Last year we evaluated Sanyo's Xacti HD1, a palm-sized camcorder able to record 720p video to SD Cards. The verdict: promising concept but severely compromised video. The HD1's successor is now on shelves, and it's a much better buy. Few physical changes have been made, but a larger 7.38-megapixel CCD, improved low-light performance, and stronger compression combine to deliver significantly better video and a very good overall value. Just don't expect the same high-def quality that you get from more expensive HD camcorders.
The HD2 is housed in an 8.3-ounce pistol-grip shell with a 2.2-inch LCD; the package is almost exactly like that of the HD1. The camcorder is easy to use, with clear menus and big, obvious buttons to switch between standard and high def, as well as between regular and high light sensitivity.
The downside to the HD2's light weight is its instability; we had to keep two hands on the camera to minimize shaking, even with the image stabilization activated. This is expected from a camera this size, however, and if you want rock-solid shots, you can always attach the HD2 to a tripod or monopod.
We can't be kind to the HD1's video quality, which was frequently awful. Even bright sunlit conditions produced noise and artifacts. Low-light environments, like a regular living room, could barely be captured at all. The HD2 experience, however, is totally different. No one will confuse this tiny camcorder for a prosumer unit like the Canon HV20, but the footage this device captures looked very good. Sunlit shots were vibrant and nearly free of artifacts; only a light version of DVD edge enhancement betrayed the compression. And while low-light conditions resulted in added noise, the density was not so high that it overpowered any subject.
The device can record up to 21 minutes of 720p high-def video per gigabyte, which means you'll be able to fit 84 minutes of footage on a 4GB SD Card (about $70) or 168 minutes on an 8GB SD Card (about $100).
The HD2 added a definite digital quality to everything we shot, but the overall cast of the footage was analogous to the specific look of MiniDV and is no more distracting. This cam also offers significant perks. A speedy startup time (1.5 seconds) allows quick shooting from a dead stop. And you can quickly import video files to a PC or Mac; iPhoto and Picasa recognized the camera immediately, and dragging and dropping files was easy since the cam shows up as a removable drive.
The 38-380mm lens feels more constrained than we'd like; we kept wanting to widen out to 28mm. Be ready to do a lot of backing up to capture more than one person in the frame. The 10X optical zoom is powerful and sharp enough to make close-ups look good.
Once again, Sanyo has included a 1/8-inch external mic input, but the onboard mic proved surprisingly capable. In an average-sized room, voices were easily audible and clear, and we even recorded a rock band and experienced clipping only at the very loudest moments. For routine use, the mic is just fine.
Another upshot of the new CCD is better still-photo performance. We still wouldn't advocate replacing a dedicated still camera with any dual-mode device, but these photos are good enough for 4 x 6-inch prints, and video recording no longer hitches if you grab a snapshot while recording video. That's a big improvement over the HD1.
The HD2's battery ran dry after 80 minutes of shooting--on a par with the HD1 but just a tad shorter than similar units, thanks to the HD2's larger CCD and more intensive compression. That runtime is fine if you have a 4GB memory card, but you'll have to find an outlet if you have an 8GB card.
Sanyo hasn't changed everything that irritated us with the HD1. Primary is the placement of the flash, a pop-up unit right above the lens. The housing blocks some of the flash's light, so you'll see a shadow at the widest 38mm setting.
The in-camera editing system won't help you create a future YouTube opus, but the ability to set A/B points and delete the footage in between can help maximize storage. We also like that scanning through clips is easier on the HD2 than it was on the HD1.
The included dock is fitted with an HDMI port, so footage can easily be sent out to a compatible HDTV, and we found that the resulting display was often fantastic. (Note: An HDMI cable isn't included.) You can use the dock to transfer files and charge the camera. The included dongle is required to connect the cam without the dock, but it accommodates only AC and USB cables.
One obvious caveat: The 720p footage is encoded to MPEG-4 on the fly, so you don't get the same level of detail as you would from a 1080i camcorder, like the pricier Canon HV20 ($1,099) or Sony HDR-CX7 ($1,199). That said, Sanyo's new cam is far better than the last, to the point where the $700 list price looks like a bargain. We'd be happy to carry one to any event worth shooting.
Ten Quality Cameras You Can Afford
Want good-looking pictures without breaking the bank? We put the latest crop of digicams under $150 to the test.
Sanyo Xacti HD1 Review
The ultraportable HD1 promises the moon, but a swarm of limitations keeps this camcorder from making good on the offer.
Digital Cameras for All Levels
We review four digital cameras ranging in price and control level, and give you advice on how to take better pictures.