Panasonic HDC-HS100 HD Camcorder
At a Glance
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Offers great usability and control, but its image quality is merely decent.
In our roundup of high-definition camcorders for our December 2008 print issue, we called the Panasonic HDC-HS9 a disappointment, mainly because of its lackluster image quality. I'm glad to say that the newer Panasonic HDC-HS100 HD camcorder is a better camera than the HS9, with improved image quality and great usability.
However, the $1300 (as of 11/6/08) HS100 has only narrowed, not closed, the image-quality gap between its own video and that of the top HD camcorders in its class. If you disregard image quality, the HS100 is a clear winner--but it's hard to ignore a "small" thing like image quality, especially at this model's price.
The HS100 records HD video as AVCHD files onto a 60GB hard drive at four quality settings. The highest-quality setting records 17-mbps, 1920-by-1080 images at either 60 interlaced frames per second (60i, which definitely looks like video) or 24 progressive frames per second (24p, which looks more like film). The hard drive holds about 7.5 hours of 17-mbps video. The camera can also record to user-supplied SD/SDHC cards. In our testing, we evaluated 17-mbps video files.
While the HS9 had three underperforming 1/6-inch CCDs, the HS100 senses images on three higher-quality 1/6-inch CMOS chips. Under typical lighting conditions, HD image quality looked good--with noticeably better contrast and resolution than what the HS9 produced--but showed some extraneous noise. Colors appeared oversaturated, a hyped-up look that may appeal to some users but not to those looking for very accurate color reproduction. Its low-light video was fair (about the same as the HS9's low-light performance), with a noticeable amount of visual noise and a lack of sharpness.
Still images lacked the color, exposure, and distortion performance of some other HD camcorders. Overall, video and stills from the HS100 showed a bit less resolution and color accuracy than imagery from top-rated HD camcorders, but remained acceptable.
Image drawbacks aside, this camcorder is a pleasure to use. Beginners will quickly take to the automatic mode, which does an excellent job of optimizing the camera settings for the shooting environment. The menus are also very helpful for novices, as they include concise explanations of how and when to use the camera's features.
Experienced users will enjoy the broad array of manual controls, including zoom, focus, white balance, shutter, and aperture settings. They'll probably also appreciate the manual-control ring encircling the lens; it's like a lens-focus ring that you can turn to adjust other settings, too. Sounds odd, but it works great. Those on the professional end of the user spectrum will value the viewfinder, headphone, and microphone jacks, as well as the accessory shoe.
Everyone will welcome the 12X zoom lens, the smooth optical image stabilizer, the very good audio performance, the accurate (though sometimes slow) autofocus, the nearly 2-hour battery life (it lasted 1 hour, 59 minutes in tests), the bright 2.7-inch LCD, and the comprehensive 159-page printed user manual.
But few users will like the tiny control joystick stuck on the right side of the camera, which is placed too awkwardly to use effectively. And that's saying nothing of the poorly placed HDMI, USB, and DC power ports, which are all hidden behind the battery.
On the software side, Panasonic bundles HD Writer 2.6E, a limited but functional Windows-only editing application. Mac users can edit the HS100's AVCHD video with iMovie '08. On either platform you'll want to use a computer built around a 2-GHz Intel Core Duo or better processor, as well as at least a couple of gigabytes of RAM.
If the images from Panasonic's HDC-HS100 equaled the camcorder's great handling and usability, this model would be a clear winner. The HS100 provides the best controls we've seen in a small HD camcorder, but the images lag behind those of AVCHD camcorders such as the Sony Handycam HDR-SR12 and Canon Vixia HF10 camcorders--and those models offer decent usability, to boot.