Panasonic HDC-SD100 Camcorder Review
Having reviewed Panasonic\'s highly anticipated HDC-HS100, we thought it only fair to give equal treatment to their slightly less expensive model, the Panasonic HDC-SD100 ($1099.95 MSRP). Without the large hard drive bulking up the right side of the body, the SD100 is slimmer and lighter. Relying entirely on external SD/SDHC memory cards, the SD100 doesn\'t have the capacity of its hard drive cousin, but the differences really end there. Nearly everything we experienced with the HS100 in terms of performance, user interface, and features still holds true.
Video Performance* (9.5)*
Though both the Panasonic HDC-SD100 and its hard drive cousin (the Panasonic HDC-HS100) look nearly identical to their predecessors, the company made some big changes under the hood. First and foremost, Panasonic has finally joined the other major manufacturers in making the switch to CMOS sensors for its high definition camcorder line. The three-CCD system has been dropped in favor of a three-CMOS arrangement. Panasonic claims this will result in a 30% increase in resolution and a 20% increase in contrast. There's also the updated processor, which has a supposedly 300% improvement in input level—increasing shadow detail and preventing blowouts. While there has certainly been some improvement, Panasonic seems to be overstating their success.
Panasonic HDC-SD100 in auto mode at 3000 lux
We tested the HDC-SD100 in both our controlled lab environment and outside the lab to see how it performed. To evaluate video performance in bright to moderate lighting, we used a DSC Labs Chroma DuMonde color chart at an even 3000 lux. Unsurprisingly, the performance looked identical to the HDC-HS100, which has only an internal hard drive to distinguish it from the SD100. However, the color performance also looked very similar to the previous generation HDC-SD9, despite the upgrades to sensor and processor.
As with the SD9, the colors are boldly saturated, if not oversaturated. This may appeal to more casual consumers, who like vivid greens and blue skies, but the more experienced user that Panasonic is targeting with the SD100 will probably prefer a higher degree of color accuracy. The color saturation is an unfortunate result, since Panasonic's competitors are performing with more natural-looking colors as their default settings. The Sony HDR-CX12 and the Samsung SC-HMX20 both have the slightly saturated color of today's consumer camcorders, but retain a reasonable level of accuracy. The Canon HF11 also has more accurate colors, plus the ability to switch between 'Cine' and 'Neutral' modes, further reducing saturation.
New to this latest crop of Panasonics, it's now possible to delve into the menus and adjust color saturation. (Perhaps Panasonic is recognizing that users want more natural colors.) However, forcing your user to manually correct color accuracy is a bit inconsiderate, not to mention inconvenient. More importantly, that particular manual control becomes less useful: if the user is lowering saturation just to obtain natural colors, there is less room on the scale if you want to dampen colors further. Adjusting the white balance via the multi-function ring can make certain colors look more natural, but at the cost of other colors, especially whites, looking even worse. Simply put, attaining color accuracy isn't easy—especially compared to most manufacturers, which give you more natural-looking color from the start.
Unfortunately, oversaturation plagues the SD100 in other ways as well. When you activate Digital Cinema mode, colors are even more saturated. This is a bit of a mystery to us, since Digital Cinema is just Panasonic's mode for expanding the color space to the new xvYCC standard. On Sony and JVC camcorders, the xvYCC modes look no different. The extra information is simply discarded unless you have an xvYCC-compliant television—which relatively few people own. On the Panasonic, however, the Digital Cinema mode boosts that saturation even further; even when we manually lowered the saturation to its minimum, the colors looked unnatural.
We would just overlook this troublesome feature if it weren't for the fact that you have to shoot in Digital Cinema mode if you want to use the SD100's 24P recording feature. There is no way to shoot in 24P without also shooting in Digital Cinema. We don't recommend shooting in 24P on the Panasonic anyway (in anything but the brightest light, motion is stuttery and blurry), but this increased saturation should dissuade you further. Digital Cinema mode takes the already oversaturated colors and boosts them even more. The greens, in particular, start to look downright neon.
