Is the Panasonic HDC-HS900 a major improvement from last year's Editor's Choice HDC-HS700? Read our comprehensive review to find out.
Panasonic HDC-HS900 Report
Last year Panasonic knocked our socks off with one of the greatest camcorders we had ever reviewed. The Panasonic HDC-HS700 decimated most of the encroaching camcorder market with its stellar 1080 60p video quality and power-packed arsenal of manual controls. The HDC-HS700 was not the prettiest girl in the pageant, and exhibited a few pesky design quirks, but it still managed to edge out the Canon Vixia HF S21 and earn our Editor's Choice HD award, thanks to its fantastic video quality and robust controls.
This year, Panasonic shipped us the Panasonic HDC-HS900 to replace the beloved HDC-HS700, and it's obvious that the company had no intention of toiling with a gravy train. The Panasonic HDC-HS900 retains the same 3-MOS imaging system, manual controls, body design, and $1400 price tag as the HDC-HS700. But Panasonic managed to jack up the LCD size and implement an intuitive all-touch screen interface.
A few additional tweaks like Hybrid OIS and a larger 20x Intelligent Zoom were part of the deal as well, but for the most part, the Panasonic HDC-HS900 has remained relatively unchanged for 2011. And with the highly anticipated Canon Vixia HF G10 lurking in the shadows, we wonder if the Panasonic HDC-HS900 is at risk for handing down its championship belt. One thing is for sure€”you'll have to wait until our Canon Vixia HF G10 review coming up soon to find out.
A lot of videographers have been plagued with dense consternation when attempting to discern between the three major Panasonic consumer camcorder models, so we're going to hang it all out on the line for you right now. The Panasonic HDC-HS900 is identical to the HDC-TM900, only the former has a 220GB HDD (Hard Disk Drive) while the latter has 32GB of built-in Flash memory. Both have SD/SDHC/SDXC card slots. The Panasonic HDC-SD800 lacks an Electronic Viewfinder, Mic and Headphone jacks, and LCD panel controls, records solely to SD/SDHC/SDXC cards, and is devoid of any internal memory. So, everything regarding image quality and manual controls in this review can be universally applied to the Panasonic HDC-HS900, HDC-TM900, and HDC-SD800. Compared to the 3D-capable Panasonic HDC-SDT750, the HDC-HS900 and TM900 are superior in terms of controls and body design, and both are compatible with the VW-CLT1 3D conversion lens if you need 3D.
Now that our laundry is dry, let's peruse the Panasonic HDC-HS900. The darn thing looks identical to last year's HDC-HS700. But under the hood, Panasonic shifted down to a 220GB HDD from the HDC-HS700's 240GB HDD, which was a bit of a quandary. Upon further investigation, you'll see that the grip side has been given a textured surface and the Mode dial has been replaced with a covert and convenient Mode switch. The buttery Camera Control Ring, cold accessory shoe, 5.1 channel built-in microphone, and Mic and Headphone jacks migrated onto the HDC-HS900 as well, but a few crucial updates were also discovered. Panasonic took the HDC-HS900's LCD screen to the Taffy room in the Wonka Factory and stretched it to a generous 3.5-inch diagonal size, matching that of the Canon Vixia HF G10's LCD real estate. Panasonic also pumped more pixels into the HDC-HS900's screen with a 460,800-dot count, though it falls short of the mighty HF G10's 922,000-pixel display.
The Canon Vixia HF G10 also rocks dual SD card slots while the Panasonic HDC-HS900 is still stuck with one, though the HDC-HS900's 22GB HDD offers a much higher capacity than the HF G10's built-in 32GB Flash memory. Lastly, we must say that for years we've been begging Panasonic to relocate the DC power jack from out of the battery compartment because of how much a royal pain in the ass it made our charging experiences. Well, the Panasonic HDC-HS900 is the first camcorder in the company's fleet to feature its DC jack on the outside of the camcorder! Although this is a minor tweak that should have been taken care of eons ago, this is big news in the world of Panasonic consumer camcorders.
The Canon Vixia HF S21 is still the decked out Bentley compared to the Panasonic HDC-HS900, which is more like a tricked out Geo Metro when it comes to design. However, we feel that the Canon Vixia HF G10 will set the standard in a big way.
While the manual controls have remained the same on the Panasonic HDC-HS900, this year we're given a larger 20x Intelligent Zoom compared to the HDC-HS700's 18x Intelligent Zoom. The Panasonic HDC-HS900 also has the new Hybrid OIS system in place of the HDC-HS700's Power OIS system. The Optical Image Stabilization system on the Panasonic HDC-HS900 is awesome to say the least. In still image mode, we were able to shoot at low shutter speeds and once the focus locked, the OIS kicked in and held the image down like a paperweight. Video mode saw stellar shake reduction results as well, and in our eyes, Panasonic has the best OIS system on the market in this price range. We'll see what the Canon Vixia HF G10 can offer for OIS, but it's next to impossible to beat a Panasonic when it comes to image stabilization.
