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Panasonic HDC-SD80 HD Camcorder Review
by Jamison Cush -  4/1/2011

Feature migration is common in consumer tech. Features only found on the high-end devices last year are now available on the mid-range offerings. And next year, you'll see them on entry-level devices.

Panasonic HDC-SD80With that in mind, Panasonic is in a good spot. We loved last year’s prosumer-level TM700. And at CES 2011, Panasonic rolled out a slate of less expensive offerings promising many of the same menu and shooting options, including Intelligent Zoom (digital zoom with optical zoom quality), facial recognition, and a host of manual picture controls.

The HDC-SD80 is one of the new HD camcorders benefiting from the TM700 hand-me-downs. This mid-range camcorder offers the typical 1080p/60i picture quality, 3-megapixel stills, 33.7mm wide-angle lens (35mm equivalent), Hybrid Optical Image Stabilization (OIS), and Panasonic's Intelligent Auto "dummy mode" in addition to the aforementioned Intelligent Zoom and Facial recognition.

Does all that add up to a quality HD camcorder? Read the HDC-SD80 review to find out.

BUILD AND DESIGN
There are three 80-level mid-range models with similar specs: the SD80, TM80, and HS80. The SD80, which we reviewed, has no on-board memory and requires an SD/SDHC/SDXC card. The TM80 is the same size as the compact SD80 and weighs 0.01 lbs more while sporting 16GB of on-board memory. The HS80 is slightly chunkier, weighs 0.15 lbs more than the SD80, and features a 120GB HDD.

The TM80 costs $499.99 at launch, while the HS80 costs $449.95, and the SD80 costs $399.99.

I prefer camcorders with little or no on-board storage because they are less expensive, lighter and compact. One accidental drop can break an HDD and corrupt any footage stored on it. However, shooting performance and output should be the same across all units in a line.

This is something you'll definitely notice when handling the SD80. It's on the smaller-end of the mid-range scale and feather-light. It measures 2.02 x 2.32 x 4.29 inches and weighs less than half a pound. Much of this is no doubt due to the all-plastic build that might turn off some users who prefer a more rugged and slightly heavier model with aluminum or brushed metal body sections.

There is always a tradeoff between rugged and lightweight, and while the SD80 is certainly on the lighter end of the spectrum, it still has a quality build. It survived two days of skiing in my backpack and a handful of spills on the mountain. I also gave it a few hearty squeezes to test its durability, and never did I hear or feel a creak or crack.

That said, the SD80 wasn't built for adventure, and I don’t recommend mounting it to a helmet or handlebars for your next mountain biking excursion.

The Panasonic SD80 has a very typical camcorder design. On the face sits the 33.7mm lens and manual lens cover, video/photo light, and onboard microphone. On the back are the mode switch, record light, record button, and removable battery.

Panasonic HDC-SD80 Panasonic HDC-SD80

 Looking at it from the back, the Velcro handgrip, manual lens cover switch, and DC input are on the right.

Panasonic HDC-SD80

The 2.7-inch touchscreen LCD (230,400 pixels) flips out from the left side.

 Panasonic HDC-SD80

Hidden behind the flip-out LCD are the internal speaker, USB terminal, Intelligent Auto/manual toggle button, optical image stabilizer button, power button, HDMI out, AV multi-out (Panasonic proprietary connection), and battery release lever.

Panasonic HDC-SD80

On top of the SD80 are the zoom lever and photo button. On the bottom are the SD card slot and tripod receptacle.

Panasonic HDC-SD80 Panasonic HDC-SD80

Ergonomics and Controls
The SD80 has a layout similar to the SDX1, which I reviewed previously. Just as with the SDX1, everything is spaced accordingly. Errant button presses were never an issue, and I loved having quick access to dummy mode (Intelligent Auto) and OIS.

Unfortunately, just like the SDX1, the SD80 has a 2.7-inch display, which is entirely too small for touch controls. The SD80 has a relatively deep menu system and a handful of manual picture controls that are all accessed and managed through the display via touch. Though responsive, the monitor is simply too small, which makes finger operation clumsy and awkward. Panasonic packs a small stylus for pinpoint selecting, which helps, provided you remember to bring the stylus along with you. But I'd rather see the display bumped up to 3.0-inches, even if it means added bulk and weight.

Given that the SD80 is what it is -- perfectly palm-sized and extremely light -- I could probably shoot with it all day without my hand or arm cramping up.

Menus and Modes
Accessing the menu is as simple as tapping the icon on the SD80 display. The user interface doesn't deviate from Panasonic's typical setup, and menu items are nicely broken down into video, stills, and camera setup submenus. The SD80 also has an information icon that when pressed explains each setting in layman's terms, which is extremely helpful for those unfamiliar with camcorder menu jargon.

Users wishing to skip the menu can get by with Panasonic’s Intelligent Auto, which does an excellent job of choosing the correct white balance, shutter speed, and scene mode. However, those diving into the manual settings will find plenty to tweak.

From the video submenu, the SD80 offers:

Many of the video modes carry over for stills, but there are some dedicated still features, including:

When the SD80 is set to manual, users can control the following:

Finally, there are many other shooting features available, including but not limited to smile shot, video/photo light, shooting guidelines, tele macro mode, soft skin mode, and red eye reduction.

Display
I have no problems monitoring action or composing a shot on a 2.7-inch display, but I will reiterate that I think it's much too small for touch controls – especially manual touch controls that require a degree of precision.

