Panasonic HDC-SD5 First Impressions Camcorder Review
The Panasonic HDC-SD5 ($999 MSRP) is the latest effort in the race to built the “world’s smallest [something],” in this case the smallest 3-chip, 1920 x 1080 HD camcorder. While the camcorder is less than thrilling, and only a minor upgrade to last year’s HDC-SD1, the world in which it lives has changed a great deal. Suddenly, AVCHD doesn’t look so off-putting anymore. Support for viewing and editing is popping up on a monthly basis. The HDC-SD5 does offer an increased capture resolution over last year, which topped out at 1440 x 1080, and a smaller, lighter body. The starting price has also dropped considerably (down $500 from last year). All these facts combined make the HDC-SD5 a lot more enticing than its predecessor. But it is worth diving into AVCHD just year? Let’s take a closer look.
By clicking one of our links you're supporting our labs and our independence, as we may earn a small share of revenue. Recommendations are separate from any business incentives.
The Panasonic HDC-SD5 is equipped with three 1/6" CCDs, each with a gross pixel count of 560,000 and an effective count of 520,000, processed by Panasonic’s HD Advanced Pure Color Engine processor. Both the HDC-SD5 and HDC-SX5 have been downgraded in the chipset department—the HDC-SD1 and HDC-DX1 both touted three 1/4" CCDs. This means the HDC-SD5’s light gathering abilities will diminish due to the smaller pixels size.
The good news is that Panasonic has increased the resolution on both AVCHD models. The HDC-SD5 and HDC-SX5 both record in 1920 x 1080 "full HD," while the HDC-SD1 and HDC-DX1 top out at 1440 x 1080 anamorphic with a 1920 x 1080 output signal. Though we were not able spend a great deal of time with the HDC-SD5’s image, its playback on Panasonic’s plasma screens looked promising.
The HDC-SD5 should yield a bright light performance similar to the HDC-SD1 and HDC-DX1. 3CCD Panasonics tend to produce a vibrant color palette. Hopefully, the dreadful compression effects of AVCHD will not mar the HDC-SD5’s image to a significant degree.
Though our HDC-SD5 was not an official production model, Panasonic encouraged us to shoot footage onto the supplied 2GB SD cards so we could return to our testing room for an analysis. The real assessment will begin when we get our hands on one next month.
Low Light Performance
According to the specs, the HDC-SD5 is capable of a minimum illumination of 5 lux, though these numbers are always exaggerated by manufacturers. Again, the three smaller 1/6" imagers will most likely decrease the HDC-SD5’s light gathering ability. Those darn AVCHD compression artifacts will pile on in low light, amalgamating into a thick fuzz over the image. Don’t expect an earth-shattering difference in performance from the HDC-SD1 and HDC-DX1.
The HDC-SD5 joins a relatively fresh cast of camcorders steeped in the mushrooming craze of the AVCHD format. AVCHD, a flavor of MPEG4/h.264, was jointly developed by Panasonic and Sony in early 2006 with a central aim to bring HD video to a wide spectrum of recording media including DVD, hard disk drive (HDD), and flash memory. AVCHD’s primary attractions are its ability to record in both 720p and 1080i HD standards, utilizing a compression rate that is 50% more efficient than HDV at half the file size.
As mentioned previously, the HDC-SD5 has ability to record in full 1920 x 1080. It can also record at lower bit rates in 1440 x 1080. The recording settings on the camcorder are listed as: HG1920 (13Mbps CBR), HN1440 (9Mbps VBR), HE1440 (6 Mbps VBR). When recording in the highest quality (HG), the 13 Mbps rate is fixed and does not fluctuate. In HN or HE quality modes the bit rate is variable, meaning the HDC-SD5 automatically adjusts the rate based on the amount of frame motion. AVCHD is capable of recording up to a maximum of 24Mbps, but 15Mbps is the highest bit rate available within the format to date. The Sony HDR-CX7 is capable of capturing AVCHD footage at 15Mbps, in addition to the world’s first AVCHD camcorder, the Sony HDR-SR1. Keep in mind that HDV maintains a constant 25Mbps bit rate.
Though AVCHD can save space and support a number of media options, it is still an untamed animal. Recorded video and audio files are usually separated and file names are unrecognizable. In addition, AVCHD has been known to produce motion trailing and artifacting in our testing room. AVCHD also requires a powerhouse computer due to its high compression. Parallel to its burgeoning development, you can expect to see more AVCHD-friendly NLEs and conversion programs sprouting up with time.
