on June 9, 2009
Ok, consider that I paid about $300 for mine, it's my #3 high-def camcorder, and I know what I'm doing... this is not a model for beginners. But I don't think a beginner should be using any of the AVCHD models yet.. the format is too new.
This was not really the case with HDV, simply because MPEG-2 was a done deal long before HDV came along.. so the first cameras that came out were pretty good, and where improvements were made, it was in the general HD area, not the encoding format so much. AVC (also called MPEG-4 part 10, also called H.264) is generally heralded as the successor to MPEG-2, but it's way more complex. Encoding on a PC or other dedicated hardware looks great, but you're probably spending 3-6 hours per hour of HD video to do that encoding. Crunching this down to a small battery-powered camcorder and maintaining that quality is a work-in-progress.
Yeah, BD-R and BD-RE in 8cm size are expensive. But if you think of the BD-RE as a replacement for an SD card (they hold about 7.5GB), they make a little more sense... you record on it, copy the video off to another device, then erase it, just as a flash card. Eventually, BD-R will be cheap enough to compare to tape, but that's a ways off.
Quality-wise, it's mixed. This one is pretty awful on low-light shooting. It's a given that virtually every HD camcorder is going to be worse in low light than a similar SD model... they're only starting to deliver a few with decent low-light performance in the prosumer price ranges (new Canon and Pannys, about $1300). But this one's oddly worse than you'd expect, given the decent performance in good light, and the large enough single sensor.
THE CONFUSING (for some)
If you're not already doing Blu-Ray, this may be a pain. Windows don't natively understand the Blu-Ray file format (it's a new version of the UDF file system used on DVD), so you need to install the Hitachi software. Hitachi, like most CE companies, is clueless about software support, but in truth, editing video isn't their job. If, like me, you already have Blu-Ray support in place in your video toolchain, dealing with this format is a no-brainer.
Tapeless rocks, when you're in a hurry. However, AVCHD on DVD is a horrible idea -- it's nowhere near enough storage... you'll get about 20 minutes. Blu-Ray is the right answer for tapeless HD using a 8cm disc. I'm using this one mainly for quick stuff... to offload my way more expensive cameras when quality isn't THAT critical.
As for quality... it's a mixed bag. In the sunlight, this camera delivers a decent enough HD image. Like any first-generation AVCHD camcorder, you're not going to match HDV quality on fact motion -- there will be more artifacts. Given this is an older model, of course, factor that in on what you're paying.
I didn't mind the user interface at all.. it's fairly simplistic, as you'd expect on a consumer model. The one quirk, if your used to tape, is the control for selecting clips to play back... it's a very non-obvious button. I missed it, first time out... guess I should have RTFMed, but hey, where's the fun in that.
Another plus... this model will shoot SD on DVD-R or DVD-RAM, which is rather usual these days; most AVCHD/tapeless models are HD-only. You don't get the choice... it's HD on BD, SD on DVD.
The body and styling is kind of nice.. a bit weird, but it grows on you. It has a covered, full-sized cold shoe, and works great with an external mic like an Azden SMX-10. You could obviously use any 3.5mm plug mono or stereo mic (far as no, there's no plug-in power, you'll need a self-powered mic), but a larger mic could be visible in the shot, if used on-camera. I never recommend shooting with any built-in camera audio, so I can't really tell you if it's any good or not.
So, my bottom line: at the original $1300 or so, this was a bad camera, no question, largely based on the low light performance. Today, you can get 3rd generation AVCHD models, which do a much better job at encoding without artifacts... some of these start at around $500-$600. Unless disc is a big advantage, skip this and go with a Canon HF-200 (about $600) or a Panny HDC-SD9 (about $500) or a Sony HDR-CX7 or CX12 rather than pay the prices in the $700s or $800s for this I've seen around. But for the price of an SD camcorder, $300 or so, it's not a bad unit.
Hitachi has a new model BD camcorder, which is supposedly much improved, and also records to SDHC flash cards as an alternate. If you're looking for a better unit, that should be seeing the same kind of technology improvements as the other 3rd generation AVCHD models.
Like any bit of technology, you need to do your homework. AVCHD is new enough some video editors still don't support it. Even when they do, it's very CPU intensive, so don't be surprised when your dual-core CPU is driven to its knees. Using an intermediate video format, like CineForm, Sony MXF (or other high bitrate MPEG-2 variations), isn't a bad idea if you have a complex project. Blu-Ray media is still expensive, though it's been falling.. you're not being a wise consumer if you don't bother to price consumables of any kind before buying the device that consumes them.