As for noise and resolution, the Panasonic did make some improvements over last generation. To the eye, at least, the video appears a little sharper, though Panasonic's original claim of a 30% increase in resolution may be overstating the difference. Panasonic also claimed that the change in sensor would result in a 20% increase in contrast. This may be true, but we also noticed that areas of high contrast were often met with some oversharpening, which created a minor halo effect.
The Canon HF11, Samsung SC-HMX20, and Sony HDR-CX12 all produced sharper results than the Panasonic, which isn't surprising since all three use a single, large CMOS sensor, rather than the three small sensors on the Panasonic. There was, however, slightly more noise in all three of the competitors, which may be a point in Panasonic's favor. Even so, taking into consideration sharpness and color accuracy, we prefer the Canon, Samsung, and Sony over the Panasonic in these conditions.
Outside of the lab, the camcorder's performance matched what we predicted during lab testing. The most noticeable quality was the bold, heavily saturated colors. Again, we expect many consumers to like this result, while the serious videophiles may feel thwarted by color inaccuracies. Color aside, the SD100 produces very good video. The results were of an acceptable resolution and the SD100 preserved an excellent level of detail in both shadows and highlights—even within the same shot.
As was the case with Panasonic's hard drive model (the HDC-HS100), the SD100 disappointed most when it came to graininess. This was especially true in lighting conditions that were less than ideal... and let's face it, most camcorder users are shooting dark high school plays, cloudy football games, and strangely lit church weddings. Since the Panasonic had statistically low noise in our lab tests, we expect the graininess may be a result of inferior compression or the comparatively low resolution.
In 24P Digital Cinema mode, the image became even grainier and the ultra saturation of colors was more overwhelming than ever. We don't recommend using this setting unless you're playing around with funky effects and an 'artistic' look. Even without the oversaturation, motion at 24P looked blurry and stuttery. Digital Cinema mode does have the added advantage of expanding the color space to the new xvYCC standard, but the only people who will see this benefit are those who own brand new, xvYCC-compatible televisions—and that's still a pretty small slice of the HDTV market. If you can stomach the extra saturation, have an xvYCC-compliant display, and are shooting slow movement in bright daylight, the 24P Digital Cinema mode may be worth it. That's a lot of *if*s.
Many consumers, including most point-and-shooters, will find the video quality more than satisfactory—especially if they plan to view it on a standard definition display or upload to YouTube. Those with a more critical eye, however, may notice the graininess and oversaturation. The dynamic range in shadows and highlights and low noise are definite strengths of the HDC-SD100, but the same users who appreciate these strengths are likely to be disappointed by the flaws.
Video Resolution*** (18.0)*
The video resolution of the Panasonic HDC-SD100 was tested by shooting a DSC Labs video resolution chart at an even, bright light. We then play the footage back on an HD monitor to determine the approximate line widths per picture height (lw/ph). We found the SD100 to produce a horizontal and vertical resolution of 600 lw/ph. This is, unsurprisingly, the same resolution produced by the hard drive model, the Panasonic HDC-HS100. It's also, surprisingly, the same resolution produced by last generation's HDC-SD9. So much for Panasonic's claim of a 30% increase in resolution.
With this resolution, the HDC-SD100 did not perform as well as several of its competitors. Even on the Chroma DuMonde color chart (which we do not use to officially test video resolution), you can see that the Panasonic, while very good, produces less sharpness than the competition. In the official tests with the video resolution chart, the story is the same. The Sony HDR-CX12 fared slightly better and the Canon HF11 was better still. The Samsung SC-HMX20 produced an excellent horizontal and vertical resolution of 700 lw/ph. Though the SD100 is no slouch when it comes to resolution, the competition is very fierce and resolution can have quite an impact on overall video performance.