The HDC-SD5 records AVCHD video to SD/SDHC cards. An 8GB SDHC card can hold up to 80 minutes of footage in the highest quality (HG) and up to 6690 high quality images. Flash is one of the quickest forms of media on the market due to its plug-and-play capability, as seen with pocket cams like the Sanyo VPC-HD2 and Canon TX1. Just don’t forget that we’re dealing with AVCHD here regarding the HDC-SD5. This means when you connect your SD/SDHC card to a computer, you won’t be greeted by friendly MPEG-4 files, but rather obscure file extensions hidden within numerous folders containing different shards of information, including audio and archiving properties.
The SD/SDHC card slot, located on the bottom
This is not the case with most HDD and DVD camcorders—the MPEG-2 format is more widely recognized and compatible with most major NLEs and computer platforms. HDV stills reigns supreme as the most widely supported form of media, employing tape-to-storage video capture functionality via almost any major NLE. Sony makes an AVCHD-compatible DVD burner, the VRD-MC5, but as of yet, the burner is only compatible with Sony camcorders, such as the HDR-CX7 and HDR-SR1. Panasonic does hold the title in terms of media format popularity. SD/SDHC cards are the most common form of flash media within the consumer camcorder circuit. All AVCHD Sony camcorders that record to flash utilize the Sony proprietary MemoryStick PRO or MemoryStick PRO Duo, exclusive only to Sony camcorders.
It’s a bit of a different story in the pricing arena, though—a 4GB SDHC card from Panasonic will run you $219 while an 8GB Memory Stick PRO Duo card retails for $199. Panasonic’s 8GB SDHC card is not due out until September, but no price has been set. Have no fear—since the SD/SDHC format is so popular, most 8GB SDHC cards retail for under $200 online.
Since our review of the HDC-SD1, a cluster of NLEs with AVCHD support have been released. Ulead Video Studio 11 and Pinnacle Studio 11 were announced back in May, in addition to Sony Vegas 7.0e and Vegas 8, which provides AVCHD support for only Sony camcorders. Both Ulead Video Studio 11 and Pinnacle Studio 11 support all AVCHD camcorders and offer real-time editing via a familiar timeline format. Expect to see big wigs like Premiere Pro and Final Cut Pro offering AVCHD support within the near future. In order to work with AVCHD footage on a broader range, there are aftermarket conversion programs such as Elecard, which enable you to export footage as MPEG-2 HDV and MPEG-2 DVD compatible files.
The HDC-SD5 ships with HD Writer 2.0E, an update to the HDC-SD1’s provided HD Writer 1.0E software. Though there is not any current information on the updated version, HD Writer 1.0E is merely a rudimentary DVD authoring program with exceedingly limited editing capabilities. In most proficient videographers’ eyes, HD Writer 1.0E is essentially useless for even most basic editing functions. We wouldn’t expect a giant leap of progression with HD Writer 2.0E. In that case, stick with one of the latest AVCHD-friendly NLEs. For those who dream of cutting AVCHD footage on a more professional level, wait until Adobe and Apple pave the way.
Picture & Manual Control
*Automatic Control *
Based on what we saw with the HDC-SD1, you can expect the HDC-SD5 to perform well in auto mode. Granted, there are those challenging environments that tend to run auto exposure, white balance, and focus through the picture gauntlet due to high contrasts or harsh lighting. When the HDC-SD5 is set to auto mode, the joystick menu consists only of three pages and does not offer control over exposure, white balance, or shutter speed. This is Panasonic at its most rudimentary level. Despite its base form of operation, the HDC-SD5 still offers more independent control in auto mode than most camcorders. A help mode is available to guide the shooter through their selection of automatic controls, characterized by a series of titles for each setting.
The HDC-SD5’s auto mode will suit the needs of most point-and-shooters, but will not offer the idiot-proof stability of Sony’s Easy mode. In Easy mode, Sony’s camcorders slip into full autopilot, providing extensive image adjustment coverage for almost any environment. Panasonic tends to leave a bit more for the shooter. For instance, even in auto mode you have control over Intelligent Contrast, Soft Skin mode, MagicPix, backlight compensation settings, and Tele Macro. When selected, auto slow shutter automatically adjusts the shutter speed at fluctuating values beneath 1/30—yet another automatic control placed in the shooter’s hand. In Sony Easy mode land, everything turns into a ghost town—the touch screen menu buttons swell in size and many beloved, reassuring features vanish into digital oblivion. Users might get bogged down by Panasonic’s intricate joystick menu, but it definitely caters to the more sophisticated point-and-shooter.
