The second unpleasant surprise is the video quality. When you hear “high definition,” you expect what you see in the TV stores: breathtaking sharpness, stunning color.
Unfortunately, “high definition” refers only to the number of pixels in the picture — not how good they are. On these cameras, they’re not very good.
The Sony’s picture is distinctly soft, with none of the razor clarity you’d associate with hi-def — a victim of the compression Sony applies to the signal to make it fit onto its memory cards (which are, unfortunately, its own proprietary Memory Stick Duo format).
The Sanyo’s picture is much better, but there’s a catch. High-definition footage tends to magnify the effects of camera jitter, thanks to its wide horizontal orientation.
But on this camera, the stabilizer just doesn’t work very well, especially when you’re zoomed in.
The Panasonic is a three-chip camera, meaning that it has separate light sensors for the three primary video colors. In principle, that means superior color — and sometimes, that’s what you get. In bright light, like outdoors, this camera’s picture truly rocks; it looks as you’d expect hi-def to look.
This model also has what may be the best stabilizer ever on a camcorder; even when you’re fully zoomed in, the image is professionally rock steady.
Anything short of full-blown sunlight, though, and you lose not only the color brilliance but also the clarity. Indoors, the Panasonic is no better than the other two in reducing “noise”— dancing, grainy pixels.
Even so, the Panasonic SD9 is the winner in overall image quality and handling comfort, if not in actual tininess. Considering what you sacrifice when you choose any of these camcorders, that’s not really saying much. (The Panasonic also exhibits various design gaffes, like a power cord you can attach only by removing the battery, and a playback joystick that’s awkwardly placed inside the swiveling-screen cavity.)
Just remember that for about the same price, you could buy a camcorder like the Canon HV30. It’s bigger but still fits a coat pocket. It has all the right jacks, like microphone and headphone. It records onto commonly available MiniDV tapes, so you’ll never run out of storage halfway through your vacation. More important, it shoots high-definition video the way it was born to be: stunningly crisp, with incredible presence and nearly perfect color.
In short, it appears that no matter how many companies claim the title “world’s smallest hi-def camcorder,” what they mean is “world’s most compromised.”
David Pogue is a columnist for the New York Times and contributor to CNBC. He can be emailed at: email@example.com.