Panasonic is touting its new HDC-SDX1 high definition camcorder as a versatile and extremely light device for good reason. It shoots both MP4 and AVCHD video, easily doubles as a webcam, and weighs less than half a pound.
The SDX1 also sports cool shooting features like intelligent zoom (digital zoom with optical zoom quality), programmable facial recognition (not face detection), and a hybrid optical image stabilization system that combines both optical and digital handshake correction.
We were huge fans of the last Panasonic high-definition camcorder we reviewed, the high-end TM700, and we are delighted to see some of its nifty features make their way down the line to more the more consumer-friendly products. How well do those features fit with this entry-level HD camcorder? Also, how does the SDX1 video stack up against other camcorders in its price range? Read our review to find out.
BUILD AND DESIGN
Priced $500 at launch, the SDX1 shoots both 1080/60i video (AVCHD) and 720/30p video (MP4) through its 35.8mm wide-angle lens and 1/4.1-inch single-MOS image sensor. It has no internal storage, but does accept SD, SDHC and SDXC cards. The SDX1 measures 2.03 x 2.26 x 4.23 inches and weighs less than half a pound with the removable battery inserted.
Looking at the SDX1 head on reveals the lens, built-in flash, video light, and the on-board stereo mic. There is also a manual lens cover controlled via a small switch on the left side of the lens that I forgot to open and close on many occasions. I very much dislike manual lens covers for that reason, preferring a cap – or better yet, an automatic lens cover – but I suppose it's better than no cover at all. Opposite the front on the back of the SDX1 are the record start/stop button and battery holder.
In addition to the lens cover switch, the internal playback speaker, Velcro grip belt, mode switch, status light, are all on the palm-side of the SDX1, in addition to the DC input, which is hidden underneath a small cover.
Opposite the palm side sits the 2.7-inch, touch-enabled LCD monitor. It flips open 90 degrees and rotates 180. Hiding underneath the LCD are the power button, delete footage/video light button, Intelligent Auto/manual button (toggles between the two), optical image stabilization button, mini HDMI out, USB terminal, and AV out, and a latch covering the SD card holder, which has a small indicator light. On the LCD panel sits the menu button, zoom buttons, and another record start/stop button.
Predictably, the zoom lever and photo buttons are on top of the SDX1 and the battery release latch and tripod receptacle are on the bottom.
As mentioned, the SDX1 is extremely light for a camcorder in its class. Much of that is due to its plastic casing that feels a bit fragile. It doesn't feel cheap, because all the buttons are tight and secure and it definitely sports a quality build. However, the SDX1 definitely feels less solid than other, heavier camcorders owing to its weight.
Ergonomics and Controls
There are many buttons crammed onto this small device, and Panasonic does a good job of keeping things appropriately spaced. There is little potential for errant button presses.
The touch-enabled LCD is also very responsive, though 2.7-inches is just a bit too small for my taste. Panasonic includes a small stylus with the SDX1, and I found it preferable to my fingertip for poking around the menu. That said, I had no major issues navigating the menu sans stylus, but that has a lot to do with the SDX1's simple menu layout.
Panasonic also rightly kept the dedicated Intelligent Auto and image stabilizer buttons on the body and did not burry them in the menu system. Sometimes quick access is necessary, especially image stabilization when the zoom is extended. Kudos to Panasonic for realizing that.
I had no issues holding the camcorder or shooting with it for extended periods of time, mostly due to its weight.
Menus and Modes
Hitting the menu button on the LCD panel calls up the SDX1 menu, which is broken into video, stills and camera setup submenus. There is also an information icon that when pressed explains what each menu item controls. This is a great feature, particularly for first-timers, and I'd like to see more manufacturers embrace it.
The SDX1 features Panasonic's Intelligent Auto, which is a glorified dummy mode that handles the focus, white balance, exposure and shutter speed. Experience users can set the SDX1 to manual mode with the press of a button. That opens up the white balance controls, shutter speed, iris/gain value, and manual focus. There is also a manual focus assist mode that displays the focus area in blue on the LCD.
From the video submenu, the SDX1 presents the following options
Many of the video modes carry over for stills, but there are some dedicated still features.
There are also a handful of camera settings available for tweaking.
As I mentioned, 2.7-inches is just too small for a touch screen. In fact, most touch-enabled smartphones are 3.5 inches and up. I would rather sacrifice compact size for at least a three-inch screen. Compounding the issue are all the information icons Panasonic crammed around the edges of the screen. Unfortunately, it seems most entry-level and mid-range camcorders sport 2.7-inch displays these days.
Fortunately, however, Panasonic included plenty of display controls to adjust the screen brightness per the shooting situation.
Panasonic loaded a lot of functionality onto the SDX1, and I absolutely love the webcam feature. It's simple and effective, and while most computers come with a front-facing camera for Skype and YouTube uploads, the SDX1 undoubtedly offers better video quality and versatility. Here's a sample I uploaded directly to YouTube.
