The Panasonic SD40 entry-level, high-definition camcorder is certainly affordable, but be prepared to get what you pay for. The SD40 looks and feels cheap and is troublesome in anything but bright sunlight. It has no built in memory and is essentially featureless. However, it is still a super-cheap HD camcorder with a decent zoom range and a strong optical image stabilizer, so it might work for some prospective buyers.
We've found that Panasonic camcorders, including the SD40, definitely have one thing going for them: the optical image stabilization (POWER O.I.S. as Panasonic calls it). Even all the way at the 16.8x end of the zoom range the SD40 delivered rock steady, super-smooth shots. The difference between stabilized and un-stabilized images with this camcorder is like night and day and in testing. So if you’re planning on running up and down the sidelines while you shoot this may be a good pick on a budget.
Also, while the zoom range isn’t huge, it’s pretty effective and incredibly smooth. In testing there were no bumps, sticks, or wiggles while zooming and motor noise was non-existent in playback.
Ease of Use
The SD40 is geared for automatic operation, and as such is easy to use. Power it up, press the Intelligent Auto button, and shoot away. The Auto mode on this camcorder isn’t the quickest or most responsive option out there, but it handles focus and exposure duties fairly well.
Quick, extreme changes in light definitely reveal lag in processing but for the most part, shooting with the SD40 is worry-free. There is a slight learning curve when it comes to navigating menus and changing settings, but after some practice, the interface and menu titles are easy to understand. However, options like the auto Scene Mode are buried a little deeper than they ought to be and changing settings on the fly is tricky.
As for major controls like Record and Zoom, while they feel plastic-y and cheap (more on that later), they are well-located and easy to reach with one hand. There is also a nice two-position switch for recording and reviewing modes, which is a little nicer and more natural than a standard push-button. Finally, the SD40 feels like it weighs about as much as a rice cake, so no worries about adding weight to your purse or daypack.
Simply put, Panasonic needs to step up when it comes to image quality. With the growing popularity of HD video-capable dSLR still cameras, people have an image in mind that Panasonic isn’t even approaching. The SD40 shoots 1080i videos that look more akin to movies shot with compact cameras.
In bright sunlight the SD40 delivered sharp, crisp images. There was minor blurring in fine details with motion, and colors were washed out, but overall things looked pretty good. However images became painfully grainy in even slightly dimmer light -- we're talking indoors, in the afternoon, with plenty of overhead light. It isn't pretty, cinematic grit either. It's tons of dirty grain and a blurry haze that made videos look like they were shot under water.
In truly low light, almost all detail, contrast, and color was lost. There is a rolling shutter mode for low-light situations, but it’s buried a few menu items deep, and the resulting footage is so choppy and laggy that you might as well just leave the SD40 off if you find yourself in the dark. If you don’t mind the spotlight look of the on-camera lamp, that could be an option.
All of that said, Panasonic’s more expensive SD80 (reviewed here) barely outperforms the SD40 when it comes to image quality, so if you’re trying to choose between the two, save yourself the hundred bucks and go with the SD40.
Body and Design
As mentioned earlier, the SD40 looks and feels remarkably cheap. In fact, it kind of resembles the toy cameras and phones you might find in a drugstore. An all-plastic makes the camcorder extremely light, but it also makes it feel like it’s going to crack if you pack it carelessly or squeeze it too hard. It would be surprising if the SD40 could survive even one drop.
Our durability concerns extend to the controls as well. The main control buttons feel loose and flimsy. Hopefully they'll hold up over time. Also, you’re going to have to remember to open and close the lens cover every time you use the camera. At least the display and its hinge feel sturdy and solid.
Another major design drawback is the lack of any internal memory. The SD40 records exclusively to cards, though the otherwise-identical TM40 comes with some built-in storage.
Finally, as is the case with many consumer camcorders these days, the SD40’s bundled sharing software is not compatible with Mac. Mac users already have iMovie, but importing from the SD40 is painfully slow.
The SD40 is not an affordable camcorder -- it is a cheap camcorder. The flimsy build quality and rough video quality make it tough to recommend as a primary camcorder. It makes more sense to either save up a little more money and buy a nicer HD camcorder with an extra feature or two, or spend less and go with a more convenient pocket cam. However, the SD40’s low weight, strong image stabilizer, and smooth zoom might make it an ideal beater camera for hiking, or maybe filming sports up-close -- just don't drop it.