Not all of us have a spare grand to splash out on a camcorder, and we don't all need the full manual controls offered by Panasonic's top of the range models, such as the HDC-TM700 we reviewed recently. So, while the new HDC-SD600 promises 1080/50p progressive high-definition quality video and 14.2-megapixel stills, it pares back some of the more professional aspects in an effort to lower the pricetag to a more palatable £600.
Many manufacturers make the claim that their camcorders are capable of recording 'Full' HD, but there are remarkably few consumer models that can actually capture decent 1080p footage. Low frame rates and low-quality encoding formats are rife. If you want progressive frames made up of 1,920x1,080 pixels per frame running at 50 or 60 frames per second, your only real option in this area would have been to opt for one of Panasonic's excellent but expensive 700 series camcorders. Now, however, Panasonic has effectively undercut the market itself with its very own HDC-SD600.
The HDC-SD600 is, to all intents and purposes, a cut-back version of the HDC-TM700. It shares the same optics and imaging hardware but has no onboard storage, relying on you to supply your own via an SD card. It's also missing some of its cousin's high-end features, most notably the manual focus ring, viewfinder, audio inputs and 5.1 surround-sound recording.
What you're left with is a cheaper, easier to use, lighter unit with a spec list that would still make the average camcorder green with envy. Face recognition, touch-screen controls, HDMI-out, 12x optical zoom and 14.2-mexapixel photos are just a few of the star players.
Crucially, the wide 35mm lens and high-resolution triple-MOS sensor produce some impressive pictures -- both moving and still -- helped by a highly effective optical image stabiliser that really does a great job of quelling those shakes.
In terms of video, the HDC-SD600 can shoot at a number of different quality settings. Most record in 1080i HD resolution at ascending bit rates (up to 17Mbps), but a separate manual button under the fold-out LCD screen switches the unit to 1080p mode. This records 50 progressive frames per second in a slightly different video format to standard AVCHD.
It's at a very high bit rate of 28Mbps and the results are unlike anything you're likely to see anywhere else in this price range. Colours are vibrant (a little too vibrant at times, but we'll get to that later) with little or no bleed. Edges are sharp, skin tones look natural and, above all, the image boasts a level of detail that's so high, it almost hurts your eyes.
The 1080/50p format the HDC-SD600 records can be a prickly beast, however, when it comes to doing anything other than viewing it back via the camcorder itself. Plug the unit into a lovely big 1080p telly via HDMI and you'll be able to enjoy your top-quality recordings in all their progressive glory. But pop out the SD card and stick it in a laptop or games console and you might be less happy with what you see.
Even a relatively powerful PC may struggle to play 1080/50p footage smoothly without the correct software. We tried a number of different media players with varying results. QuickTime couldn't open the files at all, Windows Media Player stuttered throughout, and even good old VLC had a tough time -- and this was on a quad-core computer with 8GB of memory.
Only Nero Showtime and the supplied HD Writer AE 2.1 software were able to facilitate smooth playback of our 50p test clips. Likewise, editing can be awkward without first converting your recordings to another resolution or format, since few applications support Panasonic's take on 1080p.
This is a situation that may change very soon, however, as software updates could be released to accommodate Panasonic's codec, and in the meantime there are workarounds. It's also not an issue that affects any of the HDC-SD600's standard 1080i recording modes, which can also produce some images of excellent quality.
It's a shame that the old issue of HD video format incompatibility has to raise its ugly head again, just as the world was settling into AVCHD. But it's really the only problem we have with the SD600. If you were to press us, we might admit to being mildly annoyed by the cramped and occasionally awkward touchscreen control system. We are slightly miffed by the absence of a bundled HDMI cable -- but it's a problem in no way unique to the SD600.
We could also raise the point that, as mentioned earlier, colours can sometimes come across as unnaturally strong. In many respects, this comes down to a matter of taste. And in any case, it's only something that affects full auto mode and can usually be corrected by setting the white balance yourself. Apart from these eminently forgivable issues, there's honestly not a huge amount to complain about here.
The fact that Panasonic has produced a camcorder with such high capabilities at such a low price point is something of a marvel in its own right. We'll admit that £600 is still a considerable slice of anybody's disposable income, but if you care about quality and you're not too worried about full manual operations, we're sure you'll find it easy to look past the HDC-SD600's minor drawbacks.
Edited by Nick Hide