Panasonic wisely halved the price of its formerly top-of-the-line twin AVCHD camcorders, the flash-based HDC-SD100 and hard-drive-based HDC-HS100, after they'd only been on the market for about six months. Though they provide a decent manual feature set and a trio of CMOS chips, they simply don't deliver the video quality you expect from models that cost over $1,000. Even at their lower, sub-$600 prices, they still have trouble competing.
The two incorporate the same optical and capture systems, including 3 1/6-inch MOS chips with effective video resolutions of 520,000 pixels each and a 12x f1.8-2.8 zoom lens. (Because they have identical capture and processing, we only lab tested the HS100; much of this review is based off that model) The HS100 records to a 60GB hard disk or optional SDHC card, while the SD100 is SDHC only. Because of the different media, the camcorders have slightly different designs, but the same feature sets and should have identical video quality. The highest video quality they offer is 1,920x1,080-pixel resolution at 30fps at 17 megabits per second, and can record about 7.5 minutes of video per gigabyte of storage or about an hour on the 8GB card bundled with the SD100. The next level down, 13Mbps, gets about 10 minutes per gigabyte.
Compared with the hard-drive model, the SD100 is smaller and lighter: only 13.2 ounces with dimensions of 2.5 inches wide by 2.8 inches tall by 5.4 inches long. Still, it's not one of the most compact flash-based models on the market. It's comfortable to hold, especially with the slight upward curve toward the back that makes the zoom switch and photo button easier to reach. One of the nicest aspects of the camcorder is that it retains an EVF, a feature that many manufacturers are dropping. I also like that there's a toggle switch next to it for jumping between it and the LCD; normally, camcorders automatically turn on the LCD when you open it.
Of course, Panasonic had to provide a switch because so many of the controls live inside the LCD recess. These include the menu button, navigation joystick, and optical image stabilization button. Above them, outside the cavity, are the Intelligent Auto and three-second prerecord; below, under hard covers, are the component-video-out connector, headphone jack, and SD card slot. One of the most irritating aspects of the camcorder's design is the placement of the USB and HDMI connectors behind the battery. Since you actually have to remove the battery to use them, you also have to plug the camcorder into the AC adapter. While I can sort of understand forcing users to run on AC power while downloading video, it's not necessary for connecting to a TV.
On the front of the camera, there's a video light and covered microphone jack; the built-in 5.1 surround mic sits on top of the lens, in front of the covered accessory shoe. Adjacent to the lens is a sliding switch that toggles between Auto and manual focus/zoom. The latter works in conjunction with a servoelectronic zoom ring on the lens. Another button there offers selections of white balance, shutter speed, and iris controls; you then cycle through each of their options using the ring. So, for example, to adjust shutter speed you press the button (which is fairly difficult to press), rotate the ring to select shutter speed, press the button again, then rotate the ring to choose the specific speed. This is similar to the way Sony and Canon's models operate, though they have a separate dial.
While I generally like the ring--it feels smooth and responsive, though it does operate in the infinite circle which makes servoelectronic controls annoying--it can get confusing jumping back and forth between manual focus, manual zoom, shutter speed, iris, and so on all on that single control. I tried to zoom, only to discover I was accidentally changing the white balance. I usually like joysticks, but had mixed feelings about this one. As with the older HDC-SD9, the joystick is in an especially odd place that requires some getting used to; for instance, pressing the joystick toward you produces the same result as moving it to the right in a traditional orientation, while pressing it away will navigate to the left. It's also fairly recessed, making it a bit hard to manipulate precisely.
Performance isn't bad. Unlike the hard-disk model, it starts up pretty quickly, though it too has a standby Quick Start mode to power on when you open the LCD. (It's fairly power hungry, however, using 60 percent of the power as when fully operational.) At 2.7 inches, the LCD is a typical size for this class, but it has a slightly higher resolution; overall, it's pretty good. And the EVF, while coarse and not particularly color accurate, is far better than nothing, which is what you get on most competitors. And the options for shutter speed and iris are as broad and flexible as you'll get on an entry level pro model. For instance, the iris opens as wide as 18dB in 3dB increments and closes to F16 in half stops. Although the shutter speeds start at a rather high 1/60 second (in auto modes they'll drop lower), they go as high as 1/8,000.
The zoom, both the ring and the switch, both feel relatively precise and easy to control, and the camcorder focuses reasonably quickly in all but the lowest light. The audio sounds a tad thin, but acceptable. And Panasonic's optical stabilization works solidly out to the end of the zoom range.
Disappointingly, though, the video just doesn't stand up to the competition. The camcorder renders good color and a fairly broad dynamic range--there are some blown-out whites but nothing too severe. Unfortunately, thanks to the low-resolution sensors--even as a trio they don't have enough pixels for native 1080p HD resolution and barely enough for 720p--edges are soft and smeary with some ghosting, and there simply isn't enough sharp detail. It does produce quite noise-free low-light video, but I'd sacrifice just a little more noise for increased sharpness.
For the price, the Panasonic HDC-SD100 offers a relatively high-end feature set, and it's one of the few models in this price class to offer an EVF. Too bad the video quality can't match the camcorder's other attractions.