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Hard-drive camcorders have been slower to catch on than I would've thought. Sure, they cost a bit more than their DVD- or tape-based equivalents, but the convenience of having such a large storage capacity--and not having to deal with tape--make them appealing. However, some buyers can't get past the idea of not having removable storage, which is why Panasonic is so keen to point out that their new SDR-H18 can record to either its built-in 30GB drive or to a SD/SDHC flash memory card, without any difference in quality. Of course, it also helps that the company is part of the SD Card Association, and has been on a big push to champion SD memory cards as the next big storage medium for consumer video.
Unlike the awkward body designs we've seen with some recent SD-based camcorders, the SDR-H18 is very comfortable to hold. Part of the reason is that designers had to find a place to put the camcorder's hard drive, which finds its home in the right side of the body--creating an iPod-sized block that is just the right shape for a hand to wrap around. Almost all the camcorder's controls are also on the right-hand side; most of them can easily be reached with either a forefinger or thumb. While I had a hard time reaching and pressing the menu button with my right thumb, you still can access the most frequently used controls--such as backlight compensation, white balance, and shutter and iris controls--by pressing the joystick, so this isn't much of a problem. It would've been nice for Panasonic to put the menu button somewhere more convenient, however.
At its heart, the SDR-H18 sports a single 1/6-inch, 680,000-pixel CCD sensor. When recording in 16:9 mode, it uses 460,000 pixels to capture video or still images. That drops to 340,000 pixels when capturing 4:3 video or 350,000 when capturing 4:3 stills. Panasonic's online specs are a bit misleading, in that they hint that this model has three CCDs when it doesn't. Since the H18 has the same instruction manual as the higher-end H200, it's a simple error, but one that happens way too often on the company's Web site.
Playing along with the über-zoom craze, the H18 includes a 32X optical zoom lens, which sports a maximum aperture range of f/1.8-3.7. The variable zoom lever atop the camera is easy to get used to and gives a nice range of zoom speeds. As usual, the image stabilization doesn't effectively cover the entire zoom range, but does a good job out to approximately 75 or 80 percent of the zoom. That's pretty impressive, when you consider that you end up with a stabilized zoom range of about 24X, which is more total zoom than you could've expected in a similar-level camcorder just a few years ago (though it wouldn't have been a hard-drive or SD camcorder). If you like to shoot very close to your subject, you should note that the H18 doesn't include a macro mode. You'll have to step up to the H200 for this option.
Image quality impressed us, considering that this camcorder uses a lone, sub-megapixel imager. We saw ample detail given this restraint, even at the far end of the zoom, and colors look generally accurate, though a bit washed out. While not perfect, the H18's automatic white balance does a very good job of neutralizing colors across different light sources. We did notice that fluorescent lighting yields a minor, but noticeable, greenish cast--so you're probably better off setting the manual white balance in this shooting situation. If you like to use white balance presets instead of auto, you'll be pleased to know that you can change the white balance while recording. This means that you can move from a room with fluorescent lighting into a room with incandescent lighting and seamlessly switch from one white balance preset to the other without interrupting your footage. Not all camcorders let you do this. Autofocus reacts quickly and does a nice job of maintaining focus while zooming. Of course, everything isn't tack sharp as you zoom, but once you stop, the camera locks in very quickly.
If you tend to shoot in auto-mode, or only occasionally use more advanced functions, you'll most likely be pleased with Panasonic's SDR-H18. The footage isn't overly marred by compression artifacts that so often ruin video you get from lower-priced camcorders, and yields better footage from a sub-megapixel sensor than I've seen in a while. Add to that the benefits of hard-drive recording and the option of using removable SD media, and you've got a solid camcorder that should appeal to a wide range of users. It's not without its quirks, but none of those take away too much from the usability of this model.