Panasonic HDC-SD9

      Photo Review 8

      In summary

      An ultra-compact HD camcorder for everyday snapshooters.Panasonic’s tiny HDC-SD9 camcorder represents the third generation of high-definition camcorders that record exclusively to an SD memory card. Designed for point-and-shoot video photographers, it is claimed as the world’s smallest and lightest Full-HD video camera. Featuring a 3CCD sensor system based on 1/6-inch (2.46 x 1.80 mm) CCDs, the SD9 also boasts a Leica Dicomar lens with 10x optical zoom. . . [more]

      Full review


      Panasonic’s tiny HDC-SD9 camcorder represents the third generation of high-definition camcorders that record exclusively to an SD memory card. Designed for point-and-shoot video photographers, it is claimed as the world’s smallest and lightest Full-HD video camera. Featuring a 3CCD sensor system based on 1/6-inch (2.46 x 1.80 mm) CCDs, the SD9 also boasts a Leica Dicomar lens with 10x optical zoom.
      Similar in size, shape and functionality to the earlier SD5 model, the two models share many features, although the SD9 offers significant improvements in video quality and greater functionality. Both models have the same image sensor system and the same lens as well as the same 2.7-inch wide LCD screen and both lack optical viewfinders. Both offer HDMI output, although the new model has a mini-HDMI socket while its predecessor’s was full-size.


      Angled view of the HDC-SD9 with the monitor reviersed to show the screen size.

      However, while both cameras are listed as Full HD capable, only the SD9 can capture and export video at a resolution of 1920 x 1080 at a bit-rate of17 Mbps. Previous generations were restricted to 1440 x 1080 or had a slower bit-rate. A special AVCHD HA mode is used for recording at 17 megabits/second, along with an HG mode for 13 megabits/second recording. The former can capture up to an hour of video on the 8GB card that was provided for our review, while the latter fits up to 80 minutes.
      Unlike the SD5, which was supplied with a 4GB card, buyers of the SD9 will receive the new Panasonic 32GB SDHC memory card, which can hold four hours of video recordings. (Interestingly, the capacity of the supplied battery is just over an hour, although higher-capacity batteries are available.) The new 32GB card, which has an RRP of $799, accounts for a substantial part of the SD9’s overall price.
      Another new initiative has been to provide the SD9 with progressive scanning. Both the HA and HG mode settings are associated with a new ’25P Digital Cinema’ setting that is designed for playback on HDTV sets that support the new xvYCC colour standard and delivers better colour accuracy. Users without compatible TV sets are stuck with the HX and HE recording modes, the former offering 1920 x 1080-pixel resolution and the latter 1440 x 1080 pixels. (Attempting to play HA or HG recordings on non-compatible TV sets results in over-saturated pictures.)

      Build and Controls
      Build quality is good for such a small, lightweight camcorder. The case combines plastic and metal components and we found no evidence of sub-standard design or assembly. While point-and-shooters should be satisfied with the functions provided, a few things enthusiasts would require are missing: there’s no accessory shoe, mic jack or headphone jack – and (worst of all) no viewfinder.
      The hand strap is adjustable – but not padded for user comfort. In contrast, the zoom rocker is perfectly positioned and large enough for easy operation. However, a word of caution for users with large hands: be careful where you place your fingers on the top panel because if your little finger touches the microphone grille, the sound will probably be recorded.
      Features carried over from the SD5 model include Panasonic’s Advanced-OIS (Optical Image Stablisation) system, which we found to be effective for almost the entire optical zoom range. A few instances of camera shake were seen in our footage at the full 10x optical zoom, mainly in low light levels.
      A Pre-Rec (record/standby) button is provided for rapid switching between record and pause modes. Beside it is a button for engaging the new Face Detect and Auto Exposure function (see below). The SD9 features a 5.1-channel surround sound system with 5 microphones but you need a 5.1-channel home cinema system for playback in order to hear the full benefit.
      The zoom microphone, which is linked to the camera’s lens and located just above it, allows you to pick up the voices of people, animals and other sounds, recording them at levels proportional to the zoom ratio. Unfortunately, it’s fairly susceptible to wind noise, which can overwhelm normal sound recordings. The Wind Noise Reduction function provides only minor improvements.
      The lens dominates the front of the SD9. It’s deeply recessed into the camera body and protected by a built-in, two-piece cover that opens when the camera is powered-up for shooting. Recessing the optics provides a kind of lens hood for minimising flare. A small flash tube sits vertically along the left side of the lens. Below the lens is the sensor for the supplied remote control.
      Most of the rear panel is covered by the battery, which can only be accessed by opening the LCD monitor. This reveals the main control panel, which is shown in the illustration below.


