Panasonic HDC-SD90 review
1/4.1in CMOS sensor, 1,920x1,080, 26.0x zoom, 244g
Panasonic's HDC-SD90 mid-range HD camcorder replaces last year's Best-Buy-winning Panasonic HDC-SD60. The camcorder feels tiny - it's the height of a can of Coke but skinny as a Red Bull. The SD90 records on SD cards only, but you can fit up to a 64GB SDXC card; though that will set you back £125, and so we'd recommend just carrying around a bunch of £15 16GB SDHC cards, which still have room for one hour and twenty minutes of video at the camcorder's highest-quality settings.
The SD90 weighs just 285g with the battery fitted, and is comfortable to hold - the padded strap is easy on the back of your hand and the carbon-fibre-effect side panel is pleasantly grippy. Unlike its predecessor, the SD60, there are no hardware controls under the display - instead everything is done with the touchscreen. The menu system is easy to use, and there's full manual control over shutter and aperture, so you can play with the balance between motion blur and exposure if desired. When using manual focus, it's tricky to tell on the LCD display when everything is sharp. Thankfully, the SD90 helps you out by highlighting in-focus parts of the frame in blue.
The SD90's optics also differ. Instead of a 35mm-equivalent minimum focal length of 35.7mm, it has a wider-angle 28mm - better for capturing vistas. The trade-off is a lower 729mm maximum focal length. After this you move into digital zoom, which can make your video an over-compressed mess. However, like the SD60, the SD90 has what Panasonic calls Intelligent Zoom. This uses a set of clever algorithms to compensate for the information lost when you crop into an image digitally. We found it worked fairly well. When zooming into an object to the camcorder's maximum 40x range (optical + digital) and comparing it to the same scene shot with optical zoom only, the Intelligent Zoom footage had more noise and compression but was significantly better than we were expecting at such a high level of digital zoom.
Using the maximum zoom also showed off the SD90's hybrid optical and digital image stabilisation. Even when shooting handheld film at 40x zoom, footage was almost completely steady. The camcorder sometimes failed to differentiate between deliberate and accidental movement, so would move rapidly away from our target, but this only happened occasionally. We also tested the camcorder on a vibrating platform, and hardly any of the shaking motion translated into our footage.