One advantage of using flash memory cards as a recording medium in camcorders is that they facilitate smaller designs. The body of Panasonic's 1.1-pound HDC-SD1, which records high-definition 1,440x1,080 AVCHD video to SD cards, is a mite smaller than camcorders which use other formats, but its tubular shape retains a bit too much bulk to be truly compact. It's not wasted space, though; the SD1 accommodates a 12x zoom lens, a 3-inch, 16:9 LCD, a 5.1-channel surround microphone, and a trio of 1/4-inch, 560,000-pixel CCDs.
Ironically, one of the SD1's biggest design weaknesses stems from its lack of a bulky DVD drive, hard drive, or tape compartment that you often find on other models. The extra height helps provide a good solid grip; I found the SD1 just a little too squat to comfortably hold with my forefinger on the zoom switch. In addition, the joystick for navigating the menus and accessing shooting adjustments--white balance, shutter speed, iris (aperture), and so on--is too far to the right to easily control with a thumb while holding on to the low-riding body. As a result, you really need to operate the camcorder with two hands: one to shoot and one to hold it level. Even then, changing the manual settings tends to jog the camcorder more than usual. And you frequently have to nudge the joystick multiple times to effect a change.
While I really like the joystick navigation, other operational aspects can be a bit frustrating. The manual focus is unusable, for example, as it provides no distance feedback. It does show a zoomed view (Focus Assist), but there's too much trial and error involved in finding focus. There were times when the camcorder wouldn't focus at all (as the subject was probably too close), yet I couldn't figure out when moving the joystick had stopped having any effect.
This situation applies to the device's features as well. The SD1 offers a reasonably broad set of options, but their implementation occasionally falls short. For instance, you can't manually set the shutter speed below 1/60 of a second. The iris settings may confuse some users, as Panasonic combines iris settings with gain controls. At and below f/2.8, the SD1 reports in decibels--from 0dB to 18dB, adjustable in 3dB increments. At 0dB it displays "open," and then gets narrower in f-stop, at various increments, to f/16. Beyond f/16, it reports "close." While there's a logic to combining them--both allow you to increase or decrease the exposure--each produces different side-effects when changed. The shutter and iris settings also function more like priority modes than manual modes; that is, you can't change them independently.
Other shooting features include backlight compensation; five scene program modes; MagicPix night mode (which drops the shutter speed below 1/60); a very nice tele-macro mode; soft-skin mode; zebra stripes; an audio wind filter; and zoom microphone. The SD1 also offers Auto Ground-Directional Standby (AGS)--a fancy way of saying that it goes into standby when you hold the camcorder upside-down. At its highest quality, or HF mode, the SD1 requires 1GB per 10 minutes of video, and uses constant 13Mbps encoding. In the lower-quality HN and HE modes, the SD1 switches to variable bit-rate encoding, and increases the available recording times to approximately 15 minutes per gigabyte (9Mbps) and 22 minutes per gigabyte (6Mbps), respectively.
Overall, I liked the SD1's video quality. In good light, video usually looks nice and sharp; the colors are bright and pleasing; the exposure generally hits the mark; and there's little noise in low-light shots. The 1,920x1,080 still photos look good printed up to 8x4.5--I wouldn't bump any HD-resolution shots beyond letter size. Played back on an HDTV, videos and stills look great. Up close in a video editor, however, they lose a bit of their luster. Interlacing and interpolation artifacts appear, thanks to the undersized 520,000-pixel sensors (effective resolution) Panasonic uses.
Image quality is also inextricably entwined with performance, which isn't so hot. The autofocus is a bit too slow to keep up with unpredictable subjects, such as squirrels. And the automatic white balance seems confused most of the time, usually producing overly cool tones. On random occasions, the video seemed to get particularly soft and the autofocus simply didn't lock. The optical stabilizer works well, though.
A fine if not stellar camcorder, the Panasonic HDC-SD1 delivers solid AVCHD video that's fun to watch, somewhat less fun to shoot, and not fun at all to edit.