The rest of the controls find their home on the left side of the body. A handful, including a five-way rocker for menu navigation and playback controls and four other buttons for disc navigation and menu access as well as stop/exit and select are just above the cavity in which the LCD screen tucks away. Another five touch-sensitive buttons live behind the LCD and let you access commonly used functions such as manual focus and backlight mode without digging into the menus. Unfortunately, even though three of the buttons are marked with small raised dots, it's not easy to use them during recording, something we complained about last year as well. On the plus side, the menus are easy to navigate using the rocker and can be abbreviated to a shorter quick menu if you find the regular menu too cumbersome during recording. The Hitachi DZ-GX3300A accepts four varieties of 3-inch DVDs: write-once DVD-R and rewriteable DVD-RW, DVD+RW, and DVD-RAM. It records video in MPEG-2 compression to allow 18 to 60 minutes of footage per side, depending on what quality level you choose. The camcorder packs a 1/3-inch 3.3-megapixel CCD sensor. Though it uses 3 megapixels to capture stills, it uses only 2.1 megapixels for video in 4:3 mode and 1.6 megapixels for video in 16:9 mode.
Top among features is the 10X optical zoom lens, which is joined by automatic and manual white-balance and exposure options, as well as five preprogrammed autoexposure modes and three preset white-balance settings. Accessories can be mounted to the shoe atop the camera or to the threads in the lens barrel. Among the available accessories are a video light, as well as wide and telephoto lens adapters.
Speaking of lights, when shooting in low-light mode, the LCD screen can be used as a low-power illuminating device. The screen can be set to display a blank white field, which helps only if you are very close to your subject.
All of the connections are on the front of the camera and include an A/V input/output jack, as well as a microphone input and a mini USB jack. Of course, one of the conveniences of a DVD camcorder is that you can transfer your video to your computer by placing the finalized DVD in your computer's DVD drive, though the USB connection comes in handy if your computer has a slot-loading DVD drive, or for transferring stills or video from a memory card in the camcorder's SD card slot.
Still images as large as 2,016x1,512 pixels can be saved either to DVD-RAM or SD/MMC cards. A small flash, which sits to the side of the lens, can help illuminate your stills, though there's no red-eye reduction. The aforementioned A/V input and output accepts S-Video or composite-video connections and lets you convert analog recordings to DVD. Hitachi includes DVD-MovieAlbumSE software--a basic video editor--to let you transfer any footage shot with the DZ-GX3300A to the DVD-standard VOB format. A few seconds after switching to record mode, the Hitachi DZ-GX3300A is ready to record. The zoom functions smoothly, and its moderate amount of tension makes transitions between various zoom speeds comfortable and easy to control. In most light levels, the autofocus responds rapidly, though as can be expected, it moves significantly slower in very low light and tends to hunt in extremely low light. The DZ-GX3300A's digital image stabilization helped keep our footage steady out to about 75 percent of the camera's zoom range. Toward the far end of the zoom range, it just wasn't enough to compensate for hand shake. Sound from the adequately sensitive internal microphone was good, and it didn't pick up any noise from the lens's drive motor.
Manual focus using the touch-sensitive buttons was difficult. Even though the 2.5-inch LCD screen is sharp and served up a useful image under various lighting conditions, it was hard to tell from the small screen when the focus was perfect. A magnified portion of the viewfinder, as offered on many digital still cameras, might have helped in this case. Also, the buttons proved an uncomfortable interface.
Hitachi rates the battery life at as long as 105 minutes when using the best recording quality, though you can expect about half that with typical start/stop recording and occasional replay of scenes you've shot. Similar to last year's DZ-GX20A, the Hitachi DZ-GX3300A's video quality is about what you'd expect from a midpriced MiniDV camcorder. At low compression, video was sharp with some motion artifacts and edge crawl, along with a bit of blooming. At higher compression levels, banding showed up more often in areas with significant gradations in brightness. Overall, the DZ-GX3300A, with its higher megapixel count, was a touch sharper than its siblings, the Hitachi DZ-GX3200A and the Hitachi DZ-GX3100A. Colors, though accurate, were sometimes oversaturated.
As usual, low-light footage exhibited more grain than well-lit scenes, though the DZ-GX3300A yielded pleasing low-light video that was brighter and more colorful than one might expect at this price. The low-light mode helped to brighten dim scenes, though it does noticeably lower the shutter speed, so moving objects and pans look a bit choppy.
The Hitachi DZ-GX3300A's still images were impressive for a camcorder, though the auto white balance produced extremely warm results with our lab's tungsten lights. The tungsten white-balance mode worked better, but we had to set white balance manually to get truly neutral results.