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Panasonic's HDC-HS9 is the company's first high-definition hard-disk camcorder. Since the dawn of the high-def age, Panasonic's HD line-up has consisted of an SD-card model and a DVD model — effectively ceding large chunks of the high-def market to JVC and Sony.
The HS9 has been designed in a similar vein to its SD-card cousin, the SD9, with an emphasis on size rather than features. Measuring 75mm wide, 126mm deep and 74mm high, the HS9 is a centimetre bigger in most directions than its stablemate. More significantly it's about the same size as the similarly specified Sony Handycam HDR-SR10. While the HS9's tough plastic body should cope well with most knocks, it lacks the quality feel of Sony's offerings.
Holding the HS9 isn't too much of a chore, although after about half an hour we did begin to rue Panasonic's omission of an electric viewfinder. The camera's major controls — zoom, photo, on/off/recording mode and record — are all easily reached by your right hand while it's holding the camera.
We do, however, mourn Panasonic's decision to move its navigation joystick from the rear of the camera to the LCD screen's hidey-hole on the left. As all the manual controls, not to mention the menu system, are accessed via the joystick this is a major step backwards. On more than one occasion the camera got a nice little bump and shake during recording as we groped around desperately for the stick.
Our frustration is compounded by the fact that Panasonic's camcorders still lack shooting priority. If you're fiddling around deep in the menu system and something interesting crops up, you'll have to hunt aimlessly for the Menu button — located down and to the left of the joystick — so you can exit the menus before being able to record.
The HS9's feature list seems a bit poverty stricken for an AU$1,999 camera in 2008. Its dimensions seemingly preclude many of the more "professional" features that we like, such as microphone and headphone jacks, a hotshoe and, most importantly, an electronic viewfinder. It does, however, come with a 5.1 channel surround sound microphone, 2.7-inch flip-out LCD screen, and optical image stabilisation.
The HS9 comes with ports and cables for composite and component out, which allow you to use your video on a TV (preferably a nice fat plasma or LCD) for review. However, like most, if not all, high-def camcorders, the HS9 has a mini-HDMI port but no cable — this will set you back at least another AU$40. Even more irritatingly, the HS9's mini-HDMI port is located underneath the battery. This means you have to extricate the battery first, while also limiting you to HDMI playback when the camera is plugged into mains power.
Like most of this season's cameras, the HS9 has embraced the term "hybrid" like a greenie to an old growth forest. This means that you can record video to both the camera's 60GB hard-disk or onto removable SD/SDHC cards. That's good news if, during your re-enactment of Marco Polo's voyage to the Orient, the hard-disk is on the precipice of being full. Additionally, you can copy footage from hard-disk to SD.
As with all of Panasonic's high-def camcorder offerings, the HS9 doesn't have just one image sensor but three — hence the prominent 3CCD badging on the camera's side. This, in theory, should lead to sharper pictures and better colour reproduction. However, when we tested the HS9 back-to-back with Sony's range-topping HDR-SR12, we found that the Panasonic's pictures while good, lacked the crispness of the Sony. Its colours, particularly red, were too oversaturated for our liking, and its low light performance was poor.
According to Panasonic's estimates, the 60GB hard-disk should be good for 460 minutes of maximum quality 1920x1080 footage, or 1,380 minutes of low quality 1440x1080 video. Battery life is more likely to be an issue, with the standard battery rated at between 60 and 100 minutes of recording on a full charge. The use of an external battery charger — instead of charging the battery in the camera — is good news if you're going to invest in extra, longer-lasting batteries.
With an asking price of AU$1,999, the HS9 is in line with Sony's HDR-SR11. While it's not a bad camera by any stretch of the imagination, it has fewer features and lacks the Sony's quality feel. Most importantly though, its video quality doesn't quite have the same zing. Unless you can find a killer deal on the Panasonic, we'd plump for one of the SR11 or SR12 any time.