      The most frequently-used controls are the joystick, which is used for most settings, the menu button, the Auto/Manual/Focus slider and the O.I.S (stabilisation) button. All are fairly small and can be difficult to see in dim lighting as their labels are grey, rather than bright white. The Power LCD Extra button is used for adjusting the brightness and colour of the LCD screen. The Disc Copy allows users to copy recorded video to a DVD using Panasonic’s VW-BN1 burner.
      Panasonic has located the HDMI and DC-in terminals in the battery chamber, which means you can’t access them without turning off the camcorder and removing the battery. To download video from the memory card you must contact the camera to the mains power, via the supplied battery charger and cable then use a USB cable to connect to your PC. AVCHD video can’t be recognised by older SD card readers but if you have one that can detect it, downloading via a card reader is another (more convenient) option.
      Above the battery is a slider switch with three settings: play, off and record. The photo button sits just above this slider. Below the battery is the SD card compartment which has a drop-down door that locks with a sliding knob.

      Point-and-Shoot Functions
      Like the SD5, the SD9 is designed mainly for point-and-shoot video photographers and its user interface is straightforward and accessible to an absolute beginner. To suit its target market, Panasonic has added several automatic functions that make shooting easier and ensure better results.
      One of these is Face Detection, which is provided in a camcorder for the first time (although it has a relatively long track record in still cameras). The SD9’s Face Detection system can identify up to five human faces in a scene and will automatically adjust the exposure, contrast and skin tone to achieve optimal results. Backlight compensation is also included, along with a ‘soft skin mode’ for shooting portraits and a colour night view setting for shooting in dim lighting (down to 1 lux for video and stills).


      Backlight compensation is selected via the joystick.
      Intelligent Contrast Control is provided to help novice users to produce better video clips by continuously measuring the subject brightness range and adjusting recordings to prevent a washed-out look in bright parts of an image and black-outs in shadowy parts. However, we would like to have seen a simple brightness control that would let users adjust the brightness of pictures without having to shift to the manual exposure modes.
      The Low Light setting reduces the shutter speed to 1/25 second for shooting indoors and the white balance pre-sets include an ‘indoor’ setting for use with incandescent and halogen lights. No fluorescent setting is provided. You can overlay a choice of three types of guide lines to assist with shot composition. Options include horizontal lines, a rule-of-thirds grid or a grid consisting of 60 cells.
      Another handy function is the Help mode, which scrolls an explanation of the selected function along the bottom of the screen. It works with icons that are selected when the Auto/Manual/Focus switch is set to Auto. Novice shooters will also appreciate the Intelligent Shooting Guide, which detects when shooting conditions are less than optimal.


      The help mode scrolls messages along the bottom of the screen.

      This function operates in addition to the Anti-Ground-Shooting (AGS) sensor, which switches recording off if the camera is held pointing downwards. This function can be switched off if required, although the default setting is on. In contrast, the Help mode is selected manually and will display a message on the LCD, prompting corrective action.
      Warnings will appear when the camcorder is panning too quickly or tilted in the wrong direction or the user’s hand is swinging, the subject is backlit, or the lighting is too low it will. Unfortunately, these messages obscure most of the scene and some of them (panning advice particularly) appeared on the review camera with un-wanted frequency, which was irritating.
      Coupled with the Intelligent Shooting Guide is an Intelligent Scene Selection playback function that automatically skips over any shots with serious errors, such as hand swing, fast panning, out-of-focus images or shots of the ground taken when the user forgot to turn the camcorder off. Only the good, error-free shots are shown. Up to nine sections can be skipped in a single scene in this mode.

      Point-and-shooters will also find the Quick Start mode and PRE-REC button handy. The former, which is set up in the menu activates recording approximately 0.6 seconds after the LCD monitor is opened and puts the camera into pause mode when the LCD is closed. This pause mode consumes roughly 60% of the power used for normal recording. The PRE-REC button sets the camera to record approximately three seconds of video before the record start/stop button is pressed so you don’t miss too much vital footage.

      Manual Controls
      Aside from providing a reasonably good range of video recording settings, the SD9 has a few manual controls to satisfy video enthusiasts. The video menu is straightforward and generally well designed, as shown i nthe illustration below.


      The video menu showing the four HD recording settings.

