Editor's note 5/6/08: I've revised the bottom line and software comments after revisiting the issue of video-editing problems. These do not affect the ratings, since I did not factor software problems into the original ratings.
With its eye-catching, compact body and relatively low price, the Panasonic HDC-SD9 seems to be quite an attractive buy for a flash-based AVCHD camcorder. At 11.7 ounces with battery and SD card and only 3.6 inches long, it's certainly one of the smallest and lightest full-size camcorders we've ever tested, and is pretty comfortable to shoot. The zoom switch feels responsive, and all the controls seem logically placed and fluid to operate. Many of the buttons, especially the face detection and Pre-rec (for 3-second pre-recording) are a tad small, but that's to be expected on a device this size.
However, Panasonic made a few irritating design choices, especially with regard to the battery. To remove it, you have to open the LCD cover; that's fine, as long as you don't use Quick Start mode, which turns the power on when you open the door. In that circumstance, when you open the LCD to remove the battery--as you must to charge it, since you can't charge the battery in-camera--the camcorder naturally turns on, and removing the battery at that point leaves the electronic lens cover open. Furthermore, to download the files to your computer you must plug in the AC adapter (a pretty common requirement), but since the connector is in the battery compartment you have to remove the battery to do so.
Furthermore, Panasonic offers an optional Shooting Guide which prompts you with "Camera panning too fast," "Use Intelligent Contrast," "Use O.I.S.," and "Use Low Light Mode" messages. Unfortunately, each of these messages takes up a huge chunk of the already too-crowded 2.7-inch LCD, blocking your view of the scene entirely. In the case of contrast and panning, the messages seem to appear more frequently than not.
Panasonic manages to cram quite a bit into the SD9's tiny chassis. It contains a trio of 1/6-inch, 560,000-pixel CCDs with effective resolutions of 520,000 pixels each, as well as an optically stabilized 10x zoom lens. In addition to a handful of scene modes, you can manually adjust iris (aperture) and shutter speed, which is uncommon in its price class. There's also manual focus, but on the tiny LCD it's difficult to use. A face-detection mode optimizes exposure for people and a Pre-rec toggle records continually in the background, then saves the previous three seconds after you press the record button. It also includes a dubiously useful 5.1-channel microphone; I'd swap that for stereo with a headphone jack and mic input. However, you can adjust the volume for each of the five channels independently.
Like the Canon Vixia HF10 and its nearly identical little brother, HF100, the SD9 records 1080i HD video at a full 1920x1080 resolution with a maximum 17Mbps bit rate. That's about 2 hours of best-quality video on a 16GB card. Like the Canons, it requires a Class 4 or better SDHC card for highest-quality recording.
Overall, performance is good. The SD9 adjusts exposure and focus relatively quickly, though like many consumer models focus slows as lights get low. The image stabilization works fairly well, but there's still some shake when zoomed out to the 10x maximum. The LCD seems to be worse than usual, however, seriously misrepresenting the white balance and exposure.
Video quality ranges from good to not-so-good. As you'd expect from a 3-CCD model, the SD9 renders very saturated colors. Exposures look good, but even when it underexposes to preserve highlights they still get blown out quite a bit. At its best--in good light--the video is a bit soft except when zoomed all the way in. In lower light, it looks either as if there's a film over the lens or simply overprocessed. Still photos are almost unusable; unsurprising given the low resolution of the individual sensors.
I based my quality judgments from viewing on the Sony KDL-46XBR4 HDTV and PC playback using InterVideo WinDVD; at review time, I had problems with the SD9's videos using virtually every editing package I tried. I subsequently succeeded with Ulead VideoStudio 11.5. You can read the details in my update to The hardware is willing, but the software is weak.
Though the Panasonic HDC-SD9 is a nice little camcorder, between the software issues--I'll update when they're resolved--and the inconsistent performance and video quality, I think you'll probably be happier in the long run by spending a little more for the competing Sony Handycam HDR-CX7 or one of the aforementioned Canon Vixia models.