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Panasonic SD80 review: Panasonic SD80

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Panasonic HDC-TM80 (red)
6.8

Panasonic SD80

The Good

The <b>Panasonic HDC-TM80, SD80 and HS80</b> camcorders provide manual controls in a functional, if somewhat boring, design.

The Bad

The sub-HD resolution sensor produces merely satisfactory video.

The Bottom Line

A functional trio of camcorders, the Panasonic HDC-SD80, TM80, and HS80 are notable for their manual exposure controls, unusual for their price class, and well designed touch-screen interface but otherwise you can find better options. Of the three, the SD80 is the best choice simply on price.

There's a lot to like about this little series of camcorders. But while the 16GB Panasonic HDC-TM80 and its similar kin, the no-internal-memory SD80 and 120GB hard-disked HS80 do provide a surprisingly full set of manual controls for the money, like every HD model we've seen with a sub-HD resolution sensor, the video quality just disappoints. This review is based on an evaluation of the TM80.

It's fine in bright sunlight, when you're zoomed in to the subject. The video looks clean, though softer than I'd like, with edge artifacts. When you zoom out to a wider angle, though, you can tell that the low-resolution sensor simply can't resolve enough detail. And it's even noticeable played back on a big screen (such as the 47-inch Panasonic I used), which frequently obscures many of the artifacts. There's also quite a bit of aliasing (jaggies) on edges.

Exposures are very good; though like all inexpensive models it blows out highlights, but without excessive fringing, and it handles backlit and other difficult scenes better than most. And while the colors aren't that accurate, they're certainly pleasing and saturated under bright conditions.

Unlike its low-cost competitors, the TM80 and company have an onboard LED video light. While it can help in some low-light scenes, you really don't want to point it toward people or they'll be seeing spots for a very long time. It also results in a not-very-attractive white balance, and you still lose a lot of detail in the scene. Without the light, the camcorder's low-light quality isn't very good. There's quite a bit of color noise and it's very soft.

And if you're looking for a dual-purpose still/video device, look elsewhere. You don't want to use this camcorder as a still camera; the photo quality doesn't even match that of a camera phone unless it's scaled down.

Performance is a mixed bag as well. On the upside, the optical image stabilization works quite well, even out to the end of the 30x zoom range. It also switches decisively, and at a nice rate, between focus subjects. Unfortunately, decisively is not the same things as accurately; it has trouble maintaining a lock on a given subject against a busy background if the subject is even a little off-center. I also saw some odd intermediate white-balance shifts when panning (in bright light) and zooming (in dim light).


  HDC-SD40/TM40 HDC-SD60/TM55 HDC-TM80/SD80 HDC-HS80 HDC-TM90/SD90
Sensor (effective resolution) 1.2-megapixel CMOS 3-megapixel CMOS 1.3-megapixel CMOS 1.3-megapixel CMOS 2.6-megapixel CMOS
1/5.8 inch 1/4.1 inch 1/5.8 inch 1/4.1 inch 1/4.1 inch
Lens 16.8x
f1.8-2.6
42.9 - 721mm (16:9)
25x
f1.8-3.3
35.7 - 893mm (16:9)
34x
f1.8-4
33.7 - 1240mm (16:9)
12x
f1.5-2.8
35 - 420mm (16:9)
21x
f1.8-3.5
28 - 729mm (16:9)
Min illumination (lux) standard: 1400
low light: 7
Color Night View: 1
standard: 1400
low light: 4
Color Night View: 1
standard: 1400
low light: 7
Color Night View: 1
standard: 1400
low light: 7
Color Night View: 1
standard: 1400
low light: 4
Color Night View: 1

EVF

No No No No No
LCD 2.7-inch 230,400-dot 2.7-inch 230,400-dot 2.7-inch 230,400-dot 2.7-inch 230,400-dot 3-inch 230,400-dot
Primary media 0GB/16GB flash; SDXC SD/8GB flash; SDXC 16GB/0GB flash; SDXC 120GB hard disk; SDXC 16GB/0GB flash; SDXC
HD recording AVCHD: 1080/60i @ 17, 13, 9 Mbps
AVCHD:
1080/60i @ 17, 13, 9 ,5 Mbps
AVCHD:
1080/60i @ 17, 13, 9 ,5 Mbps
AVCHD:
1080/60i @ 17, 13, 9 ,5 Mbps
AVCHD: nonstandard 1080/60p 28Mbps;
1080/60i @ 17, 13, 9 ,5 Mbps
Manual shutter speed Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes
Manual iris Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes
Accessory shoe No No No No Yes
Audio 2 channels 2 channels
2 channels 2 channels 2 channels
Body dimensions (WHD, inches) 2.0 x 2.3 x 4.3 2.0 x 2.6 x 4.4 2.0 x 2.3 x 4.3 2.6 x 2.8 x 5.8 2.0 x 2.5 x 4.7
Operating weight (pounds) 7.4 (est) 10.5 8.3 10.8 (est) 10.1 (est)
Mfr. Price $349.99/$399.99 $499.95/$529.95 $499.99/$449.99 $599.99 $599.99/$549.99
Ship date March 2011 March 2010 March 2011 March 2011 March 2011

While the microphone has a nice, warm quality compared with some competing tinny-sounding models, it's a lot more front-directional than most, even without turning on the zoom mic. Normally, my running commentary stands out loud and clear; with this camcorder, it was so muffled at times I couldn't even make out what I was saying. But it still picked up plenty of ambient noise.