      Although manual focusing is provided, using it can be difficult as it relies on the LCD screen. The centre of the screen enlarges for approximately two seconds when manual focus is selected and focus is adjusted with the joystick. This can be disabled in the menu if it doesn’t appeal. Precise focusing is a chancy exercise but the small size of the image sensors gives the SD9 a fair amount of depth-of field to compensate.
      Only four white balance options are provided: Auto, Outdoor, Indoor and Manual, the latter using the standard measurement system. You can also set shutter speeds between 1/25 and 1/8000 second and adjust lens apertures between f/2.0 and f/16. Both of these adjustments are made with the joystick.
      The SD9 is one of the few consumer camcorders with gain control. The function is accessed within the aperture settings and only accessible when the iris is wide open at f/2.8. Continuing to push the joystick to the right engages the gain adjustments, which range from 0dB to 18dB. Not unexpectedly, digital noise increases with increasing gain.


      The scene menu, showing the four pre-set modes.
      Four pre-set scene modes are provided: sports, portrait, spotlight and surf & snow. A self-timer is available for still image capture. Two delay times are available, ten seconds and two seconds. Burst capture facilities for still shots are quite impressive as the SD9 can capture 72 still shots at 25 frames/second and present them as an index frame. It’s a useful facility for motion analysis and will suit sports enthusiasts.
      Still shots can also be aided by the built-in flash, which is surprisingly powerful for a camcorder. Flash output is adjustable through three small steps and red-ere reduction is available.
      Other manual settings include a Zebra Pattern generator, which displays areas with a risk of overexposure on the LCD screen. This function works with the manual iris (aperture) control. A Colour Bar generator provides similar facilities for tweaking colour balance and allows users to match the output from the SD9 with TV sets and other displays.

      Stills Capture
      Stills capture functionality is very limited. The only resolution setting is 1920 x 1080 pixels with 16:9 aspect ratio. There’s no designated Photo mode and only two JPEG ‘quality’ settings: normal and high. Test shots taken with the higher resolution setting averaged 1.2MB in size, while the normal setting produced image files averaging 880MB.
      Red-eye reduction is available for flash shots and the shutter sound can be turned on and off. Flash levels are adjustable through one step (up or down) and there’s a 2- or 10-second self-timer.
      The SD9’s burst mode allows up to 72 shots to be taken while the Photo button is held down – but it takes a while (see below) to record them on the SD card. No other specific manual adjustments are provided for recording stills, although most of the manual functions outlined above for video shooting are usable for stills capture.

      The software bundle consists of HD Writer 2.5E, which provides facilities for uploading video clips from the SD card to a computer plus some basic editing facilities. It also allows users to create MPEG-2 DVD discs for playback on standard definition DVD players.
      We found it easy to install on a Windows XP PC and fairly easy to use. Although somewhat limited in functionality, it will suit the SD9’s target market. The uploading interface allows you to choose the destination folder and set up a dedicated folder containing the AVCHD content. Once this is uploaded, you are asked if you want to edit the transferred files.


      Clicking on ‘Yes’ takes you to the Easy Editing window, a process that takes a minute or two. In this window, clips are displayed by date in sequential order with details of their size, resolution and playback time. Clicking on a particular day shows individual scenes in a thumbnail bar below the main window.


      Clips can be played by double-clicking on a thumbnail and individual frames can be ‘grabbed’ as still shots by pausing playback and clicking on the Capture button. These frame grabs are saved as JPEGs with a resolution of 1920 x 1080 pixels.


      Frame grabs take up to a minute to capture. An indicator is displayed on the screen allowing users to track progress.

      Although it was easy to prepare an edited version of our raw footage with the supplied software, converting it into a format that could be played on a standard DVD player and writing it to a DVD was fraught with difficulties. It took roughly seven hours of repeated re-adjusting and re-burning to obtain a glitch-free DVD. Eight DVDs were wasted before we obtained a playable version of our video movie.