Another feature worth mentioning is the auto focus/auto exposure tracking, which allows users to select a subject by touching it in the display, and the SDX1 will lock on and keep the object in focus as long as it remains in frame. I liked this feature on the TM700, and it's still incredibly useful. However, I found the 2.7-inch display too small to accurately select the intended subject with a fingertip.
Programmable facial recognition is another feature that migrated down from the TM700. It's set-it-and-forget-it, meaning users should only have to register faces once. I like it, and I think it could be incredibly useful, but I had some trouble getting it to consistently recognize faces. Programming faces in the device was also a hassle, as the SDX1 kept prompting me to take a better photo despite what I thought was an ideal shooting environment.
Just about all cameras have some mode of dummy mode that automates the settings and selects the ideal presets based on the shooting conditions, and Panasonic's "Intelligent Auto" is among the best. It's tough to fool and adjusted quickly to changing conditions. The manual pictures controls are all controlled through the touchscreen, so they are best left for controlled conditions and not on-the-fly adjustments.
For those venturing into the manual controls, Panasonic includes a focus guide that aids in correctly focusing the desired object. However, I couldn't find any help with the exposure controls. Other camcorders offer "zebra lines" that indicate overexposed areas. I don't expect them on an entry level device like the SDX1, but they would have been welcome. The SDX1 does include a shooting guide that warns users when the camera is panning or moving too fast. It can get annoying, as it seems to register any moderate movement as "too fast," but I like the feature as a means to mitigate the rolling shutter effect that plagues many digital camcorders.
Panasonic promises optical zoom-like picture quality out of their Intelligent Zoom digital zoom feature. Unfortunately, it only extends the 20x optical zoom to 23x, which isn't far enough for it to be very useful. Intelligent Zoom worked extremely well on the TM700, so I hope Panasonic pushes it out an extra 10x or 15x on future models.
Extending the zoom 20x also gives the optical image stabilizer a chance to show what it can do. Here's an example of it in action, with me toggling it on and off.
Needless to say, it works.
For a device that shoots AVCHD video, which generally produces a higher quality video than MP4, I was disappointed by the SDX1's video quality. The colors appeared flat and the footage showed a bit too much noise for my liking. The edges were also soft and there just wasn't the level of detail I was expecting for a 1920x1080 HD clip. In fact, the drop off from AVCHD to MP4, which tops out at a 1280x720 resolution, is noticeable but not salient. I might consider sticking with MP4 exclusively simply because it produces smaller files and is easier to handle in terms of uploading and editing than AVCHD.
The good news is that in low light, the SDX1 excelled with both video file types. While the image was noisy and the colors off, there was little in the way of digital artifacts and the detail level was surprisingly strong.
The SDX1 shoots up to 2.9-megapixel jpeg stills, and the same issues present in the video – flat colors and soft edges – also appear on the digital photos. With the exception of the new breed of interchangeable-lens camcorders and flagship consumer models, I don't expect much from camcorder stills. So I wasn't disappointed by the SDX1's output. They are cell-phone quality at best.
Like most camcorders in its class, the SDX1 does not feature an external mic jack. It does sport an on-board stereo mic and includes both a wind noise canceller and zoom mic feature. The wind-noise canceller is reasonably effective, and the overall audio quality is acceptable. However, I still remain convinced that all camcorders should have an external mic input.
Operation and Extras
The SDX1 ships with an AC adapter, AV multi cable, USB cable, CD-ROM with HD Writer AE, and a mini stylus pen. Panasonic doesn't pack an HDMI cable with the device. Canon, Sony and others typically exclude the HDMI cable as well, which is one of my main camcorder pet peeves.
As far as the video file format goes, I love that Panasonic included both AVCHD and MP4. On this particular device, I prefer using MP4, even if it only tops out at 720p. MP4 files can easily be dragged and dropped from the storage media and are easily manipulated. AVCHD typically requires specialized software to handle it properly (along with a moderately powerful computer). Many video editing programs work fine with AVCHD, but the SDX1 ships with the awkward and buggy HD Writer AE.
With the notable exception of FlipShare (included with the Flip pocket camcorder), packaged software is usually functional at best, and that's the best way to describe HD Writer AE. If you have a preferred editing program, like Apple's iMovie, use that instead of HD Write AE.
Based on its features and shooting performance, the SDX1 promised an awful lot for an entry-level device, so it hard not to be disappointed by the entry-level video quality. But viewed as a whole, I wouldn't sacrifice any feature for better video.
Ultimately, I think the Panasonic HDC SDX1 offers everything one could want or need in an entry-level device. It's light, versatile, offers great shooting performance despite the so-so output, and the manual controls are just right for beginners looking to learn the ropes. It also pleases me to see some of advanced features Panasonic was touting on their high-end devices last year already making their way down the camcorder line.