Panasonic HDC-HS9 High-Definition Camcorder
At a Glance
This AVCHD camcorderâs lackluster performance is only partially offset by a low price.
Three years ago, the Panasonic HDC-HS9 would have been revolutionary, and its image-quality-to-price ratio would have impelled users to look past its limitations. Today, the camcorder is an also-ran on our comparison chart. Its most impressive features are its compact size and moderate price ($900 as of September 29, 2008), but even those aren't enough to make this model stand out.
The HDC-HS9 records AVCHD video and JPEG stills to a built-in 60GB hard drive or to SD/SDHC memory cards (the latter aren't included with the unit). The unit's four video-quality settings range from 6 mbps to 17 mbps; we tested the camcorder at 17 mbps.
With the HDC-HS9 set to its highest recording quality, the roomy hard drive holds about 7.5 hours of video. At the higher bit rate settings, the camera encodes video to a resolution of 1920 by 1080 pixels. At the lowest setting, the resolution drops to 1440 by 1080.
In typical interior lighting, as evaluated by the PC World Test Center, image quality at 17 mbps was only fair; the HDC-HS9's resolution, sharpness, and color accuracy wwere mediocre when matched against the output of other models we tested for our "Camcorders: High-Def, No Tape" roundup. In my field testing, footage shot with typical exterior lighting rated about the same. Low-light video was fair at best, and low-light images become downright poor under some conditions, with a noticeable gain in noise and ghosting. Similarly, still images earned a rating of Fair in our jury-based lab tests; the pictures didn't look as crisp or as colorful as those from other tapeless high-def camcorders.
It's too bad that the images didn't come out better, because the camcorder's 10X zoom lens, autofocus, and image stabilization are all great attributes. This model can record at frame rates of 60i (which looks like video footage) or 24p (which looks more like film), and the built-in microphones record 5.1 surround sound. Since the HDC-HS9 lacks both a mic jack and a hot shoe, however, there's no way to attach an external microphone. The included battery ran for just under 2 hours in PC World's tests.
The 2.7-inch LCD permits easy viewing in bright sunlight, but the camera lacks a viewfinder. Though menus are well organized, the joystick for navigating them sits inconveniently in the LCD well on the side of the camcorder. (A rear-mounted joystick or a touch screen would have been much more practical.)
The camcorder's Auto mode optimizes the settings for casual shooting. In my informal tests, it worked fairly well in well-lit settings, but it failed to match the dynamic range and control of contrast that other camcorders exhibited. You also get four scene modes (Sports, Portrait, Spotlight, and Surf & Snow)--permitting considerably less scene-based optimization than competing models from Canon and Sony offer.
Output jacks include component and composite video, USB, and HDMI ports. Unfortunately, the HDMI and DC power ports are located behind the battery, so accessibility is an issue. Working with video generated by the HDC-HS9 requires a fast modern computer built around a 2-GHz Intel Core Duo or faster processor. Panasonic bundles HD Writer 2.5E, a bare-bones editing package for Windows, and you can use AVCHD-compatible software (purchased elsewhere) such as iMovie '08 to edit video a Mac.
Considering the string of top-notch video cameras that Panasonic developed over the past several years--including the HDC-SD1, the VDR-D310 and the SDR-H200--the HDC-HS9 rates as a disappointment. This camcorder's mediocre image quality outweighs any other considerations and leaves little reason to recommend this AVCHD model.