Low Light Performance*** (5.40)*
We test low light performance in three stages: comparative analysis, color accuracy/noise/saturation, and sensitivity. We also take the camcorder out of the lab for some low-light shooting and see if the footage outside the lab matches the test results from inside the lab.
In the first test, we shot the DSC Labs Chroma DuMonde chart at an even 60 lux, followed by an even 15 lux. We then compared these results to footage from other camcorders shot under the same conditions.
At 60 lux, the HDC-SD100 didn't look great, but it was an improvement over last year's SD9. Color retention in general was a little better (though still oversaturated), and the automatic white balance was much improved. Most significantly, the upgrade in sensor and processor had a positive impact on noise reduction. To the naked eye, the footage under these conditions appears to have less noise than most of the competition—and was considerably less noisy than the SD9.
Panasonic HDC-SD100 in auto mode at 60 lux
Last generation's Panasonic HDC-SD9 in auto mode at 60 lux
Since Panasonic is the only manufacturer to provide users with a manual gain control, we took the luxury of boosting gain to see if this would improve low light performance. Under these conditions, the auto controls opened the aperture fully and raised gain to +15dB. We further increased the gain to +18dB and found that, in fact, the image was brighter. Too bright. The lightest gray was completely washed out and the color did not improve. This is good news for the automatic controls, however, since it suggests that the camcorder is making the appropriate adjustment for this chart at 60 lux. If you are shooting a scene that contains no bright highlights, increasing the gain might help you pick up some additional detail in the shadows.
Panasonic HDC-SD100 at 60 lux, +18dB gain
When we shifted the HDC-SD100 into 24P Digital Cinema Mode, we were able to rescue some of the color that was lost in auto mode. This is thanks in part to the slower shutter speed that comes with shooting in 24P (1/48th rather than 1/30th). Unfortunately, Panasonic's 'Digital Cinema' also includes boosting the saturation to what we believe is an unnatural level. If only you could shoot in 24P without the Digital Cinema effect, we might find a happy middle ground. The downside to 24P and the slower shutter speed is that motion in low light looked absoltuely horrendous. There was considerable trailing and plenty of unpleasant stuttering.
*Panasonic HDC-SD100 at 60 lux, 24P Digital Cinema mode
As for the competition, the results at 60 lux are similar to what we saw at 3000 lux: according to our hard data, Panasonic had the least amount of noise, but was outperformed in both sharpness and color retention. The noise comes as a bit of a surprise, since the Canon HF11 and Samsung SC-HMX20 look less noisy than the HDC-SD100. This just proves how much sharpness can impact video performance; the Canon and Samsung look better to the eye because they are so much sharper overall.
For the second part of this text, we shot the same Chroma DuMonde chart, but with the light lowered to an even 15 lux. Many camcorders on the market fail to produce decent video at 15 lux. To its credit, the Panasonic HDC-SD100 did retain some amount of color differentiation and the footage is at least light enough to make sense of what's being recorded. This is more than can be said for many cheaper camcorders on the market, and the results were markedly better than last generation's HDC-SD9.
Panasonic HDC-SD100 in auto mode at 15 lux
Last generation's Panasonic HDC-SD9 in auto mode at 15 lux
However, saying the SD100 is better than the SD9 is not saying much. Both are a noisy mess, even if the new model has better color accuracy and less noise. This is where Panasonic's hardware falls short of the competition; for both the HDC-HS100 and the HDC-SD100, Panasonic has chosen to use three small CMOS sensors, while comparable models from Canon, Sony, JVC, and Samsung rely on a single, large CMOS sensor. In the case of these camcorders, video shot at 15 lux appeared, across the board, lighter and less noisy than the same video from the Panasonic.
Unsurprisingly, the HDC-SD100 at 15 lux in Digital Cinema mode was unnaturally saturated. It may seem a bit better overall, but we don't think the chart should look like neon paint under a black light.
