Review: HDC-SD9

I went ahead an ordered the new Panasonic HDC-SD9 camcorder for the trip to Nepal. Fully aware of the trouble people have had with AVCHD camcorders I still wanted to go ahead and try the new 1080p technology myself. Now that I have gotten plenty of hands-on experience with the camcorder I decided to write a short review.

Some general comments on the camcorder:

  • Video quality is what I expected, but I’m looking for a good player for the living room (maybe PS3?)
  • Battery life is better than I thought, but running out of battery corrupts the file system
  • Accessing some of the controls is pretty awkward
    • zoom is fast, but the switch is too far back for my index finger so zooming out tends to shake the camcorder
    • viewing videos on the camcorder screen is hard because camcorder is pretty small and joystick is positioned on the side
    • USB is tucked under a lid quite inconviniently
  • Holding by one hand tires the hand pretty quickly
    • bigger heavier cameras are easier to support two-handed  
  • no HDMI cable included
  • HD Writer software is bit slow and not very intuitive

  

I was initially intrigued by the new shooting assist functions. As is, the Intelligent Shooting Guide (ISG) is somewhat useful. It attempts to show relevant warning messages on the LCD screen whenever it is too dark for optimal results or if the camcorder can not focus for some reason. Some of the messages include:   

  • Dark Scene
  • Fast Tilt/Pan
  • Hand Swing
  • Low Light
  • Ground Shooting
  • Unfocused

As a first time handheld camcorder user I found the guiding helpful. Camcorder is just so light that it is easy to move it too rapidly and “Fast Pan”-message is the one you are the most likely to encounter in normal lighting conditions. When it is dim “Dark scene” comes to play. AVCHD encoding is very unforgiving in low light conditions and does not handle fast movement very well so these directions can become a lifesaver. Earlier I have often used a tripod and heavier equipment so at least in the beginning it is nice that the camcorder reminds to slow down the pace.

To be honest I think the camcorder could give even more information. For a total newbie tips on avoiding excessive zooming or panning could come in helpful. Additionally 16:9 is a new format for me so even compositional cues might be helpful. SD9’s face detection is used to gain better focus. The algorithm used can track multiple faces at a time. The same hardware could be used to generate nice harmonious compositions.

To be frank I was not very optimistic of guiding’s value initially. I now understand that adding these functions was somewhat forced by challenges with the underlying encoding technology. Shooting assist function is a good way for the manufacturer to avoid excessive backlash from beginners unhappy with full-hd image quality. I think the idea was sincere and all in all the concept could be a starting point for an evolution towards some even more useful features in camcorders.

As far as video automation goes the SD9 is really not all that well suited for integration. There are serious workflow issues with the included software and there are only limited open interfaces available. Workflow relies solely on Panasonic’s own HD Writer software. It is possible to watch captured video in the Easy Editing mode. Software really is not all that handy as a cataloguing tool since you can not tag files in any way. The only information available is the date and time clip was shot.

In playback mode with PC Connect selected the camcorder is recognized as a USB remote drive in Windows XP. Unfortunately camcorder requires removing the battery and connecting to mains power. USB connector is also hidden unconviniently under a lid. Consequently I would suggest buying a separate card reader (bundles with SDHC cards available!).

As far as I understand HD Writer can not be controlled from the command-line. Theoretically one could try to write a script for fetching files from the camera automatically, but the directory structure of the camera is quite confusing.

  • DCIM
    • 100CDPFQ
      • IMGA00000.JPG ( = images)
  • MISC
    • AUTPRINT.MRK ( = general information on the on the camcorder)
  • PRIVATE
    • AVCHD
      • AVCHDTN
        • THUMB.TDT
        • THUMB.TID
      • BDMV
        • CLIPINF
          • 00000.CPI
        • PLAYLIST
          • 00000.MPL
        • STREAM
          • 00000.MTS (= videos)
        • INDEX.BDM
        • MOVIEOBJ.BDM
      • IISVPL
        • 00000.VPL 

The .MTS files are the video payload. The file is a MPEG2 transport stream file wrapper with H.264 encoded video and AC-3 audio. It seems .VPL, .BDM and .MPL files bundle the clips into shoots and contents of the SD. Unfortunately these bundling files can (and do) corrupt due to unknown reasons (battery running out, but also something more random). Consequently all files will not get uploaded to computer when you get home. The files with .CPI extension seem to be file metadata for similarly named .MTS files.

There is no way to capture live stream using USB since the camera needs to be in the playback position to connect. I haven’t tried yet, but the HDMI port could possibly be used to capture live video with a HDMI capture card.

15 Responses to “Review: HDC-SD9”


  1. 1 spokentext March 19, 2008 at 9:31 pm

    On a Mac, Final Cut will read the raw files from the card as long as you have not used the lousy Panasonic software to move them to your computer. Which changes the directory structure.

    And there are a few cheap tools to convert them to Apples Intermediate codec which are quite handy.

    But on the PC, you are right in that the existing tools suck. And the files are hard to edit.

    Great post.

    Mark

  2. 2 fideocam March 20, 2008 at 12:45 am

    Thanks,
    More good intelligence is always welcome! I noticed the directory structural changes you mentioned. Each capture date has a folder named DDMMYY_# with MISC and PRIVATE folders inside. Of course that is not where it stops. The wise Panasonic engineers have decided that the AVCHD folder has to be renamed to AVCHDL. I also found it quite odd that the HDWRITER folder is in the Shared Images folder in XP.

