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With hard disk camcorders and DVD camcorders gaining popularity by the day, Hitachi has launched the world's first "hybrid" camcorder, featuring both hard disk and DVD. Recording can be either to hard disk or straight on to DVD. Footage stored on the camera's hard disk can be edited and burnt to DVD without first being transferred on to a PC. Hitachi believes that this will appeal to casual users who have neither the inclination nor the time to learn how to use video editing software, like Adobe Premiere Elements or Windows Movie Maker.
Smartly dressed in jet-black and dark chrome, the HS303 attracts attention with its good looks. Its pleasing visage distracts you from its slightly larger than normal waistline. The major aesthetic sore point though is the rather bulbous battery pack jutting out the back.
Starting up the camcorder or switching between its recording modes -- DVD and hard-disk for video, and SD for photos -- takes about five seconds. This limits spur-of-the-moment shooting, although there's a standby mode which reduces start-up time to a second.
The HS303's ease-of-use suffers from a menu system that, although well organised, is slow and clunky. Pressing down multiple times quickly doesn't quickly skip you down the menu, instead you have to wait for each key press to be acknowledged on-screen. Often, the messages displayed are cryptic and poorly worded.
Recording video is a simple task because, although a little oversized, the camera fits neatly into the right hand with the zoom and record/stop buttons well positioned for one-handed recording. The controls for other functions, however, are not so conveniently placed. To alter either the focus or the exposure -- the only manual controls available -- you need to firmly press a button located in the LCD display's recess and then adjust the setting using the playback buttons located on the left-hand side of the chrome barrel; this is hard to do without taking your eyes off the LCD. Doing all this induces a fair amount of wobble to any footage you might be recording. Speaking of wobble, the HS303's image stabilisation is the electronic kind and isn't particularly effective at maximum zoom (10x).
Three video quality modes are offered (from highest to lowest): extra, fine and standard. Picking the difference between extra and fine requires a keen eye, with fine suitable in all but the most demanding of situations. Standard, however, should be saved for when hard-disk or DVD space is at a premium; the quality difference between it and the other modes is quite obvious, with artefacts aplenty, even in fairly static scenes. With 8GB of hard-disk space, the HS303 can store anywhere between 110 minutes at extra quality, 180 minutes at fine quality and 360 minutes at standard quality. This should be fine for most casual videographers. However, if you want to record every single minute of your child's birthday party or are planning a long overseas trip then we'd advise in favour of a hard-disk only camcorder with 30GB or more.
The quickest way to display your handiwork is to plug the camcorder into the nearest TV set. This works fine, especially with the S-Video output. However, if the camera is in record mode and you're connected to a large flat-screen TV, be prepared for some loud feedback as the supplied cable is too short. If you want to share your work in a more permanent way, you can burn directly from the hard-disk to an 8cm DVD for between 18 and 60 minutes of video. DVD-RAM, DVD+RW, DVD-RW and DVD-R formats are supported, so compatibility with DVD players shouldn't be an issue. During our time with the camera, though, we were unable to burn from hard-disk to DVD on battery power; each time we had to attach the camera to the power adaptor. There are a number of basic editing options available in-camera, however for more professional looking DVDs, as well as longer running times, connecting the camera to a computer for editing and mastering is unavoidable.