Panasonic probably realizes this too, which is why they pack in a small stylus to help menu navigation. But as it is small and plastic, it's easy to lose, and it doesn’t solve the underlying problem that the display is too small. I think three inches in the minimum for a touchscreen, and rival Sony has embraced that size as the minimum on its new Handycams.

Panasonic HDC-SD80

It's not all bad though. The display looks great with a fine amount of detail, which admittedly a larger screen would compromise, and users can tweak the monitor’s color and brightness for shooting in bright places.

PERFORMANCE
The SD80 has many of the same features I liked in other Panasonic camcorders, including Auto Focus/Auto Exposure tracking, which enables users to select a subject in the display for the SD80 to keep in focus with proper exposure. Unfortunately, the small display makes it difficult to accurately select a subject with a fingertip, so here’s hoping you don't lose the stylus.

Facial Recognition is also available. It’s set it and forget it, and you can register up to six faces in the SD80 that the camcorder will recognize and prioritize whenever they pop into view.

Otherwise, the SD80 doesn’t sport any major new options we haven’t seen on Panasonic camcorders before.

Shooting Performance
I’ve extolled the virtues of Panasonic Intelligent Auto in previous reviews, and it’s the same story with the SD80. It’s among the best dummy modes I’ve used to produces some excellent footage in challenging conditions.

In fact, given how tough it is to make manual adjustments on the small screen, I relied on it almost exclusively. However, when I did venture into the manual settings, I was upset to find Panasonic neglected to include zebra stripes to guide exposure.

Zebra stripes typically appear in the monitor to indicate over exposed areas. These are necessary because accurately eyeing a picture on a 2.7-inch display is near impossible. The SD80 has a focus guide to aid in manual focus, and a notification alert warning the camera is panning “too fast,” but nothing outside of that.

I enjoyed using the long 37x optical zoom, but the lever on the device was a bit loose for my liking. The intelligent zoom that promises optical zoom quality from a digital zoom also works as advertised, and it extends the SD80 to 42x. That’s only an additional 5x from the optical, and Panasonic’s Intelligent Zoom feature is now more than a year old. I’d love to see Panasonic push it to an additional 10x or 20x.

Panasonic’s Hybrid OIS that mixes digital and optical image stabilization is also onboard and works very well, especially with the zoom fully extended.

Also worth noting is the SD80’s manual lens cover. I’ve seen similar priced camcorders with automatic lens coves, which are preferable, if only because I too often forget to close before putting the camcorder away.

Video, Audio and Stills Quality
The SD80 has a 1/4.1-inch CMOS sensor that shoots AVCHD video (1920 x 1080, 60i) at 17mbps when at the highest setting. It looks great blown up on a HD-capable monitor, with crisp details and vibrant colors. In fact, it’s some of the best I’ve seen for a camera in this price class.

The SD80 predictably suffers in low light, perhaps a little more than expected given its steady light performance, with high noise levels and a complete loss of detail. Though major colors are still discernable.

The onboard stereo microphone does a decent job of picking up audio around the camera, and the zoom mic works well to focus the sound on a particular subject. Unfortunately, Panasonic neglected to included an external mic input, which I think should be standard on every camcorder, even the Flip. The fact is that if I’m trying to record dialogue in a crowded or noisy setting, I can get better sound from a cheap karaoke mic than I can any on-board offering, even with a zoom mic feature.

The SD80 stills top out at three megapixels and isn’t particularly impressive. Blown up fully, they are grainy and flat. I don’t expect much from camcorder stills – only that they offer slightly better output than my smartphone –  so I wasn’t disappointed.

Sample Images

Operation and Extras
The SD80 ships with an AC adaptor and cable, AV cable, USB cable, stylus, and HD Writer AE CD-ROM. In addition to an external mic input, I think every HD camcorder should ship with an HDMI cable. Some entry-level camcorder makers actually include the cable (thank you, Kodak and Toshiba), but as long as Best Buy is making money on ridiculously marked-up HDMI cables, most won’t bother.

In a nice gesture towards Mac fans, the SD80 can shoot in the iFrame format. Though iMovie can handle AVCHD, it can process iFrame quicker.

Windows users are stuck with AVCHD which, while it makes for great looking video, can be a handful for non-experienced users. Files simply can’t be dragged and dropped from the device over USB like an MP4 file. Users have to extract the files, which requires a program like the HD Writer AE software that ships with the SD80. 

I’ve never been a fan of packaged software as it’s typically buggy, but the version 3.0 that ships with the SD80 seems more stable than previous versions and is acceptable. I did find that my old laptop had some issues handling the large HA video files, which resulted in jittery playback.

CONCLUSIONS
The Panasonic SD80, as well as the TM80 and HS80, are really tweener devices. They have advanced features only found on the high-end Panasonic models just last year and a handful of manual controls, yet they lack the options that I think make for a complete camcorder.

Panasonic HDC-SD80The missing elements will probably turn off experienced users looking for a relatively inexpensive camcorder, but at the same time, the SD80 is a decent option for a pocket camcorder owner looking for something a little more serious.

 


Ultimately, most of the SD80 flaws come in the form of what the camcorder doesn’t have (external mic input, zebra stripes). What it does have, works well. Video quality is superb, shooting features abundant, and it’s extremely light.

That said, I don’t think users of any level will appreciate navigating the menus on a 2.7-inch screen, and even professional cinematographers will probably forget to close the manual lens cover.