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Panasonic HDC-SD9 - Preview

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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.
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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?
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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.
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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.

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