Hard-drive camcorders have been slower to catch on than I would've thought. Sure, they cost a bit more than their DVD- or tape-based equivalents, but the convenience of having such a large storage capacity--and not having to deal with tape--make them appealing. However, some buyers can't get past the idea of not having removable storage, which is why Panasonic is so keen to point out that their new SDR-H18 can record to either its built-in 30GB drive or to a SD/SDHC flash memory card, without any difference in quality. Of course, it also helps that the company is part of the SD Card Association, and has been on a big push to champion SD memory cards as the next big storage medium for consumer video.
Unlike the awkward body designs we've seen with some recent SD-based camcorders, the SDR-H18 is very comfortable to hold. Part of the reason is that designers had to find a place to put the camcorder's hard drive, which finds its home in the right side of the body--creating an iPod-sized block that is just the right shape for a hand to wrap around. Almost all the camcorder's controls are also on the right-hand side; most of them can easily be reached with either a forefinger or thumb. While I had a hard time reaching and pressing the menu button with my right thumb, you still can access the most frequently used controls--such as backlight compensation, white balance, and shutter and iris controls--by pressing the joystick, so this isn't much of a problem. It would've been nice for Panasonic to put the menu button somewhere more convenient, however.
At its heart, the SDR-H18 sports a single 1/6-inch, 680,000-pixel CCD sensor. When recording in 16:9 mode, it uses 460,000 pixels to capture video or still images. That drops to 340,000 pixels when capturing 4:3 video or 350,000 when capturing 4:3 stills. Panasonic's online specs are a bit misleading, in that they hint that this model has three CCDs when it doesn't. Since the H18 has the same instruction manual as the higher-end H200, it's a simple error, but one that happens way too often on the company's Web site.
Playing along with the über-zoom craze, the H18 includes a 32X optical zoom lens, which sports a maximum aperture range of f/1.8-3.7. The variable zoom lever atop the camera is easy to get used to and gives a nice range of zoom speeds. As usual, the image stabilization doesn't effectively cover the entire zoom range, but does a good job out to approximately 75 or 80 percent of the zoom. That's pretty impressive, when you consider that you end up with a stabilized zoom range of about 24X, which is more total zoom than you could've expected in a similar-level camcorder just a few years ago (though it wouldn't have been a hard-drive or SD camcorder). If you like to shoot very close to your subject, you should note that the H18 doesn't include a macro mode. You'll have to step up to the H200 for this option.