It seems ridiculous that a camcorder as small and light as the Panasonic HDC-SD60 could be considered too big and heavy but, with cheap pocket camcorders like the Flip Video (not to mention Panasonic's own HM-TA1) capturing the public's imagination at the lower end of the high-definition market, competition for being the smallest and lightest these days is getting tough.
At entry level, going conventional as opposed to candybar can have some very tangible benefits. These include high-quality AVCHD-format video recording, long optical zoom lenses, large, fold-out LCD screens and a wider range of settings and options in general. But, with the HDC-SD60 costing you around £340, are these benefits worth the higher price?
Getting a grip
Forgetting the whole pocket camcorder sub-genre for a moment, the HDC-SD60 is really quite tiny compared to other models of its type. The traditional barrel-grip shape is compact enough to fit snugly into even the daintiest of palms, and the camcorder can be carried and used for lengthy periods without becoming a burden.
If it looks faintly familiar, that's because the design is a minor leap up the evolutionary chain from last year's HDC-SD10. As with its predecessor, the HDC-SD60 is available in three colours -- red, silver and black. Thankfully, though, Panasonic has addressed many of the issues we originally had with the SD10's build quality. The battery pack no longer feels loose and the microphone has been moved from the top of the unit, where it was prone to picking up sound from stray fingers, to a much more sensible position just below the lens on the front of the device.
As with many other examples in Panasonic's range, the '60' series is available in three different models, each with their own storage options. The HDC-SD60 is the vanilla model, with no built-in memory but an SD/SDXC card slot for you to add your own. The HDC-TM60 and HDC-HS60 are essentially the same camcorder but with 16GB and 120GB of internal storage respectively. In the case of the HS60, the extra storage adds a little to the unit's size and weight but, other than that, cost is the only major difference. The TM60 fetches around £390 online and the HS60 costs about £470. The SD60 is the cheapest of the three and possibly the best value, too, given that cheap memory cards can be picked up as and when you need them.
The HDC-SD60 might not have the same 1080p skills as its stablemates further up the Panasonic food chain -- like the HDC-TM700 or the HDC-SD600 -- but it manages to pack in a heap of other great features all the same. Chief among these is the 35.7mm wide-angle lens and the optical zoom. At 25x, it's already extremely long, and it's possible to stretch this even further using the 'intelligent zoom.' This is similar to a standard digital zoom, except it employs the pixels on the 5-megapixel image sensor that aren't used during normal video recording to enlarge the image without any heavy impact on quality. The results are not bad at all.
Another very handy feature is the HDC-SD60's optical image stabiliser. It's no substitute for a Steadicam, but it's a great deal more effective than the digital stabilisation you'll find on many other entry-level camcorders.
For casual users, Panasonic's 'intelligent auto' (iA) mode does a great job of switching the camcorder to the optimal settings for a variety of different shooting situations and provides access to some truly useful features. These include 'power OIS,' which adds further steadiness to the image stabiliser, and a programmable face-recognition system, which allows you to pre-register mugshots of up to six friends or family.
A video lamp, Dolby Digital audio and HDMI output flesh things out further. There's no HDMI cable provided, but we still reckon the HDC-SD60 offers a pretty generous selection of features for a camcorder of its price.
The HDC-SD60 is extremely easy to use, even in manual mode. Most settings are available via a touchscreen menu system. Luckily, this isn't as fiddly to use as some other models, despite the screen itself being only 69mm (2.7 inches) in size. This is partly due to the fact that there aren't too many confusing options on offer, and partly because the screen itself is suitably responsive. There are a few hardware buttons, too -- some on the body of the unit and some running under the screen. These buttons control main functions, such as start, stop, snapshot and zoom, and are mostly well-placed for ease of access.
The unquestionable star of the show, however, is the HDC-SD60's video performance. Outdoors and at its top-quality (17Mbps) setting, the 1080i footage looks just as impressive as some of the costlier camcorders we've tested. Detail is extremely high, colours are rich without looking overcooked and you'll only ever see blocks or artefacts if you pan the camera too fast. Under indoor conditions, colours can lose some of their integrity and grain becomes more noticeable but, for most normal situations, video quality is exceptional for a single-sensor camcorder that costs less than £400.
Less impressive are the HDC-SD60's photo capabilities. For casual snaps, the 5-megapixel stills are passable but, frankly, we've seen more accurate colours and sharper edges on shots from three-year-old camera phones.
So, does the HDC-SD60 justify the extra cash and pocket space compared to all those candybar cams? If portability and price are your highest priority, the truth is, you might be better off with a cheap and cheerful pocket camcorder instead. If, on the other hand, you're looking for a good balance of size, features and cost, and the best video image you can get at a low price, the HDC-SD60 is pretty hard to beat.
Edited by Emma Bayly