At a Glance
I was skeptical about a camcorder that records high-definition video onto an SD Card. What kind of compression is going on behind the scenes to make it fit? My doubts soon faded--the Panasonic HDC-SD1 captures (and stores) video of exceptional quality. However, for the moment, the compression format it uses introduces a different problem: an inability to edit your video.
At its best quality setting, the $1500 HDC-SD1 records 40 minutes of 1080i video to an included 4GB SD Card (a similar model, the HDC-DX1, records to miniDVD and costs $100 less). Both use the AVCHD format developed by Panasonic and Sony. When we tested the HDC-SD1, no video editing software supported the format, but Sony says it will offer a free update this spring to allow its Vegas video editor to import such files. You'll also need a very powerful computer to edit the video once the apps to do so are available, as well as an HD-DVD or Blu-ray drive if you want to export it from your computer in HD. Forget about using the software included with the camcorder; though you can use it to export standard-definition video to a DVD, it's nearly useless beyond that. You can't even use it to watch your footage full-screen on your computer.
Since the camcorder has component outputs and an HDMI port, however, you can play back the unedited footage in high-definition on an HDTV. Video I captured in well-lit settings looked gorgeous, and even video taken in relatively dim, indoor rooms looked surprisingly good--and much better than footage from the standard-definition camcorders I've seen. The HDC-SD1's microphone captures 5.1-channel audio, too; I wasn't able to test it with a surround-sound system, but it sounded quite good through TV speakers.
Panasonic says the HDC-SD1 is the smallest HD camcorder yet, and it's certainly smaller than many standard-definition models, despite its larger-than-average, 3-inch LCD. The tube-shaped body measures roughly 2.5 inches in diameter and 5.5 inches long; it's very comfortable to hold. The device has some manual controls, though they could be easier to use: To adjust the shutter speed, for example, you must press a tiny joystick on the back once for each step in speed (you can't hold it down).
The current editing limitations are significant; but once the software catches up, the HDC-SD1 will be high on my list.