Everyone loves hybrids — no matter if it’s the Toyota Prius or Hitachi’s newest camcorders. One can easily see the benefit of a hybrid car that gets high mileage by using gas and electric motors. The pluses of a DVD camcorder combined with a hard disc drive (HDD) are not quite as obvious or Earth-friendly. Still, the idea of recording for 110 minutes in XTRA mode on an 8GB HDD and then burning that footage onto blank, 3-inch DVDs in the same device is pretty enticing. That last step — taking video off the hard drive — is one of the biggest issues facing HDD-based camcorders. So, did Hitachi create the magic bullet or did it fire a dud? Let’s check it out…
Features and Design
The DZ-HS300A is hardly a beauty; it’s a boxy, silver-bodied camcorder that looks like almost all the other DVD-based camcorders available. When you have to stick a DVD drive into a camcorder, it’s definitely going to be much taller than a purely HDD model like the JVC Everio. Also, it’s not as slick as the recently reviewed SD card-based high-def Panasonic HDC-SD1. The camcorder measures 2.4 x 3.54 x 5.3 (WHD, in inches) and weighs 17 ounces including battery, card, and strap. Slim and sleek it isn’t, but as noted, you really can’t expect it to be.
As a hybrid, this 680K CCD camcorder lets you record video to either the 8GB hard drive or a blank DVD disk. An SD card handles the extremely low-quality 640 x 480 pixel stills. The HDD holds 110 minutes in the XTRA highest-quality mode, compared to 18 minutes on a blank, single-sided DVD. This storage capability puts any HDD miles ahead of disks. And close to two hours at best quality is plenty for most camcorder users. If you want more, the Hitachi DZ-HS500A ($799 USD) has a 30 gig drive that holds 400 minutes (almost 7 hours). It also has a 30x optical zoom, compared to the 25x of the DZ-HS300A.
2007 Hitachi DVD camcorders (hybrid or not) handle a variety of disk formats including DVD-RAM, DVD-R/-RW and DVD+RW. This means you should have no problems finding one that’s compatible with your gear.
The front of the DZ-HS300A is dominated by the 25x optical zoom that has a ridiculous 1200x digital zoom. I say “ridiculous” because the image at such severe digital zooms is a pixilated mess; this holds true for any manufacturer. That’s why you should never enable the digital zoom when you set up your camcorder. And this camcorder has one of my least favorite features — a snap-on lens cap that’s tethered to the body by a string. Why can’t Hitachi engineers design a camcorder with a built-in lens covering? Sheesh. Also on the front are a stereo mic (the sound is quite good) and a compartment covering the USB and A/V out jacks.
The left side is emblazoned with the “Hybrid Camcorder DVD-HDD” logo. You’ll also find most of the controls, along with the fold-out 2.7-inch LCD monitor (rated a sub-par 120K pixels). Controls on the top right include Menu, Stop/Exit, Disc Navigation, and Dubbing, along with a four-way controller with a center Play/Set button. Flip out the widescreen LCD monitor and you’ll find the speaker, along with seven buttons that handle most of your basic functions. There’s Full Auto for the typical point-and-shoot setting, Focus (for manual adjustments), Exposure Control, BLC (Back Light Compensation), Display, Quick Menu, and Finalize. There’s also access to the SD card slot.
The top has a wide-tele toggle switch, a Sleep/Restart button with a flashing blue light when the camcorder takes a snooze to save power, and a shutter button for taking snapshots when you’re in the Card mode. There’s no shoe (hot or cold) for lights, flashes, or mics.
On the rear, you’ll find a pull-out color viewfinder with diopter control, the disc eject button, and the main mode dial. You’ll also find a comfortable Velcro strap that’s easy to adjust. You can record video to either the 8GB HDD or a blank DVD and take photos on the SD card. The battery fits on the back and it’s not too obtrusive. Although rated for 210 minutes, ours gave up the ghost long before that. The right side has the DVD compartment — Hitachi plastered it with DVD-HDD again and four logos touting the fact the camcorder is RAM and +RW compatible (and need we remind you it has a HDD)? Hitachi should lose this clutter the next go-round. I don’t know many people who would be impressed that you’re using a camcorder that can handle a variety of DVDs.
