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Solid-State Camcorders -- Panasonic HDC-SD1

Continuing on the AVCHD theme (see related posts) ...

Memory cards are the future for camcorders. Yes, this is obvious in a theoretical way, but after finishing the summer on a vacation trip with the Panasonic HDC-SD1 AVCHD camcorder that records high-def video to SD memory cards, I'm really convinced in a much more visceral way.

Just look at these devices (like this Panasonic HDC-SD5), now available from companies including JVC, Panasonic, Samsung, and Sony. They're basically the size of a soda can -- a big lens, with a flip-out display on the side and some electronics and slots on the back for the battery and memory card. They're just so easy to carry and easy to use.

Using memory cards allows these cams to be smaller and more rugged, with no mechanical parts for tape transport or disk drives. All the delays of tape are gone, of course -- rewinding and searching for clips is replaced with thumbnails of each clip and instant playback and recording. And memory cards provide removable storage, unlike hard disk camcorders which require off-loading to a computer when the disk fills up.

But how can today's 4 or 8 GB SD cards compare to a camcorder with much larger 30 or 60 GB hard disk, which can record 5 to 7 hours of standard-def video or 5 hours of full HD video?

Actually, SD cards work just fine -- you now can fit an hour or more of video on an affordable SD card, so you can carry multiple hours of removable storage in the space previously used by one DV tape cassette. You can get a 4 GB SDHC card for around $50, and 8 GB SDHC cards are available from companies like Kingston and SanDisk for under $100.

So I traveled with the Panasonic HDC-SD1 high-def camcorder, which records AVCHD video at 1440x1080 resolution, along with Dolby Digital AC3 5.1 channel audio (yes, there are 5 mics on the top of the unit). I also had a brief hands-on with the newer HDC-SD5, which bumps the video resolution to full HD, 1920x1080, but with stereo audio. Both are available for under $1000.

More on using the solid-state camcorder ...

The Panasonic HDC-SD1 (and SD5) worked very well for me, from shooting indoors at a wedding to the bright outdoors at the beach. At highest quality, they record 10 minutes of HD video per gigabyte of storage, which means an 8 GB SDHC card will fill up in 80 minutes, by which time you'll have to stop and change the battery anyway.

These cameras even shoot great-looking still photos while the video is running (albeit at the video resolution, which may be HD for video, but is a relatively low-res 2 megapixels for digital photos). However, I did see the camera freeze a couple of times when I shot photos too quickly -- Pulling the battery caused it to re-scan the card and all the previous clips were still fine. And one memory card tricked me by working fine when I did a quick test, but then was rejected after 10 seconds or so of recording -- It then worked fine after using the camera's format option to reset it in a quick operation.

The downside with these cameras is the relatively new AVCHD format, which is not well supported in current editing software, as discussed in the previous post. You end up with a collection of numbered .MTS clips buried in the folder structure of the SD card. The camera displays numbered thumbnails in the playback mode, but the interface does not give any sense of how long they are or how they are related to each other (shot at a similar time, or on different days).

Some software (like Apple iMovie '08) then only imports AVCHD video directly from cameras, while others can open individual clip files (if you know what they contain), and others (like Pinnacle Studio 11) can import the full folder of clips like it was a DVD disc, so you can preview and select the clips you want to use.

What these software tools really need to provide is photo-like browsing views to help you organize and group the clips. Pinnacle Studio 11 seems to do this best on Windows as you can view the entire folder of clips. And Apple iMovie '08 is setting a new path in this direction by organizing and automatically grouping video like iPhoto does photos.

But even with the early adopter issue of AVCHD, there's a wonderful freedom from being able to carry an HD camcorder that's the size of a soda can. Drink up to the future!

See Video Editing References for a glossary and references for video formats and standards.

See the Video Editing Software Gallery for more information on video editing products.

See the Consumer Digital Video Camcorders Gallery for more information on camcorder trends and formats, and sample products.

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