*Overall Manual Control *
The HDC-SD5 is a manual control hero—on the consumer level. While intermediate and professional filmmakers swoon over Panasonic’s manual control offerings on their pro and prosumer cameras, the average point-and-shooter will be steeped in plenty o’ image control. For instance, gain. Panasonic is the only manufacturer to offer gain on their consumer camcorders—a tip of the hat to their professional line. In addition, the implementation of the rear-mounted joystick allows for one-handed camcorder operation in conjunction with the neighboring menu button.
In manual mode, one center press of the joystick activates the function menu. The fourth page of the function menu contains iris, shutter speed, and white balance control, clumped together for quick accessibility. Gain will automatically kick in after the aperture has been fully opened. Navigating with the HDC-SD5’s joystick is not particularly a treat. As outlined in the handling section, the joystick is too small and finicky—practice is in order for on-the-fly manual adjustment without inadvertently selecting every icon in existence. Panasonic’s manual focus control is not entirely preferable, especially with the joystick, but look at the size of this thing. The HDC-SD5 is about sleek lines and a feathery mass, so you’ll have to deal with the fact that the "world’s smallest AVCHD camcorder" is a point-and-shooter’s dream.
Most Panasonics, Sonys, Canons, and JVCs are equipped with the infamous rocking zoom lever—a raised plastic tab that is capable of resilient handling and an innate ability to stop on a dime. Panasonic took a gamble with the HDC-SD5 and slapped a chunky rectangular zoom slider on top. Though our opinions of zoom sliders tend to wax and wane, this is the first zoom control we’ve seen that combines the beloved responsiveness of a lever with the buttery smoothness of a slider. All in all, this is a great design.
The HDC-SD5 has a 10x optical zoom, which is slightly stunted compared to the HDC-SD1’s 12x. In order to design the "world’s smallest AVCHD camcorder," Panasonic had to cut corners somewhere, and the HDC-SD5 joins the vast sea of high-end consumer camcorders strapped with 10x optical zooms. The HDC-SD5 also has a digital zoom that can penetrate the stratosphere with a magnification of up to 700x. The digital zoom can be capped at 25x, which is where it should remain—anything after that is a pixilated fiasco.
Like the HDC-SD1, there are no additional zoom controls found on the HDC-SD5’s body, yet the Sony HDR-CX7 offers handy W and T buttons embedded within its LCD panel. The option to have an alternate set of controls for any function on a camcorder is a definite plus, but Panasonic appears to be honing in on looks and size rather than functionality.
The HDC-SD5’s manual focus can be activated by shifting the auto/manual switch to the manual focus setting. A fifth page will appear within the joystick menu, consisting of +/- parameters that can be controlled horizontally via the joystick. Sadly, the HDC-SD5 does not have any other method of focus control, so the joystick is your only hope. The HDC-SD1 features the same manual focus interface—along with all other recent Panasonics—and we found the level of control offered by the joystick to be mediocre at best. As with all Panasonics, the manual focus performs well, producing a crisp, sharp picture when calibrated correctly. This is great, but keep in mind that your only monitor is a 2.7" LCD screen.
The Sony HDR-SR1, HDR-UX1, and HDR-UX7 all feature 3.5" LCD screens, amplifying the degree of manual focus accuracy due to the colossal viewing pane. The aforementioned AVCHD titans also feature cam control rings or dials similar to those found on the Canon HV20 and Sony HDR-HC7. Though you will not be greeted with that echelon of manual control with the HDC-SD5, its joystick-governed manual focus interface beats the pants off the Sony HDR-CX7’s touch screen control panel. The HDC-SD5 features an MF assist function which magnifies the center quadrant of the viewing pane by 2x, aiding the finer intricacies of focus adjustment. This helps when honing in on fine detail. Though MF assist proves to be a useful feature, Panasonic’s version does not offer peaking and the 2.7" widescreen LCD renders the function virtually useless.
*Exposure (Aperture) *
The HDC-SD5’s independent iris control is part of the reason why Panasonic reigns supreme in the manual control world. Most camcorders will offer basic control over exposure, a tip of the cap to beginners and novices who quest for the simplicity of merely brightening or darkening a clip via a familiar horizontal slider. That’s not the case here—Panasonic doesn’t play around.
