Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Panasonic HDC HS9 product review

We've got a new 1080p camcorder yesterday - Panasonic HDC HS9, just in time for the summer vacation season.

This thing has got to be a technological marvel - it captures and encodes video in 1080p format - it hasn't been more than 2 years when your typical computer could not even PLAY in this resolution, let alone record. This records full resolution on the fly, and stores the results on a 60GB hard drive.

Good things first.

The specs are great for the price - 1080p recording, 3 CCDs, 60GB hard drive. It is also small and light - the size of a palm. It produces very decent videos outdoors, in full daylight (but see below).

The sound it records is excellent - really. 5.1 surround sound, and it really truly sounds like a good 5.1 surround recording.

And it is relatively inexpensive at ~$750.

The best thing about this camera is the convenient output - it basically produces BluRay disk file structure. You can copy the directory from the camcorder and drop it on the PowerDVD HD window, and it just plays. The interface is USB, it appears as an external hard drive, so it's drag and drop to save the files, and then drag and drop to play them. Very nice.

Now, the bad things. In general, the design of this thing is terrible - across the board. I am sorry to say this, but the UI designers for it were idiots - there's no other word to describe this.

For starters, the USB connector is behind the LCD screen. So to connect it to a PC one has to open the screen, peel away a little plastic cover, and connect the USB cable. And while it is connected, the LCD screen stays open. If you drag the cable and it falls on the floor, the screen is almost guaranteed to break off.

This is not all. If you have it connected to a PC, you MUST have it on external power - it cannot use USB, OR its own battery. Now the power connector is behind the battery - to connect it, you have to take the battery away.

So when you're copying the files, you have two cables plugged into the thing, the little plastic USB slot cover hanging on its plastic strip, the LCD screen is open, and the battery is lying to the side. What a mess.

This of course also means that the you can't charge the battery while it's inside the camcorder. You have to take it out and insert it into the charger. You might hope that you can charge it while copying the images from the camera, but no. The charger does not charge the battery if the camera is plugged in. How silly is this?

It actually does matter. The thing produces ~1.3GB every 10 minutes, and the battery resource is ~70 minutes, after which it takes 1.5 hours to charge. Also, 1.3GB video takes roughly 2.5 minutes to copy off to the PC, so for 70 minutes worth it is another 20 minutes. If they were to allow charging while camcorder is connected, it would mean 20% savings in time it takes to get the camcorder ready to shoot again.

Now, there IS space on the case where the connectors - power and USB - might have belonged more logically. This space is used by an enormous SD card slot. According to the manual, the purpose of SD card slot is to shoot where the hard disk cannot be used - at the elevations of above 3000 meters (for Seattleites, it's just below Camp Muir on Mount Rainier), or in high-vibration environments such as a dance club.

I would much rather have SD slot hidden, and the USB connector exposed, on the expectation that most people would be using the hard disk most of the time, and even when they do use the SD card they would still use USB to transfer the data.

Speaking of the manuals... real men don't use them, do they? Well, I'd love to see a real man using THIS camcorder :-). Without reading the manual, this thing is utterly useless. Looking at the menu system, you cannot ever guess what is where. The time settings for example are spread across two menus - setting the time and the time zone (which is not called time zone by the way) is in "Basic" menu, setting the time format is in "Setup".

I still did not find where one changes video options such as low light settings - the camcorder offers it as a prompt when it detects the low light situations, and this is how I select it, but I have no idea how to find it in the menus. Neither I know how to turn the light on for the low-light setting. I didn't get to it in the manual yet.

These are the glaring UI problems - there are plenty of minor nits. For example, the charger shows a green LED when it charges, and it goes out when the charging is done. Most consumer electronics things that I owned either blink the LED when it charges, or show the yellow LED that goes green when the charging is done.

The UI problems transcend the device itself.

The software tries to use skins, except the message boxes that it shows are not skinned. They are just plain stupid Windows message boxes and look out of place in the UI that otherwise tries to look like a media player. And they are everywhere - any action brings up a message box (you click on "transfer video" button - the message box opens saying "Transfer video?" (Yes/No)). Kinda like Vista, only worse.

The default location where software copies the data - on XP at least - is "All Users\My Documents\My Pictures". Good luck finding this in YOUR "My Documents" folder after this. Both videos and pictures go there, in a strange structure - the videos for example are in the PRIVATE folder. How DID they know what it was I was shooting?!

There are a few seemingly arbitrary limitations in the software - it plays media from the SD card (while it is in the unit), but not from the unit's hard disk, for example. Instead it for some reason does support playing it from a DVD. Why bother with this piece of functionality?

The error paths in the software are not tested. This is what it produces when you try to install it on Media Center.

A worse problem than the terrible UI is its performance in the low-light situations. As I wrote it records excellent videos in daylight. But in the evening the videos become grainy and blurry at the same time, as if it had problems with auto-focus. Here is a frame from a video shot at daylight:

And here's one taken during the evening (yes, I was using the low light mode):

I must admit though I do not have a frame of reference on this though - I don't know how other camcorders perform in similar situations. The review on Amazon says that Sony produces equally terrible images in low light conditions.

So net/net I would give it 3.5 stars out 5 - just barely enough to not contemplate returning it back where I got it from.

1 comment:

Dzembu Gaijin said...

well... What is a main goal of this HD footage? If this is just family memories I would go for small and simple , but raged solid state device, may be with HD that produce MP4 files. I am not sure what such cameras are for: they ugly and complex, probably fragail, but do not have PRO features, also editing will be most likly hard work, compare to some what more managable collection of short clips. Hm... Say why not SANYO HD700 for example? Or HD 1000 with better lenses ? Or like fuck HD and get a water proof E1: 640x480 30 fps in MP4 1h20min per GB and you can get 8G card for 50$. Hm... It takes ok pix too if you need ;-) fit you pocket so you will Cary and use it