As with a lot of these models, the LCD is difficult to view in direct sunlight. You can jack up the LCD's power and brightness separately, but increasing the brightness just washes it out and decreases the contrast, while increasing the power burdens the battery. At least at its defaults, however, the battery seems to last a decently long time.


  Canon Vixia HF M300/M30/ M31/M32 HDC-SD80/TM80 HDC-HS80 Sony Handycam HDR-CX130/CX160 Sony Handycam HDR-XR160
Sensor (effective resolution) 2.99-megapixel CMOS
1.3-megapixel CMOS 1.3-megapixel CMOS 1.49 megapixels 1.49 megapixels
1/4 inch 1/5.8 inch 1/4.1 inch 1/4-inch 1/4-inch
Lens 15x
f1.8-3.2
39.5-592.5mm
34x
f1.8-4
33.7 - 1240mm (16:9)
12x
f1.5-2.8
35 - 420mm (16:9)
30x
f1.8-3.4
29.8-894mm
(31.2-531mm
17x with Active Steady Shot)
30x
f1.8-3.4
29.8-894mm
(31.2-531mm
17x with Active Steady Shot)
Closest focus (inches) 0.4 1.2 1.2 0.4 0.4
Min illumination (lux) recommended: 100
standard: 5.5
low light: 0.4
standard: 1400
low light: 7
Color Night View: 1
standard: 1400
low light: 7
Color Night View: 1
recommended: n/a
standard: 11
low light: 3
recommended: n/a
standard: 11
low light: 3

EVF

None No No None None
LCD 2.7-inch 211,000 dots 2.7-inch 230,400-dot 2.7-inch 230,400-dot 3-inch 230,000 pixels 3-inch 230,000 pixels
Primary media 0GB/8GB/ 32GB/64GB internal; 1 x SDHC (SDXC on M32) 0GB/16GB flash; SDXC 120GB hard disk; SDXC 0GB/16GB internal; 1 x SDXC 160GB hard drive; 1 x SDXC
HD recording AVCHD: 1080/60i @ 24, 17 Mbps; 1440 x 1080/60i @ 12, 7, 5 Mbps
(also encodes 30p and 24p as 60i)
AVCHD:
1080/60i @ 17, 13, 9 ,5 Mbps
AVCHD:
1080/60i @ 17, 13, 9 ,5 Mbps
AVCHD: 1080/60p @ 28 Mbps (nonstandard); 1080/60i @ 24, 17 Mbps; 1440 x 1080/60i @ 9, 5 Mbps AVCHD: 1080/60p @ 28 Mbps (nonstandard); 1080/60i @ 24, 17 Mbps; 1440 x 1080/60i @ 9, 5 Mbps
Manual shutter speed 1/6 - 1/2000 sec Yes Yes No No
Manual iris f1.8-f8 Yes Yes No No
Accessory shoe Yes Yes Yes No No
Audio 2 channels (5.1 via optional mic);
mic, headphone jacks
2 channels 2 channels 2 channels 5.1 channels
Body dimensions (WHD, inches) 2.7 x 2.4 x 4.8 2.0 x 2.3 x 4.3 2.6 x 2.8 x 5.8 2.1 x 2.3 x 4.9 2.4 x 2.6 x 5.1
Operating weight (pounds) 13.1 8.3 10.8 (est) 10.5 14.1 (est)
Mfr. Price $549.99/ $599.99/ $699.99/ $999.99 $449.99/$499.99 $599.99 $449.99/$499.99 $599.99
Ship date March 2010 March 2011 March 2011 March 2011 April 2011

There's not much notable about the design; it's pretty typical for a compact camcorder. There's a three-way video/still/playback switch on the back and auto/manual, OIS and power switches in the LCD recess. The lens cover has a physical switch, but can open automatically when you power on, which is a nice touch. Like most of them, if you've got large hands you may find it a touch small. That's the primary reason to consider the HS80, because the hard drive gives you a little extra bump to grab onto.

However, if you're looking for manual features--specifically control over shutter speed and aperture--Panasonic delivers them at the low price points. And the implementation works very well, despite a display that's usually too small for comfortable touch-screen use.


The side navigation with relatively large onscreen buttons works well, and makes it easy to switch between shutter and aperture control--a facility that even more advanced camcorders don't even have.

The camcorder also has useful features that are uncommon in lower-end models, like peaking (an edge-detection display) in manual focus that actually makes it possible to use the manual focus on the low-resolution display.

Conclusion
I'm slightly annoyed about the naming convention here: you'd think an xx80 designation in the model name and a similar price would imply that it's a step-up/replacement model for the xx60 series, which I really liked. But thanks to the sensor, it's actually a step backward; the true replacement models are the xx90 series.

There really are better choices than this series. For many people it might be worth spending a little extra to get better video quality with the manual features; if you don't care about the manual features, you might as well go a little cheaper and get the same so-so video.

Panasonic HDC-TM80 (red)
6.8

Panasonic SD80

Score Breakdown

Design 7Features 8Performance 6Image quality 6