When in manual mode, iris control can be accessed in the fourth page of the joystick menu by shifting the joystick upward. A small cluster of information appears in the bottom left side of the LCD screen, including adjustable fstops in the following increments: f/16, f/14, f/11, f/9.6, f/8, f/6.8, f/5.6, f/4.8, f/4, f/3.4, f/2.8, and Open. While shifting through fstops, you’ll notice that there is a mysterious 1/2 step between each value, adding to a total of 23 steps. When the aperture is fully open, you can continue adjusting the exposure via gain, which automatically kicks in. Panasonic is the only manufacturer to offer gain in their consumer line, and we applaud them for continuing the legacy on the HDC-SD5.
On the flip side of all the above praise, none of the Panasonics have a simple exposure compensation, which is often the only control that a novice really wants. It wouldn’t have hurt to put both aperture and exposure compensation on.
Shutter speed on the HDC-SD5 can be accessed on the fourth page of the joystick menu by shifting the joystick to the left and can be adjusted by shifting the joystick left to decrease and right to increase. The HDC-SD5 offers manual shutter speed control in the following steps: 1/30, 1/60, 1/100, 1/120, 1/180, 1/250, 1/350, 1/500, 1/750, 1/1000, 1/1500, 1/2000, 1/3000, 1/4000, and 1/8000—a wide array within its class. Since the HDC-SD5 records in 1080i, it is capable of a 1/30 shutter speed, as opposed to the HDC-SD1’s base shutter speed of 1/60. With MagicPix on, the shutter speed automatically drops below 1/30, but there is no available manual control past that point.
Also located in the fourth page of the joystick menu, the HDC-SD5’s white balance control can be selected by shifting the joystick to the right. Toggling the joystick up or down will cycle you through a menu consisting of auto, indoor, outdoor, and manual white balance settings. In order to manually adjust the white balance, simply hold the joystick up toward the manual white balance icon until it blinks twice. The HDC-SD5’s manual white balance control is fast and accurate, calibrating a balanced image in less than two seconds. Though the Canon HV20 churned the best manual white balance performance within our testing room, the HDC-SD5 is a strong contender. Auto white balance is a bit of a free-for-all with most consumer camcorders, and the HDC-SD5’s rapid white balance adjustment will obliterate the need to rely on autopilot.
While most manufacturers infuse or disguise gain control within manual exposure, Panasonic is the only manufacturer to isolate this tier of image adjustment. The HDC-SD5’s gain kicks in after the aperture is fully opened and offers the following incremental steps: 0dB, 3dB, 6dB, 9dB, 12dB, 15 dB, and 18dB. That mysterious 1/2 step is present between each individual gain level, amounting to a total of 12 gain steps.
Other Manual Controls
Guidelines- Though we did not get a chance to explore the HDC-SD5’s guideline offerings, they should be strikingly similar to that of the HDC-SD1’s. The HDC-SD1 offers three horizontal lines congruent to the rule of thirds, a nine box grid, and a second grid which overlays finer lines on the subject.
Zebra Stripes- Zebra stripes aid those who need guidance when it comes to exposure. When selected, black and white stripes will appear over blown out areas of the image, indicating which spots need exposure correction. Sony and Canon offer two levels of intensity—70 IRE and 100 IRE, but Panasonic only provides a single fixed zebra level setting.
Color Bars- You can record a screen of color bars for color calibration when playing back footage on a TV. Color bars are located in the advanced section of the administrative menu.
Intelligent Contrast- New from Panasonic, the intelligent contrast feature can be found in the first page of the joystick menu. When applied, intelligent contrast reportedly detects the intensity of the ambient light within an image and adjusts the exposure according to its reading. The central goal of the intelligent contrast feature is to abolish blown highlights and obstructed shadows. We look forward to putting this feature to the grindstone in our testing room next month. In fact, we may even whip out a brand new test we’ve been sitting on…
Like the HDC-SD1, the HDC-SD5 is pretty limited in the still image department. The HDC-SD5 does not have a designated photo mode and stills can only be captured at a fixed 1920 x 1080 resolution in two quality settings—high and normal. Even though camcorders are generally not considered to be viable alternatives to digital cameras, certain models offer more. The Sony HDR-CX7 has the ability to capture stills as large as 2848 x 1602 in 16:9 mode in addition to a descending handful of sizes that bottom out at 640 x 480 (VGA).
