We were recently in Valencia for Panasonic's HD Networking Convention 2008, and managed to get a few hours with the replacement for the HDC-SD5. Called the SD9 and first glimpsed at CES 2008 in January, it looks pretty similar, except with a bit more brushed metal. It's lighter, too, and has a number of new features, aimed at making the life of the novice camcorder user even easier.
We loved the SD5, although we weren't initially sure whether it was quite ready to compete with hard disk-based camcorders from Sony. But as SD memory costs have dropped and capacity has burgeoned, the SD5 has become the most successful high-definition camcorder in the UK market, just pipping Sony's HDR-SR5 and Canon's HV20 into second and third place. So does the SD9 look like it has what it takes to keep Panasonic's SD-based camcorders in the top slot?
The HDC-SD9 has a similar basic specification to its predecessor. It sports Panasonic's trademark trio of CCDs, in this case 1/6in units with 560,000 pixels apiece. These will have a good effect on colour fidelity, but sensors this small usually have a negative effect on low light performance (see later for our initial impressions on this, however). Panasonic partners this with its usual trademark Leica Dicomar lens, and surprisingly for such a small camcorder, a full optical image stabilisation system is also included, rather than the usual electronic system.
As with the SD5, Panasonic uses the AVCHD MPEG-4 H.264 AVC recording format. However, although the raw electronics haven't changed much, Panasonic has clearly included a new video processor, because the SD9 can record real Full HD. The SD5 offered 1,920 x 1,080, but still produced an interlaced signal. The SD9 goes one step further and can shoot this resolution progressively. You get two compression schemes in this mode - 17Mbits/sec HA and 13Mbits/sec HG. The HA mode is currently the highest bitrate of any AVCHD camcorder on the market, although you will only fit half an hour of footage on a 4GB SD card. But there's also a more economical 9Mbits/sec HX mode and an HE mode which uses the 1,440 x 1,080 frame size popularised by HDV and runs at 6Mbits/sec.