The Panasonic HDC-SD800 is light on physical controls -- especially considering the lack of a lens ring -- relying mostly on the touchscreen for your shooting options and modifications. Regardless, there are still a number of features and control options done through the touchscreen, even when on Intelligent Auto shooting mode. This gives even the most inexperienced of users an opportunity to shoot great-looking footage like a professional with relative ease.
As mentioned, the SD800's OIS system is exceptionally effective, especially when used in conjunction with the touchscreen-based hybrid OIS (basically an on-screen button that you can press and hold to provide extra stability). Shaking from my hands and pulse were completely nullified by the OIS, and even mild, intentional shaking of the camera on my part was reduced to only a slight drift as I tested its limits.
Unfortunately, the SD800 does not have any onboard memory like the 900 series models, so you have to be equipped with an SD card if you want to do any recording. I would recommend using a high capacity card, however, as a 4GB card will only get you 19 minutes of video on the highest quality picture setting (1080/60p) and 30 minutes at the next highest resolution. If you want to capitalize on the outstanding video quality that the SD800 is capable of producing, lots of storage is the name of the game.
As was the case with the last generation of HDC camcorders, the SD800 also features Intelligent Zoom, which basically adds pixels to the picture as you zoom to create the appearance of an optical zoom. The Intelligent Zoom works very well, kicking in after the 12x optical zoom and working up until 20x. Here's a sample shot taken at 12x optical zoom:
And, staying in the same spot, I zoomed into 20x using the Intelligent Zoom:
As the sample images show, the Intelligent Zoom works just as well as an optical zoom, keeping things nice and sharp (unlike a digital zoom, which rapidly pixelates and garbles the picture).
The other video shooting features, while generally standard, were still very helpful and did an excellent job in assisting with my video capture. The auto focus and exposure were both spot-on, and even drastic shifts from dark, poorly lit areas to brighter environments were handled well. If you're panning the camera too fast, it's sure to let you know by way of a message on the LCD screen. The SD800 even has the ability to use the touchscreen for focusing and capture; with touch focus, you can tap a certain object that's on the touchscreen and the camera automatically adjusts to have to put that object in focus, while touch capture let's you tap the screen to start shooting.
It shouldn't come as any surprise that the quality of the SD800's video is generally great. Aside from slight overexposure of whites in normal light levels, video taken with the SD800 looks outstanding when viewed on a computer or on the camcorder. Textures and edges of objects are distinct and noticeable, and the SD800 seems to handle low light situations exceptionally well.
In our low-light test video, the SD800 quickly took the yellowish tinge of the low light and adjusted it to create decent whites while also maintaining that same quality of texture and depth found in normal light situations. Aside from the white balance adjustment, other colors were also still distinguishable in the poor light, and there was minimal noise and graininess.
Though it cannot be properly experienced when viewed on the computer, the fluidity of the 1080/60p looks outstanding on an HDTV when the camera is hooked up with an HDMI cable. Beyond that, however, the experience is slightly for the worse when viewing the SD800's video on a large screen via HDMI; artifacts and graininess are a little more prevalent, and low-light shots look far less impressive. Despite the fact that it's the best way to view the SD800's 1080/60p, large screens tend to expose some of its flaws that are otherwise hard to notice.
Overall, the sound quality of the videos taken with the SD800 is great. When I viewed my videos via the HDMI cable on my HDTV, I heard the powerful, high-definition sound and was impressed with it. The onboard mic picked up voices and sounds at comfortable levels and featured solid directional capabilities; for instance, any sound coming from the right side of where the camera was pointing clearly came out of the right side of the TV when I was watching my movies.
As a directional mic, the onboard hardware was definitely serviceable, but its performance as a zoom mic were generally unimpressive. With a zoom mic you should be able to zoom in on a subject -- at which point any sound coming in from the sides should be dimmed to an extent -- thus focusing the sound pick-up straight ahead, in the direction of my zoom. In practice this was not the case, as I noticed little to no difference whenever I was zooming in a particular direction and still heard auxiliary and/or outside noises coming from other directions, clear as day. At this point, I was really beginning to feel the downside of not having an external mic jack on the SD800; higher-quality, external mics hooked up to the camera probably would have fared better in those types of situations, but it wasn't an option.
For a camcorder, the HDC-SD800 takes some pretty solid still shots. Its highest resolution is 14.2 megapixels, but don't be fooled, that's interpolated from a lower resolution. Nevertheless, the SD800 produced some quality images, even in spite of a few flaws.
The camera had issues with overexposure of whites; even in the photos I took on an especially dreary, gray day, the sky was very washed out and overexposed. The colors looked bright and rich, but were also a little saturated in some shots, especially the greens (see our sample photo of the train cars where the green looks practically neon). This may not be a camera that you can use in place of your DSLR, but it's certainly better for taking pictures on the fly than your cell phone (a process made even easier by the ability to snap photos even if you're in video capture mode).
Operation and Extras
Most of what the SD800 ships with is pretty standard fare, including a mini USB cable, stylus, AC adapter and cable, AV component cables, remote control, and the HD Writer software for computer transfer and editing. While the software is relatively bare bones and not much to write home about, its simplicity makes it very user-friendly. Transferring and viewing videos is as simple as plugging in the SD800, selecting "PC" as the source on the touchscreen. After that, the software automatically detects the advice and launches itself.
It is worth noting that the SD800 shoots in AVCHD (or iFrame for Mac users), which is meant primarily for burning videos straight to DVD. As such, it's not terribly convenient to drag, drop, and view movie files straight off the card and on your computer, so this is where the included software comes in handy.
There is also a lens hood packaged with the SD800, which is a welcome inclusion since many camcorders do not ship with one. It was very useful and did well to keep excess light out of the lens, keeping any pictures taken in high-lit areas from getting washed-out.
The SD800 also ships with two 1250 mAh batteries which is a nice touch, but the practicality of having two batteries is somewhat nullified by the fact that a separate wall charger is not included. In other words, the batteries can only be charged by having them in the camera (which in turn must be plugged into the wall via the AC adapter), which prevents you from shooting and having a backup battery in the hole that's being charged. You can't even charge the battery in the camera while it's being used; regardless of the fact that the camera is connected to the AC adapter, charging of the battery is still suspended when the camera is on.
That being said, there aren't a ton of worries to be had with the SD800 when it comes to battery life. A single charge was able to last me a little over a week with intermittent usage, and recharging only takes a couple of hours, so long as you don't use the camera at all during that time (since charging is subsequently suspended).
One glaring omission from the included materials, however, was a mini HDMI cable. If the HDMI out on the camera was a standard HDMI port, then I would be fine with not having a cable packaged with the camera, since it's likely that most people (or users of modern technology, at least) in this day and age will have an HDMI cable lying around their house somewhere that they could use. But mini to standard HDMI cables are a little harder to come by. If you want to watch your 1080/60p videos on your HD TV at their best and at their full frame rate, you will need to invest in your own cable. The only reason I had one at my disposal is because another pocket camcorder that I reviewed came packaged with one.
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