Panasonic HDC-SD800 Review
by Grant Hatchimonji -  4/19/2011

The Panasonic HDC-SD800 HD Camcorder is part of the new, 4-model HDC series of camcorders from Panasonic, which are the follow-ups to the successful 700 HDC models. Priced at $849.99 -- the lowest out of the four new HDC models -- the SD800 offers a competitive price for great HD video at 60 fps, but is also lacking in some respects, proving that you get what you pay for.

Panasonic HDC-SD800

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.

SD800 inside controls

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.

SD800 Display

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.

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.

Shooting Performance
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.

Video Quality
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.

Stills Quality
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).

Sample Images

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.

There's no denying that the Panasonic HDC-SD800 shoots solid video; at 1080/60p, it should. Other standout features like the 3MOS sensor, Intelligent Zoom, and great OIS all start to paint a picture of a well-rounded, top-of-the-line camcorder. But at an MSRP of $849.99, it isn't quite the complete package that it should be; the zoom mic basically doesn't work like it should, and larger screens tend to expose the graininess and artifacts in the video quality. Omissions like the absence of an accessory shoe (cold or hot), external microphone jack, manual lens ring, mini HDMI cable, and onboard storage also seem inexcusable for a camera this expensive.

The SD800 does what it's supposed to do and relatively well. But if you're willing to spend $849.99 on a camera that is lacking in so many departments, you might as well shell out the few extra bucks for any of the camcorders in the 900 series, which were clearly given preferential treatment and have many of the features that the SD800 is missing.