The HDC-SD900 sits alongside the HDC-HS900 and HDC-TM900, which are effectively the same device with added storage, right at the top of Panasonic's consumer camcorder range. It offers 1080p high-definition video, manual controls and 3D capability.
At £650, the HDC-SD900 is expensive, but competitively priced compared with other similarly equipped models. So could this be the HD camcorder you've been holding out for?
Our initial reaction to the HDC-SD900's appearance was one of minor disappointment. The smart, solid, gunmetal body of the previous generation has given way to an overtly plastic, glossy black design, with shiny highlights only serving to cheapen the feel even further. But there's a very practical reason for this -- the fairly large HDC-SD900 is surprisingly light and comfortable to shoot with.
Panasonic has stuck with the traditional barrel-grip shape, incorporating a super-large, 3.5-inch, fold-out display. The resolution of the LCD panel is 460,000 pixels. It's bright, clear and renders scenes and graphics well. Panasonic's user interface could do with an update, though -- it looks rather blocky and unsophisticated at times.
The display is touch-sensitive and many of the camera's functions can be selected by tapping on-screen buttons. A semi-transparent menu overlays the far left edge of the screen, which displays up to four options at a time. Left and right arrow keys at the bottom allow you to scroll for more options. It's a reasonable system that works fairly well for most settings but we can't help feeling that a better, more intuitive multi-touch interface is due at some point.
In addition to Panasonic's easy-peasy 'iA' auto mode, the HDC-SD900 offers a superior manual experience, thanks to an electronic viewfinder and the lens ring, which can be used to control focus, white balance, shutter speed and iris -- pressing the 'camera function' button near the ring lets you select which operation the ring controls. This means it's quick and easy to make manual adjustments on the fly, instantly putting the HDC-SD900 streets ahead of most other consumer models.
Further high-end features include Panasonic's 3MOS image sensor, which actually comprises three separate, 2.53-megapixel sensors, combining for a total resolution of 7.59 megapixels. Red, green and blue are received and processed separately, potentially offering a better overall image than a single sensor can deliver.
The HDC-SD900 can also record 1080p video at a rate of 50 frames per second. A Leica Dicomar wide-angle 12x optical zoom lens, iFrame shooting mode, Dolby Digital 5.1 surround sound, a socket for an external microphone, and a hybrid optical/sensor-based image stabiliser round out the camcorder's other high-end abilities.
There's no built-in storage at all, although this is easily remedied by adding a cheap memory card. It's a shame Panasonic hasn't adopted Canon's cunning wheeze of including two card bays for double the optional memory. If you really need more than 128GB of storage (the most you can currently get from an SDXC card), then you could consider paying a little more for either the HDC-TM900 or the HDC-HS900, which come with 32GB and 220GB of storage respectively.
For many, the HDC-SD900's most intriguing feature will be its 3D movie capability. In fact, it's not possible to shoot 3D video straight out of the box. A separate 3D conversion lens is required for this and it's not cheap -- the best price you're likely to find it for is around £200.
The adaptor itself is a clunky piece of equipment that bolts somewhat awkwardly onto the front of the camcorder. There's also a multi-stage configuration procedure that you'll need to endure every time you strap the thing on.
When you get it working, the results can be quite effective, depending on what and how you shoot. For the best results, film scenes that have obvious foreground and background elements, so you get the 3D perspective. You'll need access to a 3D television in order to view the results of your endeavours -- the HDC-SD900's fold-out screen will flatten any 3D footage to 2D when you play it back.
It's worth pointing out some further limitations of 3D filming too. For example, to get a three-dimensional effect, the camcorder needs to record two frames of side-by-side video simultaneously, which means that the resulting 3D image isn't technically high definition. Not only that, but several of the HDC-SD900's main functions are unavailable during 3D mode, including the optical zoom and manual controls. You can't take 3D photos either, which is a big shame.
Happily, the HDC-SD900 is unhampered by such restrictions when shooting in plain old 2D. Indeed, the device's high-definition performance is extremely impressive. There are several different recording modes, including four AVCHD-based 1080/50i quality settings. The top 17Mbps bit-rate setting provides sumptuous colours, high levels of detail and smooth motion, particularly when you're filming outdoors. Low light and interior scenes are also very well handled.
For even better results, a dedicated button can be used to switch the device to 1080/50p mode, which captures 1080p at 50 frames per second, with a bit rate of 28Mbps. This falls outside the current AVCHD technical specification, which is why the HDC-SD900 handles its 50p mode separately.
But, because this mode is based on the AVCHD standard, the HDC-SD900's implementation of 1080p is far superior to that of most other camcorders that claim to record in 'Full HD'. Colours are expertly rendered, while pictures are amazingly sharp and film-like.
The only trouble is that the 50p format is rather ahead of its time and options for viewing and editing it at full quality are currently limited. We found we got the best results by plugging the camcorder directly into a compatible TV via HDMI.
Not all video-editing programs support 1080/50p footage, and low-powered PCs will struggle to even play back raw clips smoothly.
Whether or not you bother with its 3D capability, the HDC-SD900 is an excellent camcorder, thanks to its great manual controls and smashing image quality. A question mark hangs over the wider compatibility of 1080/50p recordings and, for owners of Panasonic's 700 series models, there probably aren't enough major improvements to justify upgrading their current model. Apart from that, however, the HDC-SD900 continues Panasonic's tradition of turning out cracking consumer camcorders.
Edited by Charles Kloet