 4GB SDHC card.