High-definition camcorders currently dominate the market, but if you don't necessarily need all those extra pixels, it's possible to pick up an otherwise extremely feature-rich model, such as the Panasonic SDR-H85, for a fairly modest outlay -- in this case, £250.
My definition is this
Anyone wanting to record video at 1080 or 720-pixel resolution settings should click away now. The Panasonic SDR-H85 offers none of that new-fangled high-definition stuff. It's standard-def only, and proudly so. What that means in techy terms is that the SDR-H85 will record PAL-standard video at 50 interlaced fields per second, a format sometimes referred to as 576i. Widescreen (16:9) and full-frame (4:3) recordings are both possible.
But just because there's no HD, that doesn't mean the SDR-H85 is stuck in the camcorder equivalent of the Dark Ages. For instance, the device happily ejects blank cassettes and DVDs in favour of more modern storage options. There's 80GB of built-in hard disk space to play with and, once you've filled that up, you can switch to an SD/SDHC/SDXC card, providing potentially another 64GB of storage.
At top picture-quality settings, a 10Mbps variable bit rate is used, and images are saved as MPEG-2 files. Switch to one of the LP modes, however, and the device switches itself to MPEG-4 AVC/H.264 compression and lower bit rates, meaning you can save around 70 hours' worth of footage to your internal HDD.
The shape of things
We've seen smaller camcorders in our time, but the SDR-H85 is fairly diminutive despite its large internal hard disk. Weight-wise, it's a little heftier than you might expect, but certainly not deal-breakingly heavy. The hard disk lends the device a peculiar shape, with an extra slab tacked onto the main barrel of the unit. Panasonic has attempted to pass the hard disk housing off as the grip, which is a good idea in theory, but it's not the most comfortable execution in the world. Also, the battery pack juts out quite far at the back, meaning thumb placement can feel a little awkward.
Depending on how you hold the device and how big your paws are, this may not be a problem, and the benefits of the hard disk and battery life certainly go some way towards counteracting any minor discomfort. You can squeeze nearly three hours' worth of filming time out of the supplied power cell, for instance, which is much longer than what most HD models can muster from their supplied batteries.
Hands on or off
Though it's very easy to use, there are a surprising number of manual options available on the SDR-H85. Panasonic's 'intelligent auto' (IA) mode is available and, for those who want an easy life, IA is very competent at working out what settings are best for most shooting environments. But for those who want to take charge of the settings themselves, it's pretty easy to do that, too. The 2.7-inch LCD is resolutely non-touch-sensitive, but the slightly quaint five-way stick-based control actually works pretty well in conjunction with an on-screen graphic that represents what each directional button push will achieve.
Perhaps the SDR-H85's biggest appeal, however, is to be found at the optical end of things. The 33mm wide-angle lens features a whopping 70x optical zoom, which can be extended to an even whopping-er 78x in 'enhanced' mode, which makes use of the effective area of the CCD image sensor to simulate further magnification without any reduction in picture quality. Advanced optical image stabilisation (OIS) is also available, and it's pretty effective in most normal filming situations. That said, even the 'active OIS' mode isn't enough to keep things on an even keel when you're at full zoom, so a tripod or monopod is highly recommended for long-distance shots.
Actual video picture quality is very acceptable for a standard-definition movie camera. Colours are strong and motion is pleasantly smooth with few unsightly artefacts on panning shots. Sound, too, is reasonably decent, though the front-mounted microphone picks up a fair amount of wind noise and there's no socket to plug in an external mic.
The real weak link here, though, is photo quality. At just 640x480 pixels, still shots are barely more than thumbnail images by current standards, and don't stand up to being printed.
As you might expect, the Panasonic SDR-H85's video quality is nowhere near as detailed and realistic as that from a high-definition camcorder. While there are several HD-capable models available for around £250, most of these are pretty bare-bones affairs, with none of the high-end storage or optical features of the SDR-H85. These features, along with its long battery life and ease of operation, make the SDR-H85 a solid choice for those not interested in pixel power.
If you're choosing between this and the similar Sony Handycam DCR-SR58E, the Panasonic probably just pips its rival in terms of features and picture quality, but produces similarly awful photos. The SDR-H85 is a sensible purchase for SD users but, as ever, we would advise buyers to at least consider a similarly priced HD model, if only for future-proofing purposes.
Edited by Emma Bayly