Hitachi's DZGX20A offers speedy start-up, solid video quality in a variety of lighting conditions, and the ability to edit video right in the camera. With a 10X optical zoom, a 2-megapixel CCD, a fairly basic set of features, and decent overall performance, it's not a standout. But it's worth considering if you want the convenience of DVD recording at a reasonable price. Similar in size to smaller DV camcorders, the Hitachi DZGX20A is extremely compact and weighs a modest 1 pound, 2 ounces. Its dark-gray and silver-plastic case is nondescript, but it has a solid, sturdy feel. The DZGX20A does away with the caddy required by earlier generations of Hitachi DVD-RAM camcorders. If you use a DVD-R disc, you just snap the 3-inch disc on the spindle to record and finalize; then you can pop it out and place it directly in your DVD player.
The camcorder rests comfortably in your right hand, providing easy access to the zoom rocker and the power/mode switch. Buttons above and behind the LCD screen activate the most common functions without necessitating a dive into the menus. The primary controls work well, but the flush-mounted touch-sensitive buttons for changing exposure and manual focus can be difficult to use in the field. In addition, you adjust manual focus and exposure controls with touch-sensitive plus (+) and minus (-) buttons, which we find far less convenient than a dial or a ring. The DVD hatch sits on the right side of the camcorder, so a tripod won't interfere with disc swapping.
Menus are easy to navigate using the left-mounted directional pad, which doubles as a playback control. A Quick Menu button offers an abbreviated list of functions, but the standard menus are so sparse to begin with that the simplified Quick Menu is rarely useful. The Hitachi DZGX20A supports two formats of 3-inch DVD discs: write-once DVD-R and rewriteable DVD-RAM. The camcorder records using MPEG-2 compression and can hold 18 to 60 minutes per side, depending upon the quality level you select. It supports both 4:3 and 16:9 wide-screen formats. The DZGX20A stores video in DVD-VR format, which many PC video-editing programs now support, though not as ubiquitously as MiniDV format.
The camcorder's basic feature set is just that: fairly basic. It has a 10X optical zoom and a 2-megapixel CCD (1.2 megapixels used for video). Automatic and manual white balance and exposure adjustments are available, as are five programmed autoexposure modes. The camcorder features an accessory shoe, and among the optional accessories Hitachi offers are wide and telephoto lenses and a video light.
The LCD can act as a basic video light when shooting in Low Light mode; the display blanks to white to light your subject. This is helpful only when shooting very close to the subject.
You can use the bundled DVD-MovieAlbumSE software--a simple video editor--to transfer footage and convert it to VOB, the standard format for DVDs. Though the fastest method of transfer is simply to drop your disc into a PC's DVD drive, the DZGX20A also provides a USB 2.0 connection for transferring still images and video. The USB connection mounts the drive as a volume on your system, which allows you to drag and drop files using Windows Explorer. You won't find a FireWire port, nor will you find software or drivers for the Mac.
The DZGX20A records 1,600x1,200 still photos to either DVD-RAM or SD/MMC media. There's also a flash, though it lacks red-eye reduction. The camcorder provides S-Video and composite inputs and outputs, allowing you to use the DZGX20A to convert your old analog videos to DVD format. Hitachi has boosted the DZGX20A's performance over its predecessors'. The long start-up delay is gone; the camcorder is ready to shoot just a couple seconds after flipping the power switch.
The camcorder's other features perform equally well. The zoom is smooth and easy to control whether you're zooming quickly or at a more leisurely pace. Autofocus responds rapidly, as does the camcorder's ability to adjust to changing light. Image stabilization proved effective throughout the first 75 percent or so of the zoom range; at its 10X maximum, the stabilizer dampens but doesn't eliminate hand shake. Sound quality is very good, and though it's sensitive, the microphone doesn't pick up any drive-motor noises.
We had trouble with the Hitachi DZGX20A's manual focus. Though the 2.5-inch LCD is sharp and visible under a variety of light intensities, the LCD is too small to discern enough detail to get a precise manual focus. The color viewfinder offers even less detail, so it's not much help here.
Battery life is rated at up to 125 minutes when using the best recording quality; figure on a bit less than half that with typical start/stop recording and occasional replay of the scenes you've shot. The Hitachi DZGX20A's video quality looked as good as that of a midpriced MiniDV camcorder--which is to say that it's a mite better than what we typically see from DVD camcorders. At the lowest compression level, video was reasonably sharp, with moderate motion artifacts, some edge crawl, and blooming. At medium and high compression levels, banding becomes more evident in areas with high brightness gradations. If you're comparing Hitachi camcorders, take note that our test video was noticeably sharper than that produced by either of its brothers, the Hitachi and the . Color hues are accurate, though slightly oversaturated at times.
As is typical for consumer level camcorders, footage shot in low light looks somewhat grainy. However, the DZGX20A's low-light footage is brighter and more colorful than that of many comparable camcorders. In extremely low-light conditions, you can use the Low Light program autoexposure mode to brighten the scene somewhat, but this lowers the frame rate, making for blurry, jerky motion from pans and moving objects. The gimmicky option to turn the LCD screen into a light does little to help here.
Still-image quality is actually pretty good for a camcorder--when the focus works. Low-light shots look good thanks to the built-in flash, which works best when objects are within 7 feet or less. Unfortunately, about a quarter of our shots in average room-light conditions came out blurry--an unacceptably high percentage.