The first high-definition camcorders to reach the consumer used the tape-based HDV format, which records on the same tape form factor as DV. However, although HDV uses MPEG-2 compression, it still requires quite a high data rate, so HDV hasn’t made the transition to hard disk and DVD-based camcorders – with the notable exception of JVC’s Everio GZ-HD7E. Instead, a new MPEG-4-based compression format was developed by Sony and Panasonic called AVCHD.
Sony was the first to release AVCHD products, but now Panasonic is rapidly catching up. Latest to join its line-up is the HDC-SX5. However, Panasonic has gone one better and created what it calls a Hybrid camcorder. This refers to the fact the SX5 has two video recording options. You can either record to 8cm DVD disc, or plug in a stick of SDHC memory and capture your video to that. With the latter now up to 8GB for well under £100, where a single-layer 8cm DVD only offers 2.8GB, it’s starting to look like the preferable choice.
Both Canon and Sony have embraced CMOS technology with open arms in their camcorder ranges, but Panasonic is still resolutely sticking with CCDs. And as the pioneer of bringing three-CCD setups to the mainstream, Panasonic has unsurprisingly opted for this configuration in its HDC-SX5. In this case, the camcorder sports a trio of relatively small 1/6in sensors, each with 560Kpixels. Despite the effective pixel count of 520,000 per CCD, Panasonic has managed to squeeze Full HD out of the HDC-SX5. Its previous AVCHD models only offered recording at 1,440 x 1,080, but this new one is capable of up to 1,920 x 1,080.
However, in this mode (called HG) you can only fit 14 minutes of video onto a 2.8GB single-layer 8cm DVD. This rises to 26 minutes on a dual-layer version, but it’s still not a lot when you’re used to tapes holding a whole hour. There are two 1,440 x 1,080 modes available, with 60 minutes of recording possible on a dual-layer disc in the lowest HE mode. You can also switch to Standard Definition. But this uses MPEG-2 rather than MPEG-4, so you actually only get about twice as much video in the same space as with AVCHD, and you can only record this to disc. In contrast, an 8GB SDHC card has enough room for 1 hour 20 minutes of HG-quality AVCHD. Discs may be convenient, but SDHC provides a much more realistic level of storage for High Definition.