Panasonic HDC-SD9 Camcorder Review
The Panasonic HDC-SD9 is the company’s third generation AVCHD camcorder that records exclusively to SD/SDHC memory cards. The improvements over its ancestor, the HDC-SD1, are numerous. The SD9 records in full 1920 x 1080 with a new maximum bit rate of 17Mbps (up from 13Mbps). The optical image stabilization has been improved, and – for the time being – it’s the world’s smallest 1920 x 1080 camcorder. If it’s a winner, we’re hoping Panasonic grants it a longer life than the six-months-old-and-already-dead HDC-SD5. But the SD9 begs the question, how small is small enough? The reduction in size has clearly begun to hurt handling. Despite this, the SD9 shows advances in image quality long awaited in the AVCHD format. It’s not a perfect camcorder by any means, but the HDC-SD9 is among the best ultra-compacts we’ve seen yet.
Video Performance* (9.0)*
The Panasonic HDC-SD9 features three 1/6-inch CCDs, each with a gross pixel count of 560,000. The effective pixel count of each chip is 520,000. These are the same specs as the previous generation HDC-SD5, but a downgrade from the first generation HDC-SD1. The SD1 offered three 1/4-inch CCDs. That larger chipset has been shifted over to the Panasonic pro division, which manufactures the AG-HSC1U, a near identical version of the tiny camcorder. The company also recently announced more details on a shoulder-mounted version called the AG-HMC70.
The HDC-SD9 was tested in the lab by shooting a DSC Labs ChromaDuMonde color chart at an even 3000 lux. In a side-by-side with the SD1, Panasonic appears to have boosted the color saturation. This will likely please more consumers, but the color accuracy has veered off course. Perhaps the company feels that if people like the form factor, but are intent on accurate color, they can pick up the AG-HSC1U, a product of Panasonic’s pro division.
The Sony HDR-CX7 definitely appears sharper appears less saturated, while maintaining a healthy color balance. On the whole, it’s a preferable image to the HDC-SD9. The JVC GZ-HD3 could not produce a decent manual white balance in our 3000 lux test, which therefore skewed the colors. However, if it can’t white balance under ideal conditions, we wouldn’t expect it to do better in your living room. In terms of sharpness and noise, the Panasonic HDC-SD9 looked better.
The Panasonic HDC-SD9 also features two additional shooting modes, Digital Cinema color and 24P Digital Cinema color. There’s a problem right off the bat with these two settings. Why isn’t there should be an option to record in 24P without the Digital Cinema color? We don’t know, but Panasonic saw fit to make it so.
Digital Cinema is Panasonic’s branding term for xvYCC (also commonly called by the Sony-branded x.v.Color), the emerging color standard for HD recording and playback devices. xvYCC can be implemented in different ways, and here is what’s wrong with Panasonic’s approach. If your HDTV doesn’t support xvYCC, don’t be surprised. Most of them don’t, though they will in the near future. Secondly, Panasonic stated that unless you own a Panasonic HDTV, you may not see all the benefits in color. Thirdly, if you shoot video on the SD9 in Digital Cinema color then play it back on a non-xvYCC TV, your picture will look horribly oversaturated. Of course, Panasonic states this in so many words in the manual, but it doesn’t make the pill any less bitter. At least when you do the same thing with a Sony camcorder, the video only looks a little saturated.
Out of the lab, in indoor shooting (1080/60i), we were pleased to see that our complaints about motion trailing in the HDC-SD1 have been addressed to some extent in the SD9. Rather than long, flowing trails from everything that moves in the frame, you get a ghost image of each subject that lingers on the screen for less than one second. Clearly, Panasonic has improved their CCDs and processing, but it still hasn’t created a product that can do the job effectively. Initial testing on the new Canon HF10 has showed that it does not suffer the same problem.
In outdoor shooting, the Panasonic HDC-SD9 showed the same tendency for oversaturation that we saw in the lab. The compression artifacting is apparent, even in bright sunlight. While the picture looks good to the extent that all HD looks pretty good, it could have been better. You’ll definitely see the artifacting around areas of contrast, where pixels are incorrectly colored. On the plus side, we were impressed with the way the camcorder could handle motion under bright sunlight. This is the where the promise of AVCHD finally starts to surpass HDV. Horizontal and vertical motion were clean. For instance, freeze frames of cars traveling about 15mph showed near-perfect sharpness. If the resolution of the chips were better, we could have even identified drivers. Shooting identical footage with the Canon HF10 showed the same results for motion, but with increased sharpness all around.
Shooting in 1080/24P mode, the indoor/outdoor strengths and weaknesses of 60i were magnified. Indoor 24P Digital Cinema mode looked abysmal. There was so much stuttering and ghost images it looked like a special effect from an early music video (Metallica’s Enter Sandman comes to mind). Shooting outside, especially on a tripod, the effect was rather nice. Sure, you get the stutter, but without the ghosting.
In summary, the HDC-SD9 is definitely an improvement over the first generation SD1. As the next test shows, HDV camcorders still hold the upper hand in overall resolution. Among the HDC-SD9’s closest competitors, the Sony HDR-CX7 looked sharper, the JVC GZ-HD3 looked worse, and the Canon HF10 (our next camcorder up for review) looks to be an excellent performer that will likely surpass the Panasonic SD9 in performance.
Video Resolution* (18.0)*
The video resolution of the Panasonic HDC-SD9 was tested by shooting a DSC Labs video resolution chart at an even, bright light, then viewing the recorded video on an HD monitor. This test measures the resolution of the outputted video as a consumer will see it, rather than the idealized resolution numbers that manufacturers often tout. The HDC-SD9 was able to produce both a horizontal and vertical resolution of 600 line widths per picture height. The results were identical to the first generation Panasonic HDC-SD1, despite the fact that the SD1 recorded in 1440 x 1080 that was anamorphically stretched for playback, and the SD9, which records in full 1920 x 1080 at a higher bit rate.
