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A nice camera. If only iMovie ’08 was better at handling AVCHD video.
Panasonic’s HDC-SD1 breaks ground by recording gorgeous high-definition movies to tiny SDHC memory cards. At the same time, this brave new world of nonlinear, flash-based camcorders does have some pitfalls, particularly when you go to capture and store your footage.
The HDC-SD1’s 1080i picture (1,920 by 1,080 pixels) captures plenty of fine detail, renders vivid colors, and isn’t overwhelmed with noise when you shoot in low light. Its autofocus is faster than your average camcorder’s, and the optical image stabilization does a good job at nullifying the jitters. We’ve seen a lot of consumer-oriented HD cameras lately, and the only one that makes a better picture is Canon’s HV-20 (5 out of 5 stars) and not even by a wide margin.
The camera records to SDHC memory cards, creating a separate data file every time you start and stop recording. These nonlinear files make it easy to find your favorite scenes after shooting, and using a tiny memory card also gives the HDC-SD1 respectable battery life, which we timed at 80 minutes.
The included 4GB SDHC card stores only 40 minutes at the highest-quality setting, fine for shooting short events. If you want to shoot all day, you have to buy more memory (8GB cards go for around $100). Second, when a card fills up with video, you need to transfer the footage to your Mac’s hard drive and then erase the card. This means you don’t have a permanent copy of your footage to safely store elsewhere (unlike with tape or DVDs). You’ll have to back up and manage your hard drive carefully.
You can transfer the Panasonic’s AVCHD-format video into Final Cut Pro 6 and iMovie ’08, but not to earlier iMovie versions or to Final Cut Express. iMovie ’08 is designed to work well with no-tape cameras like this one, and you can plug the camera directly into your Mac’s USB port or slip the camera’s card into a third-party SDHC card reader. iMovie ’08 knows that there’s new footage and automatically brings up a capture window, which lets you see all the scenes on the memory card and transfer whichever ones you want.
Unfortunately, iMovie ’08 can’t work with the HDC-SD1’s AVCHD video in its raw form. The app has to convert the video into an intermediate codec that eats up a whopping 40GB (!) of disk space for each hour of 1080i video. iMovie ’08 has only a primitive Space Saver feature that helps you delete captured clips that you don’t need - if your movie uses even 2 seconds of a much longer clip, the app can’t delete the unused portions of that clip. iMovie ’08 also lets you capture video at half resolution (960 by 540 pixels), which needs only 13GB per hour. Half resolution is great for Web videos, but it loses sharpness when viewed on a big HD screen.
Another frustration is that iMovie ’08 takes 60 minutes to transfer 40 minutes of footage. And then the app still needs more time to convert the AVCHD-formatted footage into its intermediate codec, adding another 45 minutes when we captured 1080i video to our 2.2GHz Core 2 Duo MacBook Pro, and 28 minutes when we captured at half resolution.
The bottom line. Panasonic’s HDC-SD1 captures great pictures, but using iMovie ’08 to capture and store the footage to your hard drive takes too long and can quickly fill up even monster-sized drives. You probably won’t mind these problems if you only edit movies every once in a while, but more serious moviemakers could find them grating.
REQUIREMENTS: USB, iMovie ’08 or Final Cut Pro 6 for editing
Beautiful HD picture. Records video files to SDHC memory card. Respectable battery life. Works with external mics.
No headphone jack to monitor audio. No accessory shoe for add-ons. Capturing footage is slow in iMovie. Storing video requires lots of hard drive space.