The DZ-HS300A has the typical camcorder kit: the body, battery, and charger, along with an invaluable DC power cord, USB and A/V cables (with S-video), a disc-cleaning cloth, and software CD-ROM with ImageMixer 3 for PC and Pixe VRF Browser EX and ImageMixer VCD/DVD2 for Mac. Surprisingly, there isn’t a single blank DVD in the box; make sure you pick some up if you decide to buy this camcorder, as well as an SD card. And then there’s a telephone book-sized Owner’s Manual that could scare a brainiac from Stanford. Not only is it one of those combo manuals for more than one product, it’s in three languages; talk about intimidating. Even better yet, the other camcorder used as the main focal point in many of the illustrations is the DZ-HS303A, a model not available in the U.S. Gotta love it!
After charging the battery, it was time to take this Hybrid for a drive.
Image Courtesy of Hitachi
Setup and Use
Before getting into the actual performance of this camcorder, a couple of complaints are in order. Other manufacturers make the LCD screen the focal point for handling menu changes. Hitachi does too, but they neglect to tell you in the Owner’s Manual that you need to flip the screen into the proper position — it’s a reverse half-twist. That said, the menu system itself is straightforward enough.
I wish I could say that about the Owner’s Manual. This camcorder screams for a simple Quick Start menu so you’re not forced to wade through the supplied phone book. Guys, just pick up a Canon digicam and look at their manuals. This is not rocket science, but this manual makes you think it is.
I took the DZ-HS300A along with me to Opening Day of the N.Y. Mets to see how the camcorder handled bright colors (the Phillies’ red uniforms in particular) on a day filled with strong sunshine. I did most of my shooting in Auto, took stills, and then shot some footage indoors over the next few days to experiment with the manual options.
One of the real pluses of this camcorder is its ability to take the footage off the hard drive and burn it directly to a DVD. It worked fairly well. You just hit the Dubbing key and the camcorder asks you which scenes you’d like to burn (I used a DVD-R blank). I tried to figure out how to select individual scenes, but the onscreen guides were no help. I decided to Dub All, and then it kicked into gear. This unit records at 1.5x speed; it takes a while to burn a disk, and when you add in the finalization time, you can see why the supplied DC power connector is a godsend. There were some hiccups when finalizing the disc, but I’m a big believer in the “when in doubt, reboot” school of technology. When I got a finalization error, I simply took the disc out, reloaded it, and pressed Finalize again. It worked. I didn’t bother with the manual.
Now, for the $599 question: “How was the video quality?” For an SD DVD camcorder, it was good — in bright light. The footage I shot at Shea Stadium was fairly accurate, although the colors were not as rich and as saturated as I’d like. The amount of digital noise wasn’t very noticeable on my computer monitor, and even on my HDTV, it was much better than other single CCD DVD cams I’ve used in the past. Although the reds of the Phillies’ uniforms didn’t smear, they really didn’t mirror reality.
What was very noticeable was the amount of camera shake, especially with the maximum telephoto setting (which I needed, since I was in a semi-nosebleed seat). This camera clearly needed optical image stabilization like the Panasonic VDR-D300 DVD camcorder. What was decidedly weak was footage shot in low light, which was filled with digital noise with soft colors. I’d attribute this to the less-than-robust 680K CCD imager. Another downside of this chip is the very low quality of snapshots. As you’d imagine, the 640 x 480 pixel still photos were sorely lacking, more akin to cell phone camera images than something aspiring to greater things. On the other hand, the camcorder had a nice feel, and the zoom was in a good location.
Image Courtesy of Hitachi
Even with all the flaws, I have to give Hitachi some praise for designing this hybrid. The idea of burning DVDs in the camcorder really enhances the idea of a HDD-based home video maker. There are definitely issues with the DZ-HS300A, including the documentation and the fact that colors didn’t really shine, but that’s pretty much the case with all single-chip SD DVD camcorders. Having used high-def camcorders, it’s hard to get really excited about SD any longer (no matter if it’s tape or disk). Still, this hybrid got my heart fluttering a little bit. What I really want to see is Hitachi engineers introducing a combo HDD/Blu-ray Disc camcorder (a project on the company’s front burner). I’ll be very happy to take that one out to the old ball game — even to a freezing Shea Stadium in April.
• Plenty of storage
• Good video in bright light
• Nice heft and ergonomics
• Poor video in dim light
• Low quality stills
• Challenged Owner’s Manual
• Lens cap on a string