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December 18, 2007

A tale of two cameras: Panasonic SD5 versus Sanyo Xacti HD1000

Please note, this blog has been archived and now lives at www.discretecosine.com

This review has been a long time coming. Now that the students are safely nestled away in their bunks, I can turn my attention to what really matters. The duel of the century. The battle to end all battles. The moderately-priced supposedly-hd direct-to-memory camcorder showdown! It's the Panasonic HDC-SD5 versus the Sanyo Xacti HD1000.

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Read on for the inside scoop.

In many ways, these cameras are very similar. Both record 1080i images to SD memory cards using an H.264 derivative. Both have full raster 1920x1080 imagers.

Let's look at some differentiating factors then.

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Form Factor
This is a pretty clear difference. Sanyo has gone with the pistol-grip form factor common to their entire Xacti line, while Panasonic has stuck with a more traditional (if very, very small) camcorder form factor.

I've got to say, this one is a hands down win for the Sanyo. I find the Panasonic to be very uncomfortable, difficult to pocket, and awkward to use. In comparison, the Sanyo - while not quite as nice as some of the lesser Xacti products due to the giant lens - is a joy to use. You can easily transition from chest level shooting to eye-level shooting, something that just isn't possible with the Panasonic.

Controls and Feedback
Controls and user-interface are areas in which I give both cameras a fail. Neither has an intuitive menu system, both take far too many clicks to accomplish basic tasks, and even after a few weeks of using them, I'm still getting hung up.

Both have decent, good-sized screens, with the Panasonic being slightly better saturated than the Sanyo. The Panasonic has an integrated, automatic lens cap, which is very nice (until it gets full of sand and stops working). The Sanyo is a traditional cap.

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Image Quality
Both of these cameras shoot 1920x1080 images. But there's a big difference. The Sanyo uses a single CMOS sensor, while the Panasonic has three CCDs. The result is that the Panasonic images tend to be slightly more detailed and less noisy. The Panasonic does particularly well in low-light, at least compared to the very, very noisy Sanyo.

The truth is that both cameras are let down by their compression scheme, so it's difficult to evaluate. I imagine both are capable of far better quality than is seen on the computer screen.

Workflow
While both cameras use an H.264 derived compression scheme, there are many differences. The Panasonic uses the AVC-HD standard, which in theory means it will be compatible with many modern NLEs. Indeed, I had good success with both iMovie 08 and Final Cut Pro 6.0.2.

The Sanyo is a different story. They make no claims about AVC-HD compatibility, and the result is a bit of a mess. The files it produces in 1080i60 mode are unreadable by Quicktime, VLC and pretty much every other player. Apparently things are slightly better in the Windows world, but not much. The 720p files it produces play fine, but at that point, why not buy the less expensive Xacti HD2? Sanyo doesn't have much in the way of support, so one wonders how they expect end users to deal with discovering that their footage is unviewable.

Because of this, I ended up doing some resolution tests with the Panasonic running in 1920x1080 mode, and the Sanyo in 720p60 mode. The results were very interesting. Even though the Sanyo was running at a lower resolution, it seemed to be the clear victor. It easily hit 700 lines both vertically and horizontally, while the Panasonic struggled to reach 600. Clearly though, the Panasonic was being let down by the compression scheme.

Sd5 Resolution
Panasonic resolution

Sanyo 30P Resolution Chart
Sanyo Resolution

(Ignore the white balance difference, both had difficulties under studio lighting)

The truth is, neither is going to challenge any of the HDV cameras on the market. While they're probably fine for casual use, or for web-delivered content, both exhibit such severe compression artifacts as to make their HD clains a bit of a stretch.

Other features and accessories
Both cameras include an assortment of accessories. In the case of the Sanyo, it's a rather nice docking station with HDMI output, power and USB connectivity. For the Panasonic, it's a rather odd DVD-burner attachment. The DVD burner can be used to burn the contents of the SD memory card to a DVD, though not in any viewable format. It's strictly for archive - so that you can make room on your SD card to shoot more, without having to connect to a computer. It's very clunky to use, slow to burn and I have trouble imagining its use in the field.

The Sanyo has one extra feature that deserves special note - external audio input. While it's only a mini-jack, it means you can hook up a real microphone and use the Sanyo for basic sit down interviews and the like.

Overall
Truth is, neither of these cameras blew me away. The Panasonic in particular, was a huge disappointment. It wasn't any fun to shoot with, the quality was subpar and there are loads of 'quirks' which made it a hassle. The Sanyo would do better if they'd stuck to a standard for their files. However, I was a big fan of the Xacti HD1A, and I hope they continue with the product line.

The redeeming value is the microphone input. If you're looking for something to produce decent 'talking head' footage for the web, it may suit your needs.

Both cameras are available now - figure around $700 for the Sanyo, and closer to $900 for the Panasonic.

Sample Footage
I'm not sure how I'm going to handle footage for this yet, as it's difficult to compare the 720p Sanyo footage to the 1080i Panasonic. Maybe I'll just compare them both at a scaled down baseline. Check back for more.

Posted by at December 18, 2007 12:25 PM | Reviews

Comments

Very interesting comparison; thank you. Many of us have been waiting for a 720p60 camera. It's intriguing that the Sanyo at 720p was able to hold its own with the Panny at 1080i. With the high compression ratios being used, a lot of consumer camcorders would produce better picture quality at 720p if this mode were offered, one would think.

Regarding the MPEG-4 format and codecs, it appears that this is becoming an industry standard for tapeless camcorders, although the compression ratio is said to approach 40:1, which obviously creates artifacts. Is this a huge mistake ... or will a second generation of MPEG-4 with better codecs and higher bitrates solve the quality problem? Guess I'll wait and see, instead of buying any of them now.

Posted by: Jim Haygood at January 12, 2008 2:02 PM