Panasonic HDC-SD1 Camcorder Review
Video Performance* (8.75)*
The Panasonic HDC-SD1 is equipped with three 1/4" CCDs, each offering a gross pixel count of 560,000 and an effective pixel count of 520,000.
First, we want to look at the picture in bright light, 3000 lux. Under these conditions, the SD1 had a fairly clean image. Outlines and borders were stronger than the Canon HV20, and had similar levels of in-camera sharpening that the Sony HDR-HC7 showed. This was a good decision on Panasonic’s part. The AVCHD produces an image marred by compression artifacts more than HDV, even in bright light, reducing the apparent resolution. Sharpening makes the image look sharper, which seemed to level the playing field to our eye. Color strength and balance was excellent. Saturation levels were clearly boosted, but that’s the standard for consumer camcorders, catering to casual shooters who want their color to pop. The manual white balance was not entirely accurate (surprising for a Panasonic) and tended to shift the picture slightly green. Most of the color pallet ended up looking similar to the Canon HV20, which showed very good balance. The Sony HC7 was much more saturated.
Panasonic’s Broadcast division re-released a tweaked version of the SD1 under a different name, the AG-HSC1U. Aside from some minor cosmetic changes, the key difference is that they modified the gamma curve to closely match their Proline camcorders. They also threw in a very nice external DTE recording unit, and boosted the price considerably. So if you love everything about this camera but the colors, there is another option.
The picture quality of AVCHD (versus HDV, the other consumer HD format) has two deleterious elements: noise and motion artifacting. In bright light, the noise levels were high, higher than you should be willing to accept at this price point. What’s interesting is that the noise was very different from the Sony HDR-UX1, their 2006 AVCHD DVD camcorder. While the Sony had large chunks of blue noise, noticeable more in the darker end of the light scale, the Panasonic SR1’s noise was a little finer, and more visible in the middle of the light scale. The SR1 does not have a great dynamic range; the blacks petered out early. By comparison, no HDV camcorder had the same levels of noise.
Secondly, and more gravely, was the motion artifacting, which reduced our scoring considerably. The Panasonic HDR-SD1 had an atrocious level of trailing. Regardless of light, the footage looked like the early stages of an acid trip (not that we have any personal experience with that…). We noticed this trailing effect on the Sony HDR-UX1, but not to the same degree. HDV camcorders have a similar tendency, because like AVCHD, it uses interframe compression (see Compression below for more information), but neither the Canon HV20 nor the Sony HDR-HC7 had anywhere near the degree of trailing. This seems to be a byproduct of AVCHD compression at this stage of the codec’s development.
Overall, the Panasonic HDC-SD1 produced a sharp HD image, but left a lot to be desired.
Video Resolution* (18.0)*
The Panasonic HDC-SD1 was tested for video resolution by shooting a DSC Labs resolution chart, and assessing the footage on an HD monitor. The resolution was good, certainly on par with other HD camcorders. Both the vertical and horizontal resolution were approximately 600 line widths per picture height. Once the lines on the chart started to bleed together, we were pleased to see that the inevitable moiré patterns did not produce much false color, which can be really distracting (you’ll see this in home movies all the time when shooting someone with a tight pinstripe tie or jacket.
Because AVCHD camcorders have so far produced more noise than HDV camcorders, the low light performance has tended to suffer. This held true for the Panasonic HDC-SD1. It did not have a great deal of sensitivity. At 60 lux, the aperture was already opened up as wide as it could (f/1.8) and the gain, which ranges up to 18dB, was already up to 15dB. The shutter speed cannot be lowered past 1/60 without enabling the MagicPix AE mode. That does not leave the shooter much room to improve image quality beyond the limits of auto mode. The 60 lux image had a lot of noise, no doubt due to the high gain setting. When we manually boosted the gain to 18dB, some of the image was blown out – again, this does not leave a lot of wiggle room for users to play with the settings.
*Above, the image at 60 lux shot in auto mode. The gain was already close to maxing out to about 12 - 15dB.
Below, the same image with the gain manually boosted to 18dB. *
At 15 lux, the image became very noisy. The colors were also far off the mark.
The HDC-SD1 was able to produce a peak of 50 IRE at 14 lux, about twice the light required by the 1080i video of the Canon HV20 and the Sony HDR-HC7. In 60 lux light, the point at which we test noise and color accuracy, the camcorder showed a noise percentage of 0.63% and a color error of 11.8. The noise levels are great, and Panasonic’s gain controls are better than most, but the color error and sensitivity leave something to be desired.
The Panasonic HDC-SD1 is equipped with an optical image stabilization, or OIS system to reduce the effects of camcorder shake on recorded video. OIS stabilizes the image by physically isolating the lens element from the camcorder body, sometimes using gyroscopes or motors. As a remedy for hand shake, OIS systems generally work well, without reducing video resolution when enabled. The other more common (and cheaper) stabilization system is EIS (electronic image stabilization). EIS reduces vibration by generating a digital buffer around the margins of the frame, and unlike OIS, reduces the resolution of recorded video. OIS systems tend to be found on higher-end camcorders like the SD1, and are the better of the two stabilizations methods.
We tested the SD1's OIS system using our camcorder shake emulator, custom built for Camcorderinfo.com. The shake emulator can be adjusted to produce movements at differing intensities and frequencies. We tested the SD1 at Speed 1, equivalent to the shake produced while holding a camcorder and standing still; and Speed 2, equivalent to the more intense shake of a moving vehicle.
The Panasonic SD1’s OIS system reduced recorded image shake by approximately 91% at Speed 1, and 88% at Speed 2. We derived these calculations by measuring the motion difference between footage shot with OIS off, and OIS on.
The Speed 2 score shows an amazing degree of stabilization – most high-end camcorders with OIS systems do well at Speed 1, but relatively poorly at Speed 2. This camcorder maintained terrific stability even under extreme vibration. Kudos to Panasonic’s engineers on this OIS system – it leads the consumer camcorder industry in this area.
Wide Angle* (10.4)*
We measure the field of view of camcorders in 16:9 mode. The zoom is set to its widest angle, image stabilization is turned off, and we view the full video frame on an external monitor derive a field of view measurement. The SD1's maximum field of view was 52 degrees.
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