The HDC-SD5 features red eye reduction and a flash with adjustable settings. The only other still feature worth mentioning is the shutter sound feature found on almost any Panasonic. It’s basically a sound effect that emulates a 35mm shutter snap, accompanying the photo button. Actually, that’s not even worth mentioning. We apologize for wasting your time.
The Still Picture sub-menu in the main menu
Ease of Use
Sony might wear the pants when it comes to ease of use within the consumer camcorder market, but the Panasonic HDC-SD5 walks softly and carries a big stick. Yes, Sony has their prized Easy button, which slips the camcorder into full auto mode and whittles down menu options to almost nothing. Sony also touts that infamous touch screen interface, which pumps up the "ooh…ahh!" factor for most buyers. The HDC-SD5 utilizes a menu interface that is nearly identical to its AVCHD predecessors, the HDC-SD1 and HDC-DX1. The look is basic, a stripped-down menu design full of useful features rather than ancillary gimmicks.
The HDC-SD5 employs the familiar one-touch joystick menu that provides instant manual control right at your thumb. Maneuvering the joystick will take some practice, especially with the HDC-SD5’s stunted nub, but thanks to the simplified menu structure, most shooters will be able to acclimatize in no time. To the bane of the manual control freak, the HDC-SD5 does not feature a plethora of ports, buttons, dials, switches, and sliders, which is good news for point-and-shooters. One last note is that the HDC-SD5 records to one of the most friendly formats available—flash memory. Just slide a card in and go. There’s no tape to rewind and no DVD to format. In order to capture footage onto a computer, all you need is a card reader and an AVCHD-compatible NLE, which are slowly beginning to crawl out of the woodwork as the relatively new compression reaches further development.
The "World’s Smallest AVCHD Camcorder" wars are raging more tumultuously than ever. When Panasonic introduced the HDC-SD1, they claimed the initial title. Then along came Sony with the HDR-CX7, capturing the flag. As a result, Panasonic was forced to retaliate. Hence the creation of the HDC-SD5—the latest "World’s Smallest 1920 x 1080 AVCHD Camcorder"…until Sony releases an upgrade to the HDR-CX7, which should run closer in size to an iPod shuffle. And thus, the cyclical battle of smallness trudges onward.
The HDC-SD5 is 20% smaller than SD1, and you can feel it. Weighing in at 340g and measuring a petit 66mm x 66mm x 135mm, the HDC-SD5 feels so small in the palm of the hand, it’s absurd. The Sony HDR-CX7 should feel like an overstuffed mess with its 430g weight and 74mm x 69mm x 142mm dimensions when pinned against the HDC-SD5. Despite the preposterously minute mass of the HDC-SD5, it’s refreshingly comfortable to hold. The right side of the camcorder features an amply-sized arched bump that conforms ergonomically to the palm of the hand. In addition, Panasonic has abolished the slender, feeble hand strap found on the HDC-SD1. The HDC-SD5’s hand strap is thin, yet made of a velvety material, flaunting a wide teardrop design that mirrors the palm-friendly bump. For a camcorder this tiny, we did not expect this caliber of comfort.
Of, course those with hands larger than a plastic backscratcher will most likely overshoot the microphone and playback speaker, which are both located on top of the camcorder. The HDC-SD1 features a raised rubberized ridge between its microphone and zoom toggle, which proved to be a valuable asset when it came to attaining a solid grip. Your quest with the HDC-SD5 will be to find out where to keep your fingers. The zoom toggle is constructed of a hefty, gnarled metal tab that slides as smoothly as hot Werther’s Original. Though zoom sliders tend to have bad reputations due to their choppy handling, we were more than pleased with the HDC-SD5’s. Honestly, we could have used more joystick, though. Panasonic’s joysticks resemble a miniscule mushroom with an exceedingly short stem. The HDC-SD5’s joystick appears to have had its mushroom top lopped off to expose a stunted microscopic shaft.
The HDC-SD5 features an LCD open button that, when pressed, releases the LCD screen a fraction of an inch. In order to fully extend the LCD screen, you must flip it out with a finger. The LCD screen cannot be released without pressing the LCD open button. If you try to jack it open with a fingernail, you will be subjected to the jarring snap of plastic-on-plastic resistance—not the greatest catalyst for easing the wear and tear process. The HDC-SD5 has a large battery/SD card slot door located on the bottom that flips out underneath the camcorder. Here you’ll find the battery and SD/SDHC card slot. On a lame note, you can’t replace the battery or SD/SDHC card while the camcorder is mounted to a tripod. In addition, you can’t upgrade the HDC-SD5’s VW-VBG130 battery pack to bigger size thanks to its fixed cavity. The HDR-CX7 features a rear-mounted battery design and side-mounted Memory Stick slot.