*Panasonic HDC-SD100 at 15 lux, 24P Digital Cinema mode*
The second stage of testing analyzes color accuracy, noise, and saturation using an X-Rite Color Checker chart at an even 60 lux. We then export frame grabs of the footage to Imatest imaging software. The Panasonic HDC-SD100 produced a color error of approximately 11.1, which is nearly identical to the color error we saw on last generation's HDC-SD9. This is about average for camcorders in this range—better than the Canon HF11, but not as good as the Samsung SC-HMX20. Though the SD100's three small CMOS sensors are intended to increase color accuracy, and although the footage from the SD100 may seem more color retentive, our numbers tell a different story. The lack of improvement in color error is likely a result of Panasonic's processor, which, as we mentioned earlier, has a tendency to oversaturate colors. The oversaturation might look better to some consumers, but it isn't technically accurate.
The good news is that the Panasonic HDC-SD100 produced less noise than any of its competitors. At just 0.738% noise, that's considerably better than the best score from the Canon HF11 and the Samsung SC-HMX20. Strangely, this result is not as good as the 0.645% from last generation's HDC-SD9. Unsurprisingly, the camcorder falls apart when it comes to saturation. At 69.42% saturation, the SD100 is about on par with the abysmal score of the Sony HDR-CX12, but performs well below comparable models from Canon, JVC, and Samsung. The SD100's three small sensors do an excellent job reducing noise, but the processor is wreaking havoc with color retention, accuracy, and saturation.
The third test measures sensitivity: what is the minimum amount of light needed to see an average scene? We connected the Panasonic HDC-SD100 to a waveform monitor, then slowly and steadily lowered the light until the camcorder is producing a peak of 50 IRE. The SD100 showed a large improvement over the SD9, requiring only 13 lux compared to the SD9's 24 lux. It seems that Panasonic is making significant headway in the area of sensitivity, perhaps as a result of the switch from CCD to CMOS sensors.
However, it's still quite clear that camcorders utilizing a single, large sensor are capable of performing in dimmer conditions. The Panasonic offered similar results to the Sony HDR-CX12, but was a step below the competition from JVC and Canon. The HDC-SD100 doesn't even come close to the astonishing 5 lux at which the Samsung SC-HMX20 was able to produce 50 IRE.
Overall, the low light performance of the HDC-SD100 is not one of its strengths. It certainly outperforms last generation's SD9 and many lower end camcorders, but there are several comparable models from other manufacturers that produce better results. While the Panasonic does measure with less noise, the lower resolution, unimpressive sensitivity, and poor color accuracy result in a less pleasing image at low light. If you're looking for a camcorder to do well in dim situations, you'll get far better results from the impressive and less expensive Samsung SC-HMX20.
The HDC-SD100 is equipped with Advanced Optical Image Stabilization (OIS). Previous Panasonic camcorders have performed well in the past and this model is no exception. The SD100 features the new OIS system introduced by Panasonic last year and featured also on their HDC-SD9. We test every camcorder at two speeds: a light shake that simulates typical handheld movement and a rougher shake that approximates recording on a bumpy car ride. At speed one, the HDC-SD100 exhibited approximately a 66.7% shake reduction. At speed two, the result was 87.5%.
This is a good result, although less impressive than the HDC-SD9's 87.5% and 93.3% shake reduction. In reality, this is about average for camcorders of this type. We should point out, however, that the score at speed two doesn't tell the whole story. Although the reduction is approximately 88%, this does not take into account the large and noticeable leaps that the camcorder makes while the OIS is compensating. In other words, shake is greatly reduced, but it is not pleasant video to watch.
Wide Angle*** (10.0)*
The maximum wide angle measurement is tested using a vertical laser and footage played back on an external monitor. With the zoom pulled back to its full wide angle position and OIS disabled, the HDC-SD100 displayed a maximum wide angle measurement of 50 degrees. This is an ordinary score for this type of camcorder.