The other big news was the Panasonic HDC-HS900's updated touchscreen interface. It's more intuitive, responsive, and much easier to navigate with. The HDC-HS900's LCD was a definite improvement over last year's HDC-HS700, and it's probably the most prominent upgrade on the camcorder. The interface offers a side panel menu with scrollable pages that offer manual controls and touchscreen controls. We could even operate the zoom by touching the screen. Of course, the Manual Control ring made adjusting camcorder settings a dream, and the best part was that we could toggle Focus, White Balance, Shutter, and Iris while the camcorder was recording! For that, the Panasonic HDC-HS900 definitely proved itself as an advanced machine for the more seasoned shooter. Iris could be opened to 18dB, the Shutter shot down to 1/30 (in 60p) and 1/24 (24p), Manual White Balance was highly effective, and using the Focus ring was like taking a trip down a Slip N' Slide slathered in butter. Yes, it was that smooth.
Of course, the Panasonic HDC-HS900 was equipped with Intelligent Auto mode that works almost flawlessly for beginners. Here, the Panasonic HDC-HS900 will adjust its shutter speed, Iris, White Balance, and Focus automatically to suit the shooting environment, or it will simply default to a particular Scene mode. The HDC-HS900 has Face Framing for Focus, Auto Gain Control and Auto Slow Shutter to aid in low light (despite heightened noise), and it even offers a Shooting Guide for beginners who want to learn features about the camcorder. A few additional manual controls for the advanced shooter include Zebra patterns for highlights, colored Manual Focus Assist to highlight crisp edges, Digital Cinema Color, and a well stocked Mic control suite.
Not only could we adjust the Mic levels for all 5.1 channels, but the HDC-HS900 gave us the ability to adjust the Bass up to 6dB or employ a Lowcut filter. There was a Zoom Mic option for following the subject, Focus Mic for honing in on sounds coming from the focused portion of the scene, and a Stereo Mic. We found that Surround with a Bass boost was ideal for loud music, but the microphone versatility on the Panasonic HDC-HS900 was one of its premiere features. The Panasonic HDC-HS900 still rules the roost when it comes to camera control, but we'll have to see if that's still the case after we review the Canon Vixia HF G10, which is right around the corner.
But if your primary goal is to playback videos via HDMI on a Full HD monitor, then the Panasonic HDC-HS900 will not disappoint. As we said with the Panasonic HDC-HS700 last year, this is the best video quality we've stumbled across in the consumer HD realm to date. Outdoor shooting is beautiful. Colors dance and sing, while the ability to apply Cinema Color will make videos even more vivid. Motion in 60p is fantastic, and we had no major complaints in bright light. The HDC-HS900 will struggle a bit in low light unless you shift it into Intelligent Auto mode, which puts the Gain, Shutter Speed, and other Exposure controls into autopilot. The only sacrifice here is noise, which is evident in our test videos.
We do have a few concerns at this juncture. The Panasonic HDC-HS900 should have a native 24p sensor, or the ability to shoot at 24p. The Canon Vixia HF G10 has a native 24p sensor, and it will be capable of shooting at multiple frame rates. Also, the Vixia HF G10 relies on a single 1/3-inch sensor rather than three smaller 1/4-inch MOS chips. Our speculation is that the HF G10 will be superior in low light, but we will have to wait and see within the coming week. Overall, the Panasonic HDC-HS900 cranked out some of the best video quality available on the market, and you can expect the same performance out of the HDC-TM900, HDC-SDT750, and HDC-SD800.
Still Image Quality
The Panasonic HDC-HS900's 14-megapixel stills are rather alluring, though there is one definitive caveat€”Interpolation. The 3 MOS sensors are only capable of producing an effective pixel count of 7.59-megapixels (3:2 aspect), which means the HDC-HS900 is internally enlarging or "blowing up" the image inside the camcorder. When you shoot at 14-megapixels, you can expect the same quality as shooting at 8.6-megapixels, the next step down. Just like the Panasonic HDC-HS700, the HDC-HS900 produced entry-level point-and-shoot quality images that displayed some textbook image aberrations. Overall, we would not recommend using it to replace your trusty pocket shooter.
2011 is an electrifying year for the consumer camcorder enthusiast. We have the Panasonic HDC-HS900, which improves upon the HDC-HS700 in regards to LCD, Interface, Image Stabilization, and a few overdue design tweaks. However, the Panasonic HDC-HS900 is not enough of a departure from last year's HDC-HS700 to make it a must-buy. If you can find an HDC-HS700 for less, then you will not be missing out on much, save the aforementioned characteristics of the HDC-900. There's also the HDC-TM900 and HDC-SD800, which feature the same image quality but lack the insane storage capacity. If you want to go 3D, Panasonic offers the HDC-SDT750, or you can buy the VW-CLT1 3D conversion lens. All of these camcorders will deliver the same imaging goods, so there is nothing to worry about in that department.
But a prodigious shadow lurks within the very near future. The Canon Vixia HF G10€”the most highly anticipated camcorder in years€”is mere days from arriving in our testing labs. This is the ultimate battle royale. Last year the Panasonic HDC-HS700 edged out Canon's flagship Vixia HF S21, but this year might be different. Canon dropped a bomb at CES and Panasonic might be in trouble. The only way to truly know is to wait for our review of the Canon Vixia HF G10, so sit tight for now. It's going to be one hell of a ride.