Panasonic bills its AG-HSC1U, a souped-up version of its AVCHD-based consumer (and now discontinued) HDC-SD1, as the smallest available professional three-chip HD camcorder. Weighing about a pound and fitting easily in the palm, the camera certainly is small--but does it qualify as "professional?" You might say that if a camera is used for professional work, then it is a professional camera. The HSC1U's tiny size and shakeproof SD card-based recording system makes it useful for professionals in need of a high-quality 1080i stunt camera, or one that must be hidden away in the odd nook. But while the camcorder offers an interesting set of capabilities in a compact package, the unit's lack of basics, such as external manual controls and a headphone jack, render it inappropriate for any other sort of general professional use.
Panasonic's just beginning to make a push in AVCHD for professional applications. The company's P2 flash-card format has been widely adopted by the professional community, however, the cards are expensive and too large to fit in more compact devices. The HSC1U represents Panasonic's first attempt to supply that market with a relatively inexpensive alternative: it records 1080i HD video in AVCHD format onto cheap and widely available SD cards media. For pros, switching to a new format can be a bit of a risk. You're not only committing to a camera, but also to an entire work flow, including editing, archiving, and distribution. Fortunately, AVCHD has much better software support from professional editing applications than consumer applications: however, Adobe Premiere Pro remains an unsupportive holdout.
At the camera's front is a 43mm diameter Leica Dicomar 12x zoom lens, protected by nifty automatically retracting shutters--you can't lose the lens cap to this camera! Next to the lens is a tiny flash, used for taking stills.
Surprising in a camcorder this small, a generous 3-inch 16:9 560K pixel swing-out LCD covers the entire left side of the camera. Opening the LCD reveals an auto/manual focus switch, a Power LCD button to brighten the LCD for outdoor use, and a sliding door covering the slot which accommodates the SD card media. The camcorder includes one 4GB SDHC card. A small speaker adorns the camera's right side, which serves primarily as a hand grip. Atop are a microphone, a still photo button, and a zoom rocker.
While there is much to admire in the simplified control layout of the HSC1U, it suffers from the same shortcomings of most compact video cameras; namely, the controls are too small for easy manipulation by adult-size hands. Panasonic's claim to have produced a professional-level camera would gain much credibility if it could find a way to incorporate professional-quality controls.
At the heart of the HSC1U are three 1/4 inch, 560,000-pixel 16:9 chips capable of recording only 60 frames per second 1080i video. No progressive, variable frame rate, or standard definition video modes are available. The 1080i video can be recorded at three quality levels: HF (fine), HN (normal), and HE (extended), offering from 40 minutes to 90 minutes of recording time on a 4GB card. Lens-related features include macro for close-up photography and an optical image stabilizing system.
Also somewhat contradictory to its professional orientation, the HSC1U offers a full complement of exposure preset modes: Sports, Portrait, Low light, Spotlight, and Surf and Snow. Miscellaneous features accessed through the menu system include backlight compensation, fader, telemacro (for close-up shots), MagicPix (a low light mode), soft skin mode (lightly diffuses faces), Auto Ground-Directional Standby (pauses recording when camera is held upside down), guide lines, and wind noise reduction.