BUILD AND DESIGN
The four newest models in the Panasonic HDC series include the HS900, TM900, SD900, and the SD800. Each offer slightly different options, mostly concerning the amount of included storage. The SD800, which is the lowest-end model of the four, contained no onboard storage and is the device we tested for this review.
At 2.48 x 2.60 x 5.24-inches and 0.73 pounds without the battery, the SD800 is relatively compact, although I felt it was slightly on the long side, especially with the way the lens seemed to stick out a little too far from the body. On the top of the camera, towards the back, there is the zoom toggle, as well as a button for snapping quick photos, which can be used even if you're in video recording mode. Slightly to the left of these controls are toggle buttons for its picture-steadying Optical Image Stabilization (OIS) and the camera's Intelligent Auto function (IA). IA is an enhanced "dummy mode" that automates certain picture controls such as focus, white balance, exposure, etc.
The front, of course, features a large lens area, as well as a flash, recording lamp, and AF assist light. The back of the camera is where the record button, battery, and toggle switch for photo, video, and playback are located. Residing on the right side of the camera are the DC input and the Velcro-adjustable hand strap.
Though most of the remaining features are handled through the device's 3.0-inch, flip-out LCD touchscreen, there are a few more controls housed behind it, accessible only when the screen is open. An access port for the mini HDMI out, mini USB out, SD card slot, and AV multi out are found back here, as well as a speaker and manual power switch (the camera otherwise powers on and off automatically when the screen is opened or closed). Also located behind the screen is a convenient toggle switch for turning the camera's 1080 progressive at 60 frames per second (1080/60p) shooting speed on or off.
The Panasonic HDC-SD800 also features the 3MOS system, which consists of three 1/4.1-inch CMOS sensors that record at a resolution of 3.05 megapixels each, bringing the camcorder's number of effective megapixels to 9.15. Each of the sensors also handles the processing of a different primary color -- blue, red, and green -- for richer color quality and to reduce light loss.
The model we tested left us a bit wanting, however, when it came to some of the other features that should come standard on a camcorder in this price range. Those looking for a shoe, be it a cold or hot one, will be disappointed to know that there is none. Other noticeable omissions include physical manual controls (like a manual lens ring), as well as an external microphone jack or headphone jack. It is worth noting, however, that any models in the 900 series of this camcorder include both jacks, a cold accessory shoe, and a manual control ring around the lens, allowing for adjustment of various elements like exposure, focus, etc.
Ergonomics and Controls
Though I did complain about the slightly lengthy design of the camera, it does, however, leave plenty of room for your fingers and helps prevent the accidental coverage of the built-in mic, which resides on the top of the camera towards the front. In all, the minimal amount of physical buttons allows for everything to be comfortably spaced and minimizes clutter.
What few physical buttons there are exist for the sake of convenience -- such as the toggle switches for IA, OIS, and 1080/60p -- and the SD800 succeeds with this strategy. Equally convenient is the automatic lens shutter, which opens and closes on its own whenever the device is powered on or off.
Almost everything about the SD800 is comfortable and sleek. It's sized just right so it feels great in my hand (though, given the rather small size of my mitts, others' hands may dwarf it) and its relatively light so extended shooting sessions never feel too uncomfortable. And, as was the case with the last-generation TM700, SD800 features slick, dark grey and black color tones over textured plastic that is resistant to fingerprints.
I'm not crazy about how all of the ports, save for the DC input, are located behind the flip-out LCD screen, especially since the device powers on whenever you open it. It's not a huge issue, and the manual power button that is behind the screen can be used to power the camera down if you want to leave it open for an extended amount of time. Nevertheless, it's not terribly convenient, especially if you just want to do something as simple as take the SD card out of the camera.
Menus and Modes
All of the Panasonic HDC-SD800's shooting modes and options are handled through its touchscreen, which offers a quick menu for fast adjustments like resolution or brightness settings, as well as a deeper, more involved set of other menus for some of the following features. With Intelligent Auto activated, shooting options include:
In addition to these features, switching to manual shooting mode opens up a number of other options, such as manual focus, white balance, shutter speed, and exposure settings. Though it isn't new to Panasonic camcorders, there is an information button on the touchscreen that users can tap before tapping any of the other control buttons to get a brief on-screen explanation of their functions.
Other helpful features include soft skin mode, color night recording, mic level controls, manual focus assist (which colors the outline of the subject in focus), and zebra (which, on the LCD screen, stripes any parts of the image that are over-exposed).
The OIS and facial recognition features are especially noteworthy, as they both work quite well. Being able to store corresponding names for various faces and sort their focus priority so they're the stars of any photos or video you take may not be a huge necessity, but it's a great convenience and an enjoyable feature. And stabilizing your shot with the OIS is the sort of thing that you don't really realize that you need until you turn it off; the moment I did, I saw what a difference it made (see this sample video in which I toggled the OIS on and off to see what I'm talking about):
Users also have the option to shoot in a litany of different HD video modes aside from the high-end 1080/60p. These include: HA (1920 at 17 Mbps), HG (1920 at 13 Mbps), HX (1920 at 9 Mbps), and HE (1920 at 5 Mbps). The camera also includes an iFrame option for all you Mac folks out there, which shoots at 540p at 28 Mbps.
There are also a number of stills options on the SD800, including:
There are also a number of options under the setup menu for clock and date settings, language, power save settings, quick start, and output resolution.
Due to the fact that it's a capacitive touchscreen, the 3.0-inch display on the SD800 is very responsive and has surprisingly accurate touch input; even though some of the on-screen icons seem a little on the small side, the camera always knew which buttons I was attempting to press. Some may complain that 3 inches is too small for a device that is so heavily based on the touchscreen controls (unlike the last generation, the TM series, the SD800 does not feature any physical buttons on the edge of the touchscreen frame), but it seemed serviceable in that I rarely ran into any misread commands.
The LCD screen handles glare relatively well, especially since it has both manual and auto brightness adjustment settings. At its highest brightness setting, the screen on the SD800 isn't the brightest I've ever seen. But on the other hand, I never had any serious issue with glare, so I was satisfied and wrote off my viewing experience and quality of the LCD screen as sufficient.
While the menus are relatively easy to navigate thanks to the accuracy of the touchscreen, I do wish that they would stay displayed on the screen for a little longer. Deliberate about your menu choices for more than a couple of seconds and the menus vanish. This can be especially annoying when you first get your hands on the camera and you're attempting to navigate through some of the deeper menu choices; while things are decently organized, there are still a ton of different options and customization choices, and it can take a while to remember the exact layout of all the menus.
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