These results indicate that an increase in bit rate and even an increase in outputted resolution have no bearing on this test if the base pixel count remains the same. Though the surface area on the SD9’s chips are smaller than the SD1, both have a gross pixel count of 560,000. This will certainly make for some interesting ammo for those who pride themselves on fighting manufacturer propaganda.
Low Light Performance* (2.65)*
The low light performance of the Panasonic HDC-SD9 was tested in three stages. First, we shoot the DSC Labs ChromaDuMonde color chart at an even 60 lux and 15 lux, then compare the images with competing camcorders.
At 60 lux, the HDC-SD9 showed very quickly that it is not a low light champion. We could have guessed this from the small 1/6-inch size of the CCDs, but here’s the confirmation. At 60 lux, the image became quite fuzzy and lost a lot of fine detail. This may be because the in-camera sharpening was less effective in low light. The hard numbers (which we’ll get to later) suggest that the color accuracy was not far off, but to the eye it’s obvious that a lot of color information was lost compared to the bright light test. We hypothesize that the completely oversaturated colors that we saw in bright light were meant stave off color loss in low light, which would be inevitably bad due to the small imaging chips. So in a Panasonic SD9 3000 lux/60 lux side-by-side, of course it looks like the camcorder lost a lot of color. It did, but in doing so, the color became more accurate. We should also note that the RGB values showed that the camcorder could not perform a perfect manual white balance under these conditions, and skewed the image slightly towards the green.
Comparatively, the first generation Panasonic HDC-SD1 looked much sharper. We’ve provided these 100% close-ups to confirm how much better the 1/4-inch chips look than the 1/6-inch chips. There’s not a whole lot of difference in color, but a hell of gap in sharpness. This is likely a function of the pixel count and not noise, but the overall degradation in quality between generations is more apparent here in low light than in bright light.
The Sony HDR-CX7, a flash memory camcorder with the same form factor as the SD9, produced a sharper image with more noise and higher saturation levels. The JVC GZ-HD3, a slightly larger camcorder that records to card and an HDD, scored very similarly to the HDC-SD9. The overall 60 lux image was exposed more brightly, and there was more in-camera sharpening to increase the appearance of resolution, but the noise and color accuracy were quite similar to Panasonic’s. In a side-by-side, the JVC image looked less preferable because it had a grainier quality.
As expected, the switch to 24P saw some improvement in low light, but it also blasted the saturation into the stratosphere. These colors may look better on a compatible Panasonic HDTV, but they look terrible on our non-xvYCC monitors. And because there is no way to activate 24P mode without engaging the "Digital Cinema" color, we did not use this as a basis for comparisons, or for the Imatest testing (later in this section).
Finally, the camcorder gives the option for manually boosting the gain. In auto mode at 60 lux (in 1080/60i mode), the gain was already pushed to 15 lux. A manual increase to 18dB definitely helped the cause without adding a noticeable amount of noise.
At 15 lux, the Panasonic HDC-SD9 choked, not uncommon for 1/6-inch chip camcorders. There was very little usable information in this camcorder. 24P Digital Cinema color more did a little to help, but not much. The Sony HDR-CX7 performed much better, due to its larger imager. The JVC GZ-HD3 did as badly as Panasonic.
The second stage of our testing involves shooting the X-Rite Color Checker chart at an even 60 lux, then exporting frame grabs to Imatest imaging software for data on color accuracy, noise, and saturation. According to Imatest, the Panasonic HDC-SD9 produced a color error of 11, which is good for a camcorder with such small chips, but average when compared to most HD camcorders. The noise was very low, only 0.645%, far below that of Canon and Sony, but about the same as the JVC GZ-HD3. This may give a very loose indication that 3-chip camcorders produce less noise, or that Panasonic and JVC have superior noise suppression, but more testing would have to be done along these lines. Finally, the saturation measured 73.47%
The third test involves lowering the light in a slow and steady manner until the camcorder can produce a maximum exposure output of 50 IRE (as expressed through a waveform monitor). The results were not unexpected, but disappointing. The Panasonic HDc-SD9 was only capable of producing 50 IRE at 24 lux. This was the same as the JVC GZ-HD3, but the Sony HDR-CX7 did it at 17 lux, the Sony HDR-HC9, and the Canon HG10 at 8 lux (the Canon HF10 has yet to be tested).
In summary, the Panasonic HDC-SD9 is not a low light performer.
The HDC-SD9 is equipped with Advanced Optical Image Stabilization (OIS). From what we’ve seen from Panasonic in the past, their OIS is among the best of the best. The HDC-SD9 is no exception. In 2007, Panasonic debuted a new and improved system that promised an 8x faster response than previous models (up to 4000 corrections per second)
We tested the HDC-SD9’s shake resistance at two speeds: Speed One and Speed Two. Speed One is a simulation of typical stationary handheld shake, while Speed Two is more along the lines of a bumpy car ride or light jog down the street, camcorder in hand. At Speed One, the HDC-SD9 exhibited an 87.5% shake reduction and a 93.3% shake reduction at Speed Two. This is one of the best performances we’ve seen yet, and certainly goes a long way in giving credence to Panasonic’s claims of an improved OIS.
Wide Angle* (9.6)*
We tested the HDC-SD9’s maximum wide angle measurement using a vertical laser. The camcorder was tested with OIS off and the zoom pulled back fully. Footage was then interpreted on an external monitor to account for the LCD cropping. The HDC-SD9 displayed a maximum wide angle measurement of 48 degrees, which is about average.