The HDC-SD5 is equipped with a 2.7" wide LCD screen that flips out 90 degrees from the body and rotates up to 270 degrees. The screen touts a 300K pixel resolution, putting the Sony HDR-CX7’s 211K pixel LCD screen to shame. This is a 50 pixel increase in resolution from Panasonic’s first flash-based AVCHD model, the HDC-SD1. As a result, the HDC-SD5’s LCD image is strikingly crisp, heightened by bold lines and rife with vibrant, balanced color. As viewfinders are slowly ushered to the chopping block, manufacturers should pour more quality into the only source of image monitoring available on a camcorder. We were pleased to see Panasonic raise the bar.
On the other hand, the HDC-SD5’s LCD screen is devoid of controls embedded within its LCD panel. The HDR-CX7 flaunts zoom, record start/stop, and home menu controls along the left side of its LCD panel. Two-handed shooters will be disappointed with the HDC-SD5’s bare plastic frame. The HDC-SD5 sports an LCD open button located in back. When pressed, the LCD screen flips out slightly and requires a minor jostle in order for it to fully extend. This is another upgrade from the HDC-SD1’s LCD screen, which had no locking mechanism and was susceptible to an inadvertent flip out during transport.
Harking back to the HDC-SD1, we were fairly impressed with its onboard audio capabilities. The HDC-SD1 features a 5.1 channel Dolby digital built-in microphone with a mic jack located in its LCD cavity. While Panasonic chose to shed unwanted physical bulk by 20% with the revamped HDC-SD5, the camcorder’s audio was whittled down as well. The HDC-SD5 is reduced to a 2 channel stereo microphone and lacks that beloved mic jack. Oh, the sacrifices that must be executed to achieve the title of the "world’s smallest AVCHD camcorder!" We’re not impressed, Panasonic. Even the Sony HDR-CX7 is graced with a 5.1 channel Dolby digital built-in microphone.
Fortunately, the HDC-SD5 retained the HDC-SD1’s audio level control (auto, set, set+AGC). The built-in microphone also features a wind cut setting, and the ability to zoom. The HDC-SD5’s audio level control interface is a bit revamped, displaying a horizontal slider with 8 bars on both sides, measuring decibel levels with an adjustable range of -30 to +6 dB. The HDR-CX7 does not offer independent audio level control, but features a hot shoe for mounting an external mic.
Playback on the HDC-SD5 is virtually identical to the HDC-SD1. When the mode dial is shifted into playback mode, a screen containing up to 12 icons at a time appears. The icons represent individual recorded video clips, navigated by the joystick. In order to play a clip, press the center of the joystick. The clip will begin playing in the full pane of the LCD screen. Press the center of the joystick again to cue playback controls such as pause/play, stop, fast forward, and rewind. Playback audio can be adjusted using the zoom slider, represented by an onscreen horizontal slider with 32 steps. A separate photo tab is situated next to the video tab in the main icon screen and can be selected using the joystick to shuffle through captured stills.
In playback mode, the menu differs slightly from the video record menu. Play setup consists of play mode, repeat play, resume play, scene protect, and guidelines. Edit scene allows you to divide and delete clips. Disc Copy enables the recorded video to be exported onto a DVD disc. Setup includes format card, display, date/time, date format, power save, beep sound, LCD set, component out, HDMI resolution, EZ Sync, and TV aspect settings. Control over language is also available here.
The HDC-SD5 is an architecturally eccentric camcorder in terms of port placement. The HDMI and USB terminals are housed by a massive plastic plate located on the right side of the camcorder’s "sweet spot", or grip side. The contoured plastic sheet is affixed via a thin plastic strip that is bolted by roughly three tiny Phillips head screws. If the gargantuan port cover is yanked a trifle too hard—and you know we did just that—the first screw will slip out of its hole. Once this happens, it is nearly impossible to slip the screw back into its hole, and the HDMI/USB port cover will never close fully again—unless you unbolt and re-screw.
