It's shaped with the pistol-grip form factor, with a screen that flips out to the left side. It's very light indeed, but not as comfortable as we'd like: the grip is just a shade too long, even for our relatively big hands. How you feel about button placement will depend on your hands, but we feel that the record button is a bit too low for the camcorder to nestle in your palm. Instead we had to hold it with the first two fingers, which then put the menu buttons and mini-joystick too far away, so we had have to shift our grip to change functions.
Apart from this, the zoom is well-placed and has enough resistance for reasonably subtle adjustments. We also like the one-touch access to the LED lamp via the joystick, which saves us hunting through menus when we need to shed a bit more light on things.
It does have a plasticky feel -- not that surprising seeing as it's made of plastic -- but it's perfectly solid, without too much creaking and no flex in the frame. The fold-out screen certainly feels sturdy enough, measuring 61mm (2.4 inches). Flipping the screen open powers up the camcorder.
Features are, predictably, fairly limited. In terms of manual control, you get a five-stop exposure compensation adjustment. There's a 3x optical zoom, which sounds more like a digital camera than a camcorder, but never mind -- walking closer to your subject is good exercise. Footage is recorded to SD and SDHC cards, with 4GB cards holding about 1 hour of high definition footage.
Presets include black and white or sepia effects, and four white balance options accessible from the joystick. Night mode is designed to improve low-light performance, but we struggled to see a difference with or without it, with the LED lamps doing most of the work in the dark.
The Z500 shoots 'full high definition' 1080p video in AVCHD format, with an aspect ratio of 16:9. Full HD is shot at 30 frames per second, with the added options of 30 or 60fps 720p video, or 60fps DVD quality footage. The difference in frame rate can give you a different feel to your video, with 30fps being closer to cinema footage and 60fps giving the smoother effect seen on television.
You can capture 5-megapixel stills, with a central focus point that locks in place with a half-press of the dedicated camera shutter button, similar to a digital camera. The video light also works as a strobing flash for stills. You can't capture stills while shooting video, but that's par for the course anyway.
Movies and images are pleasingly crisp. Motion is smooth, and colour balanced and neutral. The device would definitely benefit from image stabilisation, but then you can always invest some of the cash saved on the Z500's bargain price in a tripod if shake-free video is essential. Low-light is less successful, with the lamp proving useful but not outstanding, and footage suffering from a fair bit of digital noise.
The biggest let-down is the sound, with wind noise and occasional audible zoom noise. There's no microphone input, so if you do want clear sound you'll need to sync with an external recording device, which is a world of effort that the buyer of this kind of camcorder probably won't want to enter.
We had some issues with the supplied software, too. It's basic, and does the job, but anyone looking to edit in better programs might have a problem. The .mov H.264/Quicktime format files struggled with Windows Movie Maker, for example.
The Aiptek AHD Z500 Plus is a simple camcorder at a decent price. The problem is, it's HD picture with YouTube sound. We're in two minds over whether or not this is a false economy, and whether anyone with a glorious sound setup on their HDTV should bite the financial bullet with an HD JVC Everio or Sony Handycam. Footage looks good in decent lighting, so it's worth thinking hard about what conditions you actually want to use it in, and if night shooting or crystal-clear sound aren't high on your agenda, this is a budget camcorder to consider.
Edited by Marian Smith