The Panasonic SDR-H80 is a standard-definition camcorder with a 60GB hard drive for storing up to 14 hours of its highest-quality MPEG-2 video. There's also an SD/SDHC card slot on the side for adding even more storage. But the H80's main attraction is its ridiculously long 70x zoom lens, which, as you can imagine, gets you very close to your subject while you're very far away. Thankfully, there's optical image stabilisation, but there's no amount of stabilisation that's going to prevent this lens from shaking when fully extended. The H80 also sports quite a compact body. It's too bad Panasonic couldn't make room for some better video quality.
The H80 is available for around £270.
Considering the H80's lens and storage combination, its overall design is impressively small. Although it doesn't look as stylish as Sony's competing 60x zoom Handycam DCR-SR47, it's still attractive and it feels good.
The controls are pretty typical for this type of camcorder. Nothing is so horribly positioned as to make using the H80 uncomfortable, although the record button is slightly too close to the battery. There's a power/mode dial at the top back for selecting whether you want to record movies or still photos, or play them back.
Flipping out the LCD exposes a five-way joystick and menu button on the left side of the screen. For those who dread going into menus to make adjustments, Panasonic has dotted the H80 with several buttons for quickly changing between shooting options. These include buttons for accessing manual controls, turning on Panasonic's 'intelligent auto' mode, and enabling the optical image stabilisation. The latter is particularly handy because you'll want to shut the optical image stabilisation off when the H80's on a tripod. Inside the LCD cavity, you'll find the SD/SDHC card slot for additional video or photo storage and an AV out.
The H80 has a few design shortcomings worth mentioning. The USB port and power input are located behind the battery. This forces you to plug in the camcorder in order to transfer files off the unit. You don't want the battery dying in the middle of a transfer, but it's irritating to have to remove the battery every time. If you don't have access to a source of power and you need to move a recording from the H80, save it to an SD card instead.
Another gripe concerns the manual lens cover. It's not so much that it's manual, but the location at the top right of the lens is just peculiar if you already have your hand in the grip belt. Finally, the battery sticks out too far. We can only imagine what the H80 would be like with an extended-life battery on the back.
Panasonic has included both full manual and full auto shooting options. A single press of the autofocus/manual focus button will let you control focus using the joystick. You can then move the joystick up to get control of shutter speed, aperture and white balance. From manual mode, you can also choose a scene mode that will optimise shutter and aperture settings depending on what you're shooting. If you don't feel like thinking about settings, press the intelligent auto button and the H80 will adjust depending on the subject and recording environment as it corresponds to a scene mode. Press it again, and you'll enter a more traditional auto mode.
If you're considering the H80 for recording clips for video-sharing sites, particularly YouTube, you'll probably be happy to find the camcorder's Web mode button. Pressing it starts a 10-minute countdown, keeping your recordings within the site's upload parameters. The bundled software has 'one-click' uploading to YouTube as well.
For all its features and ease of use, the H80 produces video typical of standard-definition consumer camcorders. Video is soft, with readily visible noise and digital artefacting, plenty of purple and green fringing around high-contrast subjects, and merely satisfactory colour reproduction, with highlight clipping. The H80's low-light performance isn't great, either, but that's to be expected from standard-def models.
That said, if you still live completely in a low-resolution world, your recordings are destined for video-sharing Web sites, or you simply want to capture the moment no matter how it looks, the H80 should be satisfactory. Bear in mind, though, that this camcorder needs a tripod at the full zoom range. The optical image stabilisation system is good, but only out to about 20x, unless you have incredibly steady hands and don't breathe. Otherwise, you'll be looking at a nauseatingly shaky mess.
The zoom range offered by the Panasonic SDR-H80 is incredible given the price, as is the amount of storage. You can shoot video of the moon and stars, as well as capture nosebleeds in all their glory at sporting events. If capturing those things is all that matters to you, the H80 is worth the money. Be warned, though: the video quality just isn't there.
Additional editing by Charles Kloet