Panasonic’s SD80 offers some ample specs in a small, reasonably priced package. It comes with 1080i/60fps AVCHD video, 3 megapixel stills, a ton of features, and easy-to-use controls. However, something’s got to give and in the SD80’s case, that something is low-light performance, speed, and color reproduction. Read on for the good, the bad, and the ugly.
What it Does Right
Ease of Use:
The SD80 is easy and intuitive to use thanks to a well-balanced combination of physical and touch-screen controls. All the right buttons are mostly in the right places. The zoom control is smooth, sensitive and falls right under your index finger on the top of the camera. The record button, while a little awkwardly placed, is firm and tough to press by mistake.
The real gem of the control set, though, is the iA/Manual button. The camcorder defaults to Intelligent Auto mode for easy shooting, but if you want a little more control, a push of the button switches to manual and brings up the manual-control menu on the left side of the touch-screen. Menus for light control and shooting modes are easy to navigate with your thumb. Changes to exposure appear in real-time on the LCD, too. Controls this smooth are likely to make users a little more adventurous when it comes to experimenting with advanced settings.
Other usage highlights include easy battery access, a lens cover that opens automatically (although you have to remember to close it), and 270 degrees of LCD rotation for shooting at any angle.
The SD80 definitely packs a fully loaded feature set. The image stabilizer is impressive even at the 42x telephoto end of the zoom range. Face recognition focus is almost instantaneous, and even offers an option to register familiar faces into the camera's memory so that they’ll be a focus priority whenever they're in the frame. The Intelligent Auto is slow to react (more on that below), but does a good job of normalizing your footage in various lighting conditions.
Great touchscreen features include touch-to-zoom and especially touch-to-focus. Auto subject-tracking is always helpful, the on-camera light is bright and effective, and the sound quality from the built-in microphone is remarkable. A definite favorite here is the Focus Assist feature. When moving through the focal range in manual focus mode, the LCD highlights your subject in blue when it comes into sharp focus. This is great for a filmic look and even artistic switches between two subjects. The bottom line here is the SD80 has a ton of features and most of them actually do their job: Making shooting easier.
What it Gets Wrong:
Panasonic touts the power of their Crystal Engine Pro processor and it certainly does provide very smooth zooms and almost instantaneous facial recognition. Unfortunately, all the power and speed of the processor is apparently dedicated to those two functions. As mentioned before, the Intelligent Auto works rather well on this camcorder… after it has time to kick in. Lots of time. Like 10 to 12 seconds.
This is easy to counter with some pre-planning. But if your subject moves around frequently -- think kids, pets, sports matches -- be ready to see some sudden, noticeable changes in lighting, white balance and sharpness. Quick panning typically results in a blue, flashing error message on the LCD, and casuses tearing, smearing, and motion artifacts when viewed in playback.
The SD80 also needs some time to find focus in close-up zoom shots. It's easy to speed through the massive zoom range, but it takes a little while to lock into real details. Users who are patient, smooth, careful, and prepared can pretty good results out of this camcorder, but it's less worthy of shooting action or just shooting around.
As HD video becomes standardized, manufacturers are striving for the ultimate sharp, crisp look. Somehow this has translated into many camcorders producing a very white, almost bluish color-grade in their automatic settings. In testing, the SD80 fell into this mold again and again. Even under yellow-tinted lights, shooting a subject wearing orange, the camcorder managed to sterilize and whiten the colors. The detail and clarity were there (at least in bright light) but the color reproduction is simply not accurate.
When making a movie, a camera should capture the nuance and emotion of color. Recorded memories should feel familiar, realistic, and warm. A sterile whitewash doesn’t help in either of these cases.
In full, bright light, the SD80’s HD video looks like it’s worth its $400 or $500 price tag. The picture is crisp, clean and clear. Unfortunately, it isn't always possible or desirable to shoot in the noonday sun or under bright, white halogen bulbs. Without either of those around, this camcorder really, really struggles. In testing, the SD80 didn’t produce a single indoor shot without noise. And we’re not talking pretty, filmic grain. This noise looks exactly like it sounds: static-y and awful.
Also, “indoor” here does not refer to a romantically lit restaurant. Under very normal, light bulb-produced levels of light, the SD80 starts to lose detail, and develops a lot of grit. Darker than that, shots just get ugly. In what are generally considered "low-light conditions," there is almost no detail in playback, objects are hard to recognize and the intense amounts of noise distort with motion to make the image look like a bad watercolor painting. The on-camera light helps somewhat, but looks like a spotlight on the subject. If low-light performance is a major concern, consider this deal broken.
Panasonic’s HD Reader AE 3.0 software is supposed to make importing, editing and uploading from their cameras very quick and easy. It probably does with a PC, but I tested this camera on my Mac, and the software is in no way compatible. Even putting the SD card into a MacBook Pro’s card reader didn’t automatically access the footage. If you’re running a Mac, you’ll have to import through iMovie, track down your files to convert them, and then start editing. Final Cut Pro didn’t recognize the camera at all. [Ed. note: The SD80 records in AVCHD format by default, which does not play nice with older Macs. iMovie '09 and onward should be fine, but check compatibility with your system of choice.]
If you’re looking for a mid-range HD camcorder that’s really easy to use and has a lot of features to help out shooting, then maybe give the SD80 a try. However, if image quality means more to you than resolution, look elsewhere. This camcorder’s poor low-light performance and slow reactions are major issues at this price point.