The component and AV jacks are located within the LCD cavity and are secured by a minute rectangular plastic cover. The cover is connected to the camcorder by two thin plastic strips that ooze fragility. Now where’s that confounded SD/SDHC card slot? Slide the bottom hatch of the HDC-SD5 out and fold it back to reveal the hidden battery and SD/SDHC card slot located toward the butt end of the camcorder. Quite the peculiar placement—now you have to remove the battery when swapping cards in addition to the battery. Furthermore, there is no DC jack anywhere on the HDC-SD5. In its place is a dummy battery that fits inside the battery chamber and functions as the only source of external power available. Thanks, Panasonic!
Faders – Accessible in the first page of the joystick menu, faders will add that cinematic wonderment to your shots by beginning and ending recorded clips with a fade-in and fade-out. Choose between black and white.
Pre-Record – According to Panasonic, their "clever new function" automatically stores the first three seconds of footage prior to pressing the record start/stop button so you won’t miss that wacky car accident. The pre-roll is stored in an internal cache and is tacked on to the beginning of the captured clip from the moment you start recording. The only downside, it seems, is that you have to remember to press the Pre Record button in the first place, which is just another stop en route to the record button. We’ll get to the bottom of this in our testing room.
Quick Start – Here’s another rapid camcorder function. When selected in the menu, the HDC-SD5 is will spring into action in just 1.7 seconds when the LCD screen is flipped open. Since the new LCD open button only pops the screen out slightly, you’ll have to manually flip it out the rest of the way, which is not as quick, is it?
MagicPix – Panasonic’s "night mode" can be selected in the second page of the joystick menu. MagicPix automatically drops the shutter speed below 1/60 to compensate for low light environments. The darker the exposure, the slower the shutter. As a result, recorded footage will appear stuttered with significant ghosting, which is great for a dream sequence.
*Backlight Compensation (BLC) *– When selected in the second page of the joystick menu, backlight compensation, or "BLC", automatically adjusts the overall exposure of the picture to suit that of a backlit subject.
Soft Skin Mode – Found in page 2 of the joystick menu, soft skin mode specializes in softening the contrast of a subject’s skin tone with the ultimate goal of smoothing wrinkles and banishing blemishes.
Tele Macro – Tele macro is accessible via page 3 of the joystick menu. When selected, the HDC-SD5 automatically zooms in its full 10x optical range, focusing on subjects in the foreground. This feature can also be executed manually by simply placing your finger on the zoom slider and shifting it to the right.
Auto Slow Shutter – Auto slow shutter—appropriately titled by Panasonic as the A.S.S. feature—automatically drops the shutter speed one step below the base manual shutter speed. In the HDC-SD5’s case, 1/30 is the slowest shutter speed, so when auto slow shutter is selected, the camcorder will drop as low as 1/15, doubling the camcorder’s light gathering capabilities.
As usual, we love the feel of a Panasonic in our hands. They generally do a great job with design, and the HDC-SD5’s sleek, compact body sets a new high watermark. The increased resolution over last year’s HDC-SD1 remains to be evaluated. From what we saw of the on-the-floor footage, the AVCHD compression artifacts are still seriously impeding performance compared to HDV camcorders. Doubtless, most consumers are tired of tape and want to move on to a non-linear format. SDHC cards seem like a good choice. You may also want to consider the larger HDC-SX5, which records to both SDHC cards and DVD. The best bet with this camcorder would be shooting to card and backing up to DVD, which can be done in camera. The SX5 also has a viewfinder and hot accessory shoe.
Sony’s HDR-CX7 is virtually identical to the Panasonic HDC-SD5. It offers a little more simplicity and a touch screen interface (love it or leave it), but not much beyond that. The manual control suite pales in comparison and the Sony-proprietary card format – MemoryStick Duo and PRO Duo – which will end up costing you more in the long run. Third party manufacturers will be pushing out cheap 8GB SDHC cards in no time.
The Panasonic HDC-SD5 seems to be a solid step in the right direction for Panasonic. An increased LCD resolution, reduced weight, and thoughtful design are all tempting reasons to consider the camcorder. If they could just return the mic jack and add an accessory shoe, we’d be in business.
Meet the testers
Michael Perlman is a valued contributor to the Reviewed.com family of sites.
We use standardized and scientific testing methods to scrutinize every product and provide you with objectively accurate results. If you’ve found different results in your own research, email us and we’ll compare notes. If it looks substantial, we’ll gladly re-test a product to try and reproduce these results. After all, peer reviews are a critical part of any scientific process.