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Good camcorder, but not without issues. (updated)
on 22 May 2011
After having quite an unpleasant experience with this camcorder, I thought I'd shed light on the issues I've faced in the hope that Panasonic may look into them and investigate. I thought I'd also create an insight for any potential buyers out there who may be particularly sensitive to these sorts of issues.
The issues stated here are based on the comparison of the TM700 I previously owned and two SD900's, one of which is a replacement.
As stated, I've already briefly owned two of these camcorders and subsequently discovered serious flaws with both, as a result the second one will also be returned. I will be asking for a third and final replacement and if the issues remain I shall be asking for a refund.
The first and most serious issue I've discovered is where the image sharpness falls, sometimes quite significantly to the left hand side of the recording at widest angle. Test footage made recording a flat wall at equal distance demonstrates this issue accurately. The only way to correct the problem is to use manual focus, but even then it takes the right hand side of the picture out of focus, it's either one or the other, it's impossible to get the footage sharp across the whole field. This issue was picked up in a professional review recently made for the TM900, which is identical to the SD900 other than the built in 32 GB of flash memory. I can confirm that this issue exists on both of the SD900's I've owned the second one being worse (and which is why it will be returned to Amazon.) It seems that the issue could either be an unidentified autofocus issue or a defect/misalignment in one of the lens elements, there's no way of knowing for sure, but either could be a likely candidate. All I can say is that my TM700 never exhibited this issue, and I've not seen anyone ever report these problems of the more popular 700 series, so the problem seems to have been introduced with the new models.
I've noticed that the auto-focus system at the longest end of the telephoto range sometimes 'shimmers' like as if it's constantly hunting for focus long after it should've already been obtained, it's quite distracting and certainly abnormal to behave like this. Whether or not this is related to the above issue is hard to know.
The next issue I've noticed is with the zoom mechanism itself. There's a vibration noise that transmits to the built in mic once the zoom motor operates, when it reaches max telephoto the mechanism makes a loud rattling noise. Both devices had this issue, but the replacement was considerably worse. Again, this certainly wasn't prevalent with the TM700. I've noticed a few people on various forums who have had this problem with their TM900's and there's a video on Youtube of someone clearly reproducing the problem. I'm sure the first advice people will offer is to buy an external mic, fair point yes, but the mic is actually quite good on this camcorder already and is being spoilt by abnormal noises and vibrations from the camera which shouldn't be there in the first place, it's also not always convenient to carry a mic around when space is an issue. This leads me on to the next point, the fan noise.
It's definitely there, but I've noticed the fan noise varies from one device to the next; the first SD900 fan noise was horrific, so bad that it could be heard in all of my footage, I would even go as far to say that it may have been loud enough to be picked up with an extermal mic too. The replacement is much quieter and is barely audible, which leads me to suspect that Panasonic have silently changed to a quieter fan model due to continued complaints, or are just using mix and match components from various suppliers, which could explain the variation from one device to the next.
Last but not least, I've noticed the colour balance seems to vary from one device to the next; the first possessed a cool neutral colour balance while the latter hosted a warmer colour balance, much closer to what Canon usually use. It's deeply worrying that even something like this is varying from one device to the next. Don't get me wrong, I think the colour balance is a nice improvement over the TM700 but in my opinion this is something that should remain consistent.
The only thing so far that I can praise about this camera is the stunningly beautiful footage it records, it produces the best quality footage I've ever seen on a consumer camcorder at this price range, it's just a shame that the focus issue marrs what would be a spendid camcorder. For this reason I will persevere and hope that the next one I get will be rid of these problems as I really do think this device has a lot of potential, it just seems plagued by so many different problems. Perhaps I'm just unlucky?
As for everything else, well, it's pretty much what you'd expect of a camcorder of this price. I think it has great ergonomics and fits well in the hand. The EVF could have been made a bit bigger but then again not many camcorders of this price range include one at all, so it's a bonus. The lens hood could have been bigger and better, Canon and Sony are shipping larger petal hoods with their contending models, while not only making the device look more professional it actually works better at preventing lens flares, unlike the Panasonic offering! The charging unit is built in to this years model, rather than using a seperate battery charger. I think I'm one of only a few people who prefer this, as it was a pain having to remove & install the battery all the time. One very poor move by Panasonic was to change the type of battery, Pansonic have deliberately prevented 700 series batteries from being used in the 900 series, it forces customers into buying their own overpriced batteries, hopefully we'll see more suppliers offering cheaper batteries soon.
To conclude: from my own findings, it seems that Panasonic have serious quality control issues with their newest range of camcorders, there seems to be a lack of consistency and quality over the few key functions of the device.
For the moment, I can only rate 3 stars, but that's based solely on my own findings. I will update my review accordingly depending on the outcome of my next and final replacement.
EDIT: Just an update for you guys. I've received the replacement camcorder. My first observation is that the focus issue is no longer a problem, the image is sharp throughout the whole field at wide angle. The zoom noise is there a slight bit, not nowhere near as bad as before.
The fan noise however is still there and is a fair bit louder than the previous replacement. I cannot understand why Panasonic made the decision to use a cooling method which will pollute the microphone with unwanted noise, it's utter stupidity. The fact that there is a variation of the amount of noise emitted from one device to another suggests to me that Panasonic are now using different fans.
My first camera serial number began with an A, the second replacement serial started with a D and the 3rd with a C, if the letter is an indication of month/date then I've received a slightly older 3rd replacement. I'm not sure if the significance of this but there could be a possibility that D onwards have a different quieter fan. Obviously I can't tell as I've had one each out of these batches. This is merely speculation guys so this may be inaccurate, it would be nice for people to report back their findings on this.
It seems that I will never get a perfect camcorder and would be wasting my time with another replacement. I'll hold out with this camcorder, the image quality is excellent and I can use an external microphone if the fan noise is becoming an increasing problem. It's a shame that these measures have to be taken but the only way to ensure the sound of the footage isn't being effected.
I'll keep the review at 3 stars but unofficially I'll give it 3.5. It's just a gamble whether you'll get a decent copy, judging by my experience it doesn't look likely. Lets hope Panasonic brush up on their mistakes with the next model. Judging by my experience, I don't hold hope.