Panasonic SDR-H85 review: Panasonic SDR-H85

Panasonic SDR-H85

Joshua Goldman

Joshua Goldman

Senior Editor / Reviews

Joshua Goldman is a senior editor for CNET Reviews, covering laptops and the occasional action cam or drone and related accessories. He has been writing about and reviewing consumer technology and software since 2000.

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6 min read

The Panasonic SDR-H85 is like having a small telescope that's able to capture standard-definition video. With its 70x lens you'll have no problem getting closer to your subject, and its optical image stabilization is very good even if you're moving. (You'll still want to use a tripod or other support whenever possible; the O.I.S system is good, but not that good.) You get full manual controls, too, as well as an 80GB hard drive for storage and the ability to expand that with SD, SDHC, and SDXC memory cards.


Panasonic SDR-H85

The Good

Very good image stabilization; well-designed; manual controls.

The Bad

Low-resolution LCD; dated user interface; poor low-light video; no external mic, headphone jacks.

The Bottom Line

The Panasonic SDR-H85 standard-definition camcorder is worth considering for its manual controls and powerful zoom lens in a very compact body--not video quality.

The H85's video quality is merely OK, but it's typical of what you can expect from any current standard-def consumer camcorder. Low-light movies are particularly poor, though, due to heavy noise. Also, those needing jacks for an external mic or headphones won't find them.

This camcorder is simply an inexpensive, easy-to-use option for capturing average standard-definition video with a megazoom lens. Don't expect the fine-quality SD video found before HD camcorders took over the market. At this point, you're money is going for the lens and the storage, not the video results.

If you're interested in this model but you don't need and/or want the hard drive, check out the SDR-T50 with its 4GB of internal flash memory and slightly smaller body. Those who want to save some money can pick up the SDR-S50 which has no internal storage, but records to SD, SDHC, and SDXC memory cards.

There's nothing out of the ordinary about the design of the H85 other than it being very small for having such a long zoom lens and an 80GB hard drive. The top and left sides are a mix of shiny black and chrome plastic, while the right side is matte black plastic. (It's available in blue and silver versions, too) The handstrap is attached low on the body, but with the camcorder being so small and lightweight it doesn't flop over to the left if you release your grip. The body is compact enough to slip in a large, coat pocket or handbag. However, the bump caused by the hard drive on the right side makes it a bit larger than the flash-memory-based T50 and S50 models.

Controls are pretty typical of this type of camcorder--at least of those without a touch screen--and everything is well positioned. Slip your right hand into the strap and your fingers will be in reach of the zoom rocker and shutter release on top, buttons for going between Intelligent Auto (iA) and Manual shooting modes and activating the optical image stabilization, and a slider on back for going from record to playback and back again. The movie record button is positioned under your thumb to the right of the battery pack, which juts from the back of the camcorder. There is no need to change to a photo mode to take a still picture--just press the shutter release.

Flip open the LCD and to the left of the screen you'll find a button for activating the tracking autofocus, a five-way joystick for navigation and making manual shooting adjustments, and a Menu button. Pressing in on the joystick brings up mode-specific shooting options like accessing focus, white balance, shutter speed, and aperture in Manual mode.

Inside the LCD cavity is where you'll find the SD/SDHC/SDXC card slot for additional video or photo storage, Mini-USB port, and an AV output. This is also where you'll find the power button, a delete button, and the Long Record button. That last one approximately doubles the amount of recording time you have at Standard quality (SP), but the video can only be played back on the camcorder.

All in all, the controls and menu system are uncomplicated enough that even those new to using a camcorder should be comfortable using the H85 out of the box. The only minor complaints would be that the menus are graphically dull and dated and the LCD is low resolution and looks it. But, that's what you get on a sub-$350 camcorder. There are no jacks for an external mic or headphones nor is there an accessory shoe. Panasonic does sell a video light and adapter that attaches to the camcorder's tripod receptacle.

Panasonic included both full-manual and full-auto shooting options--just press the iA/Manual button to toggle between the two. While Manual gives you control over focus, shutter speed, aperture, and white balance, it also gives you access to 10 scene modes, Soft Skin and Color Night modes, and Intelligent Contrast. Soft Skin is self explanatory. Color Night is, too, for that matter, allowing you to record color video in low-light conditions down to about 2 lux. Intelligent Contrast improves overly dark and bright areas. If you don't feel like thinking about settings, switch to iA and the H85 will adjust depending on the subject and recording environment as it corresponds to one of five scene modes.

There are a few options available in both shooting modes including Backlight Compensation, which lightens backlit subjects and Pre-Rec that continuously prerecords 3 seconds of video until you hit the record button so you don't miss any crucial action. If you're considering the H85 for recording clips for video-sharing sites, YouTube in particular, the camcorder has a Web mode setting. Select it, press Record, and it starts a 10-minute countdown to keep your recordings within the site's upload parameters. The bundled Windows-only software has "one-click" uploading to YouTube as well.

For all its features and ease of use, the H85 produces video typical of standard-definition consumer camcorders. Video is soft with readily visible noise and digital artifacting, a lot of purple and green fringing around high-contrast subjects, and merely OK color reproduction with highlight clipping (though the Intelligent Contrast helps with this). Low-light performance is poor, but that also is expected from standard-definition models. That said, if you still live completely in a low-resolution world, the recordings are destined for video-sharing Web sites, or you simply want to capture the moment no matter how it looks, the H85 should be satisfactory. Worth repeating, however, is this camcorder's need for a tripod when using the full zoom range. The OIS system is very good, and there's an Active mode that works well to improve stability while you're moving. However, regardless of how steady your hands are or how good the OIS is, once that lens is extended the camcorder really needs to be on a stable surface or a tripod.

The zoom range offered by the Panasonic SDR-H85 is incredible for the money and for those that like hard drives, this has a large one. Yes, you can shoot video of the moon as well as capture sporting events from the nosebleeds and your child's play from the very, very back row. But the video quality simply isn't good. But again, if capturing distant subjects is all that matters to you, then the H85 is worth its price.

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Panasonic SDR-H85

Score Breakdown

Design 8Features 7Performance 7Image quality 6