One advantage of using flash memory cards as a recording medium in camcorders is that they facilitate smaller designs.
The body of Panasonic's 500g HDC-SD1, which records high definition 1,440x1,080-pixel AVCHD video to SD cards, is a bit smaller than camcorders which use other formats but its tubular shape retains a bit too much bulk to be truly compact.
It's not wasted space, though. The SD1 accommodates a 12x zoom lens, a 76mm, 16:9 LCD, a 5.1-channel surround microphone and a trio of 6mm, 560,000-pixel CCDs.
Ironically, one of the SD1's biggest design weaknesses stems from its lack of a bulky DVD drive, hard drive or tape compartment that you often find on other models -- the extra height helps provide a good solid grip. We found the SD1 just a little too squat to comfortably hold with your forefinger on the zoom switch.
In addition, the joystick for navigating the menus and accessing shooting adjustments -- white balance, shutter speed, iris (aperture) and so on -- is too far to the right to easily control with a thumb while holding on to the low-riding body. As a result, you really need to operate the camcorder with two hands -- one to shoot and one to hold it level. Even then, changing the manual settings tends to jog the camcorder more than usual. You frequently have to nudge the joystick multiple times to effect a change.
While we really like the joystick navigation, other operational aspects can be a bit frustrating. The manual focus is unusable, for example, as it provides no distance feedback. It does show a zoomed view (Focus Assist) but there's too much trial and error involved in finding focus. There were times when the camcorder wouldn't focus at all (as the subject was probably too close), yet we couldn't figure out when moving the joystick had stopped having any effect.
This situation applies to the device's features as well. The SD1 offers a reasonably broad set of options but their implementation occasionally falls short.
For instance, you can't manually set the shutter speed below 1/60 of a second. The iris settings may confuse some users, as Panasonic combines iris settings with gain controls. At and below f/2.8, the SD1 reports in decibels -- from 0dB to 18dB, adjustable in 3dB increments. At 0dB it displays 'open', and then gets narrower in f-stop, at various increments, to f/16. Beyond f/16, it reports 'close'.