Panasonic has a history of producing solid prosumer camcorders that deliver excellent video quality and performance, but have unexciting, functional designs. That tradition continues with the latest crop of models. Updates to last year's 700 series, Panasonic's 800/900 models--the HDC-HS900, TM900, and SD800--are fundamentally the same as their predecessors with some modest enhancements and slightly better video quality. They do, however, use the same trio of sensors and lens, as well as an essentially identical body design.
Series information: We performed a hands-on evaluation of the HDC-HS900, the hard-disk version of the camcorder, but aside from the few functional differences inherent in recording to the different media, the HS900 and TM900 should be identical. The HDC-SD800, on the other hand, is basically a stripped-down version of the TM900; it has the same sensor and lens as the others, so delivers the same video, but lacks an EVF, lens ring, and accessory shoe, provides only two-channel audio, and has a smaller LCD and no built-in memory.
|Models in this series|
Download the manual (PDF)
|HDC-TM900||Current mfr price: $989.99||Primary media: 32GB flash, 1 x SDXC|
|HDC-HS900||Current mfr price: $1,259.99||Primary media: 220GB hard drive, 1 x SDXC|
|HDC-SD800||Current mfr price: $764.99||Primary media: 1 x SDXC
no EVF, no ring on lens, smaller LCD, 2-channel audio, no accessory shoe
When it's functioning correctly, the video quality looks very good. It's got a relatively broad tonal range, though bright highlights tend to clip and I couldn't recover them in software (probably because the camcorder has compressed out any recoverable data). The color and exposure rendered by the three-chip system are quite good, though the automatic white balance can get a bit wonky--usually switching to another setting and then back did the trick. Aside from the white-balance issue, all the automatic settings worked very well, including exposures with backlight. I didn't see any moiré. And while there was a little bit of cyan aberration on high-contrast edges, it exhibited minimal fringing.
In low light there's practically no color noise, although you can see quite a bit of smearing from the noise reduction. Still, the video looks surprisingly good and remains naturally saturated.
The still photos are pretty mediocre viewed at full size, but might work as small reference images. You might be better off sticking to frame grabs at 1,920x1,080 pixels.
The HDC-HS900 performs well, too, with fast, accurate autofocus that's not easily confused, warm sound, and a decent wind filter. There's minimal lens distortion at its widest, but that's probably because the lens doesn't get very wide; Sony seems to be leading the pack with that, which is one of the significant ways this whole class of models could improve. That, as well as more attractive apertures. As far as I know, there's no technical reason a $1,000-plus camcorder can't incorporate a seven-bladed aperture.
As with most advanced AVCHD camcorders that shipped in early 2011, using the best-quality 1080/60p mode is a bit of a pain. Because the AVCHD spec wasn't updated until the summer to support 1080p (note that there is no 1080/30p), the camcorder makes you jump through some outdated hoops and throws up annoying warnings when you switch in and out of that mode. This is one of the few complaints I have about the series. But I'd just switch into it and stick there because you really do want to use the maximum bit rate and resolution.
The camcorder isn't terribly compact, but that's to accommodate the relatively large-barreled lens. With the exception of it having a small switch instead of a big dial for jumping between playback, still, and video modes, the design and layout are quite similar to preceding models. On the TM900, there's an accessory shoe on the right side beneath the grip; on the HS900, it's in the traditional spot between the photo shutter and zoom switch in the back and the 5.1-channel microphone near the lens.