  3. 3 fideocam April 4, 2008 at 11:21 am

    Namaste,
    I just got back from trekking in Nepal. In the bush I amassed more than two weeks of 12 hours a day of hands on experience. The biggest problem I ran into was that the camcorder file database got corrupted when the battery ran out and the recovery script failed twice. I did not notice any low battery warnings before hand and it seems that some of the most important clips captured at the Annapurna Base Camp will be hard to recover. The .MTS files are on the memory card, but I can’t figure out how to import them to Panasonic’s native environment.

  4. 4 Matthew April 8, 2008 at 3:17 am

    Have you tried Voltaic to convert the .MTS files? It outputs .WMV (yuck) & .AVI on PC, & Apple Intermediate Coded (AIC) on the Mac.

    http://www.shedworx.com

  5. 5 fideocam April 10, 2008 at 9:03 am

    I tried VoltaicHD, but it really isn’t what I’m looking for. I just don’t think transcoding is the right answer. Stripping files of hard-to-demux wrappers could be interesting, but there is no point in loosing image quality decoding and encoding.

    I’m looking for a tool to mend the HDWriter database. Ultimately I would like a home video archive tool to replace HDWriter alltogether. To build such a tool myself I would need a DirectShow .MTS decoder filter compatible with Panasonic AVCHD files. I suppose Shedworx has built one?

  6. 6 South April 18, 2008 at 5:06 am

    Can you post some samples of your movies from your trip?

  7. 7 fideocam April 20, 2008 at 6:52 pm

    I just noticed the database corruption has also happened in other instances not related to battery running out. I strongly suggest everybody using the HDC-SD9 camcorder to compare the contents of the camcorder’s stream directory with content copied to computer hard disc. It seems there are many files getting lost due to trouble with the corrupted .MPL playlis or .VPL files.

    Regarding the samples: I will see if I have something that I could share. Is .MTS ok or should I transcode it?

  8. 8 Serguei May 25, 2008 at 7:02 am

    Are you sure that data corruption occurs due to camcorder problem. Couldn’t it be the SDHC card problem?

    I have this camcorder too and now I’m looking for a way to store videos in its original format to be played back on the same unit. There is some info on the Net that the file structure on the card is similar to that one on a BlueRay discs.

  9. 9 fideocam May 25, 2008 at 10:26 am

    Hi Serguei,
    Of course the metadata corruption issue could be due to number of issues. However I doubt it is a SDHC issue since there are no glitches in the video payloads. The trouble is not so much that the metadata saving fails when running out of juice, but the fact that camcorder is not very good at recovering from such a problem.

  10. 10 jaycam June 17, 2008 at 1:30 am

    Just got this camera and it’s not bad in all regards considering it’s only $550. It’s not the best in low light but will suffice and there is a little vibration in shots with lots of movement especially in the lower quality sttings, but even my HDX 900 needs some light. I did not encounter corrupt or missing data after the battery died. I’ll be testing again (because you guys got me worried now) letting the camera run down while recording. The included software is ok for what it does and even offers mpg file conversion to use in DVD burning, though I have yet to see what that looks like. Hooking up the camera live to a monitor via HDMI works great. And about taking the battery off it’s simple – turn off the camera switch, the lens cover will close then take the battery off. Oh and the files import and play perfectly in the formidable Vegas Pro 8b (love that program and yes have used FCP & Avid). I just took out the card popped it in the reader then imported the files. The other thing I really like is taking the SD card out of the camera and slipping it into my new Pani’s Blu-ray drive, showing all of your recorded clips and playing them nicely.

  11. 11 Jasmin August 7, 2008 at 11:35 pm

    I just came back from shooting in Samoa… I bought the video camera as a back up camera just incase, not bringing any software to download the info off the SD card. Anyways, I ended up needing it as the main camera. I downloaded the video information directly onto my external harddrive, and now that I’m trying to obtain alllll the video that I’ve shot, I can’t because all the info to view the video on my computer is AVCHD and i think it needs to be AVCHDL. How can I convert it? Can I? Help!

  12. 12 hdcsd9 August 26, 2008 at 7:59 pm

    hi friends,

    try using nero ultra hd edition 8. it edits and plays avchd files directly. you can also convert avchd files in nero vision 5 in order for you to edit them your clips on other softwares. i hope this helps.

  13. 13 moremore November 11, 2008 at 12:01 pm

    ¿Is there a way to restore back the files stored in the PC to the SD camera again? I did it with copy/paste in the SD and the camera does not find the files due to the directory changes. But the included software HD writer does not allow it either.
    I do not find a way to play on my TV the content stored on my PC (my laptop does not has processor enought to play the files fluently).

    Thanks and kind regards,

  14. 14 fideocam November 11, 2008 at 9:49 pm

    Hiya moremore,

    I don’t have HD Writer installed anymore, but I recall that there is an option to output back to SD. Now if you haven’t imported the files with HD Writer software I think you are out of luck. I don’t think there is any way to create the necessary metadata file. I would just upgrade the laptop and play the files in VLC. I would assume that some kind of dedicated video players will also come to market in a year or two. At least I’m looking forward to buying a nice DLNA AVCHD renderer.


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