On one level, you gotta love Hitachi. When not building nuclear power plants or locomotives, its engineers crank out televisions and DVD camcorders. In other words, Hitachi has engineering muscle; they’re a bit challenged in the marketing arena, though, since they barely spend a dime letting consumers know what they have. Even though Sony is the dominant player in DVD camcorders, Hitachi actually made the first one in 2000 and supplied Panasonic for years. So much for being the first to market!
The company has four DVD-based camcorders in 2005, with the DZ-GX20A the proverbial top-of-the-line; it features 2.12 megapixel still capability as well as rewritable DVD-RAM and write-once DVD-R video recording. Competing Sony DVD camcorders do not use RAM media, as they’ve opted for -/+ (dash and plus) RW. Even though it has a 10x optical zoom, true 16:9 recording, a built-in flash, electronic image stabilization and a number of manual options, this is not the best camcorder available. It certainly doesn’t have the fireworks associated with the new high-definition Sony HDR-HC1, nor the low price of its MiniDV competitors. But worst of all, it simply doesn’t take outstanding videos.
Features and Design
It’s really amazing, how much smaller the new fifth generation DVD camcorders are compared to their pioneering cousins. Still, the DZ-GX20A weighs 1.2 pounds and measures 4.8W x 3.4H x 2D”, so it’s not something you’ll drop in your pocket (unless you’re wearing cargo pants.) Camcorders are a commitment, not for spur-of-the-moment memory recording, so expect to buy a bag to hold your extra discs, spare battery, recharger, and so on.
The camcorder has a rather utilitarian design, made of metal and plastic, but to be honest, no DVD camcorder other than the Sony DCR-DVD7 ($699) has a truly distinctive style. They all have to hold 8cm (3″) blank discs, which really puts a crimp on the industrial design team. And since they require so much power compared to digital cameras, the batteries are huge appendages. Don’t get me wrong: This Hitachi isn’t Quasimodo ugly, but it’s not heading for the Museum of Modern Art’s design Hall of Fame.
Overall, the DZ-GX20A is rather button-free and is not intimidating. The left side has a 4:3 2.5-inch flip-out LCD screen that lets you frame your videos and also acts as a light in dark settings. Above the panel are four keys including Select, Disc Navigation (to go to a specific scene), Menu and Stop/Exit. There’s also a four-way arrow pad to make menu selections. Open the screen and you’ll find buttons to make manual focus, exposure and back light adjustments. You’ll also find the door covering SD card slot. The front is dominated by the lens and the flash; underneath is a stereo mic and a door hiding the USB and A/V connectors as well an input for an external mic.
The right side is completely dedicated to the disc slot, while the rear has the .2″ color LCD viewfinder with diopter adjustment, a Disc Eject key as well as the Mode dial with settings for Video, Stills and Card (if you want to save images to SD memory rather than the disc.) Although a disc holds 750 1600 x 1200 pixel images, you might want the convenience of easily popping the card into a reader, printer or a display device. The top of the camcorder has a wide-tele key, a dedicated photo button and a hot shoe for optional lights and microphones.
The DZ-GX20A comes with a two-hour battery, charger, AC adapter, strap, one blank DVD-R disc, lens cap, wireless remote, USB and A/V cables and software CD ROM, and even a disc cleaning cloth. There’s a huge printed manual, but don’t freak out over the size (it’s in both English and French) but there’s still 182 pages to wade through with more footnotes than a quantum mechanics doctoral thesis.
Image Courtesy of Hitachi America
The Hitachi DVDCam could certainly use a Quick Start guide to get you up and running without having to settle into an easy chair for a scintillating evening’s read. Maybe next time. Hitachi should also update the manual, which looks like something out of the ’70s. The illustrations are classic Japanese cute. Yuck. Even worse, the manual is for three models, so you have to make sure the instructions you’re reading are for the right camcorder. I’m all for saving trees, but this is ridiculous. Better to have a well-done Quick Start Guide and put the manual on the supplied CD-ROM as a PDF file. What a disappointment. And trying to read this manual is challenge, with myriad screen shot illustrations that require a magnifying glass to read.
The next bummer is on Page 20 of the manual; they ask you to “try recording and playing back using disc.” No problem–except that they want you to use a DVD-RAM blank, which is nowhere to be found. Expect to buy a few before you leave the store. Single-sided 1.4GB RAM discs, good for 30 minutes of high quality footage, cost around $9 each, while DVD-Rs can be had for around a buck. A double-sided 2.8GB disc will set you back around $15. No one said living on the edge is cheap, but the discs last a long time (100,000 read/rewrite times, according to manufacturers.)
Once we made it through the basics in the guide, charged the battery, adjusted the strap and loaded a 1.4GB RAM disc, it was time to see what this camcorder could do. We set the Program Auto Exposure to Auto and to the highest resolution, which gives you 18 minutes of recording. We shot the usual subjects: Foliage, plants, the sun and sky, just to see the accuracy of color reproduction. Unfortunately, it was poor when played back on a 36-inch Toshiba direct view digital TV, using the S-video input. After adjusting the settings, the colors were still off–there’s no kind way to put it. In some scenes, objects were too red, and overall there was a lack of black. I then put the disc in a Panasonic DMR-E60 DVD recorder with component video outputs, which plays DVD-RAM discs directly. The color was a bit better, but still lacked contrast; there were swarms of digital artifacts as well. I then tried it on my PC (a new Dell with a hot video card); the colors were off here, too, but not as badly. The blues were a bit too red and the greens were not very life-like. These better results were seen via the supplied playback software (DVD Movie Album SE) on an about 8″ diagonal inset on my 17″ Samsung LCD monitor. This kind of defeats the purpose of a camcorder: Sharing memories on a large screen with the family.
Being somewhat surprised at these results, I tried again, using different Program AE settings, and adjusting the white balance and exposure compensation. I changed Program AE to Outdoors and shot around the house, but the color was just not right. There was a definite lack of contrast and the reds were just off. Nothing really seemed to work. On a positive note, the LCD screen was quite readable, even in dark situations and bright sunshine. The screen nicely rotates, so you can make menu changes easily. It was impressive–but you’re not buying this for a screen.
Hitachi touts the fact that this camcorder takes 2.12-megapixel stills (1600 x 1200 pixels.) Although the camera function works easily and taking snaps is, well, a snap, the results are pathetic when using the Auto mode as well as manual focus. I took the SD card out and used the Kodak EasyShare Printer Dock to turn out some 4×6 prints. I may be jaded, having played with high-quality digicams, but 2MP quality is unacceptable in 2005 unless you want to send an image via email. For goodness’s sake! Camera phones now take 2-megapixel stills, and they’re a lot easier to carry around. (We’re going to give the new Canon Optura 600 with its 4.3MP still capability a workout as soon as we get a production model. Hopefully, Canon knows how to handle still/camcorder combos better than Hitachi.)
Not to throw any more salt in the wound, but battery life was weak. Hitachi claims this is a two-hour battery. When using the LCD screen, flash and playing back discs, the battery gave up the ghost in about an hour and a half.
Image Courtesy of Hitachi America
At well over $700 ($799), the Hitachi DZ-GX20A is hard to recommend. With uneven video quality, poorer than poor stills and a manual only the authors could love, this one is a loser. That said, it makes my job simple: Just don’t buy it.
- Compact, lightweight package
- Records on DVD-RAM and DVD-R
- Quality LCD screen in dim and bright light
- Bad video quality
- Pathetic 2MP stills
- Poor documentation