      Overall performance was good for the SD9’s specifications. Exposure and focusing adjustments were quick and accurate for most shots, although video was often slightly over-exposed when auto mode was used in bright light and focus slowed slightly in low light levels. Unfortunately, the LCD on the test camera gave little indication of reproduction of the colours and brightness levels in scenes, which made setting white balance difficult at times.
      The image stabilisation system worked well in good light but we found some residual shake in lower light levels when the lens was zoomed right out to 10x. Face Detection appeared to require adequate light to operate effectively and is more of a novelty than a necessary function. (The small size of the image sensors provides a wide depth of field, which means focusing on subjects can be pretty hot-or-miss before you notice serious problems.)
      Video quality was close to expectations for an HD camcorder with AVCHD capture. Footage shot with the test camera looked sharp and colour accurate on our Panasonic HD TV set. However, backlit shots were often affected by flare and we noticed some artefacts and loss of quality in low light levels, particularly with moving subjects. Using the digital zoom (which is only available for video) produced the anticipated reduction in picture quality with the absurd 700x setting virtually unusable.
      We subjected a series of still shots to our standard Imatest testing to check the SD9’s resolution and colour accuracy. These tests showed resolution to be slightly below expectations for the sensor’s effective resolution and colour accuracy to be reasonably good – although not across the entire spectrum. Shifts were found in the warmer hues, although cooler hues were mostly near the mark.
      Skin colours were slightly off-course and saturation was elevated in reds and oranges, although low in yellows and purples. Despite appearances to the contrary in the video and still shots we took, overall saturation was modest for a point-and-shoot camera. Saturation appeared to decline as light levels fell. Lateral chromatic aberration was generally high (the graph reproduced below was typical of the results we recorded).
      White balance performance was below average, with the auto setting failing to correct colour casts in both incandescent and fluorescent lighting. The pre-sets tended to over-correct and only manual measurement produced acceptable colour neutrality.
      Still shots were hampered by the SD9’s inherent relatively low stills resolution and we found no discernible difference in quality between shots taken with the Photo button and frames ‘grabbed’ from video clips.
      The review camera took just over three seconds to power-up and about the same time to shut down. However, recording began within 0.2 seconds when video was captured and we measured an average capture lag of 0.1 seconds for still shots. The high-speed burst mode recorded a burst of 72 frames in 2.5 seconds. It took 9.7 seconds to process this burst. When transferring video to a computer with HD Writer it took 12.4 minutes to download 3.12GB consisting of 72 scenes.

      If small size is high on your list of requirements, Panasonic’s SD9 is worth a look, although it won’t suit users with large hands and/or limited dexterity. Although providing enough features and adequate performance to suit its target market, the small size of the imager chips means still shots are nowhere near the quality of shots from Sony’s HDR-SR12 model, which has a larger single imager chip.
      If you only require a high-definition video camera to complement a DSLR, the SD9 is reasonably good value – although you will probably find you need a higher-capacity battery to capitalise on the 32GB capacity of the supplied memory card.






      Auto white balance with incandescent lighting.


      Auto white balance with fluorescent lighting.


      Manual white balance with incandscent lighting.


      Close-up. (Still picture recording mode.)


      Flare (a frame grab from a video clip).


      Two additional frame grabs from video clips.




      Image sensor: Three 2.46 x 1.8 mm CCD sensors with 1.68 million photosites (1.56 megapixels effective)
      Sensor Resolution: HA/HG: 1920k1080/50i, 1920k1080/25p; HX: 1920k1080/50i; HE: 1440k1080/50i
      Lens: Leica Dicomar 3.0-30mm f/1.8-2.8 lens; Filter diameter: 37 mm
      Zoom ratio: 10x optical. 28x digital
      Video System: HDV 1080i/DV AVCHD compliant
      Recording Modes: HD: HA (17 Mbps / VBR), HG (13 Mbps / VBR), HX (9 Mbps / VBR), HE (6 Mbps / VBR)
      Sound recording: Dolby Digital (Dolby AC3)/5.1channel
      Still Image Sizes/ file format: 1920 x 1080 (16:9) JPEG (Exif 2.2); 2.1M
      Shutter speed range: 1/25-1/8000 second
      Image Stabilisation: Optical
      Focus system/range: TTL AF with Face Detection; range 4cm (at wide angle) to infinity; Tele macro to 50 cm; Manual focusing supported
      Exposure controls: Auto plus 4 Scene modes (Sports, Portrait, Spotlight, Surf & Snow); Fade (white/black), Intelligent contrast control, Soft skin mode, Colour night view, Backlight compensation, Low light, Self-timer, Tele macro; High-speed burst (up to 72 frames at 25 fps)
      Minimum illumination: 1 lux (with colour night view function); 5 lux auto
      White balance: Auto tracking white balance system with auto, Indoor, Outdoor and manual adjustment modes
      Flash: On, off and auto modes plus red-eye reduction; Available range: Approx. 1.0 m to 2.5 m
      Storage Media: SD/SDHC cards
      Viewfinder: No
      LCD monitor: 2.7-inch LCD with 300,000 pixels and AR coating
      Interfaces: USB 2.0 Hi-speed (mini AB), HDMI (x.v.Colour) 1125i (1080i)/625p (576p)
      Power supply: Lithium-ion battery pack (7.2V, 1400 mAh)
      Dimensions (wxhxd): 65 x 67 x 126 mm
      Weight: 275 grams (without battery or card)





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      Rating (out of 10):

      • Build: 8.5
      • Ease of use: 8.5
      • Still image quality: 6.5
      • Video quality: 8.5
      • OVERALL: 8.0