It used to be that camcorders recorded on exactly the same VHS tapes that you put in your VHS video recorder at home. The Hitachi DZ-MV580E is something of a throwback to those days -- it burns the video you shoot straight to a DVD you can play at home.
Once the DVD is burnt, you can make copies of it using your computer or using a stand-alone DVD copier. Alternatively, you can plug the Hitachi into a home video recorder and dub down to VHS as you would with a Hi8 camera. There's even some decent editing software built into the camcorder itself.
This Hitachi is perfect if you want to record home movies -- childrens' birthdays or family holidays. For casual use, there is no better way to shoot video than a DVD camcorder. But if you're into computer editing, or thinking of getting into it in the future, we can't recommend the £450 Hitachi. You'll be driven mad by the lack of Firewire and true high-resolution video.
Imagine a gun-sight stuck through a doughnut and you have the basic shape of the Hitachi. Ergonomics here were largely determined by the fact that the camcorder accommodates a DVD burner. Hitachi has done an excellent job of integrating the burner into the DZ-MV580E. The circular shape of the drive mechanism neatly matches the curvature of your hand when the camcorder is gripped for shooting.
The weight of the Hitachi is not far from a similarly sized MiniDV camera. Weighing in at 500g is no mean feat, considering that DVD burners are typically heavier than tape mechanisms.
The shooting position on the Hitachi is comfortable, the hand-strap is strong and the record button is where you'd expect it -- under your thumb. The zoom control is slightly counter-intuitive, rocking from left to right rather than forwards and backwards, but we quickly got used to this.
Serious buttons are concealed beneath the fold-out LCD screen. This screen seemed very sturdy compared to those on many camcorders we've tested. The LCD pivots to allow you to check yourself out while you're filming, and will also flip 180 degrees and fold back against the camcorder body.
The buttons on the camcorder are clearly labelled and most have a very intuitive function. The eye-piece has a focus adjustment for those with impaired vision and a rubber surround that keeps out some ambient light. However, you do need to press your eye up against the camcorder to get a perfectly dark viewfinder in which to frame our shots.
Loading DVDs is a slightly tacky procedure. We'd have preferred a slot-loading DVD drive, because the caddy system the Hitachi uses is unnecessarily complicated. To load a half-size DVD you have to place it in a small and extremely flimsy plastic caddy and then insert it into a clamshell loading mechanism. There's no real benefit to be had from the caddy -- there's such a huge opening in the side of it that it doesn't protect your DVDs from scratches or dirty fingers.
The Hitachi uses a 570,000 pixel, 0.25-inch CCD to capture your video. We were impressed by its ability to eke out detail even in low light. Because video is compressed by the DV-MX580E before it's written to DVD, you're not going to achieve the crisp edges and minimal artefacts of MiniDV.
We found that the Hitachi couldn't achieve quite the same quality of image a MiniDV camcorder can. This is because DVD camcorders compress video using MPEG-2, which is a fairly lossy format. The Hitachi compresses 'standard quality' video at a fixed rate of 5.24 Mbps. In contrast, MiniDV camcorders compress video at a fixed rate of 25 Mbps -- storing over four times more picture data than a DVD camcorder. This difference is more drastic on paper than in reality because MPEG-2 is a very good-looking compression method, but it is noticeable.
An on-screen display shows the information you'd expect from all camcorders: time, date and battery level. White balance is simple to adjust and there's a range of other settings you can tweak using the Hitachi's on-screen menus. Notably, you can change the level of compression applied to your footage before it's recorded to DVD. Higher compression means a lower quality picture, but a longer record-time per DVD.
If you're recording to DVD-R, you won't be able to change compression levels on the fly. There's also a range of other options you won't have access to when using DVD-R, like in-camera editing, or switching from 4:3 (regular TV) to 16:9 (widescreen) modes.
DVD-RAM discs offer longer recording times (up to 120 mins at standard quality) and are more flexible when it comes to compressing your footage. Unfortunately, DVD-RAM is less likely to be accepted by domestic DVD players -- you'll need to check your DVD player is compatible. If it is, we'd recommend just using DVD-RAM discs with the Hitachi. Because DVD camcorders are a new technology, blank DVDs for the Hitachi are more expensive than blank MiniDV tapes.
We had problems with the DZ-MV580E right out of the box -- we couldn't get it to recognise the blank DVD-R that came bundled in the box. The culprit turned out to be a light smudge across the surface of the DVD, something that all DVD recorders are vulnerable to. It was disappointing that the Hitachi's LCD display didn't suggest cleaning the disc -- we had to figure that out by ourselves.
If you want to transfer footage to your computer, you can use the USB cable provided with the Hitachi. If you're transferring a lot of data, you'll quickly begin to understand why most other camcorders have Firewire ports. When you're used to Firewire, USB 2 is relatively slow -- video data squeezes through like a fat man jammed in the revolving doors of Harvey Nicks.
DVD-MovieAlbumSE is bundled with the DZ-MV580E for editing your footage. It's a very simple editor that even blushes next to the Hitachi's basic on-board editing system.
The in-camera editing ability of the Hitachi is its most impressive feature. Clips are shown as thumbnails on the LCD and you can specify how you'd like to cut between them before saving the edit to disc. For those without any desire to edit their video on computer, this is the perfect solution for cutting out dud scenes. The ease with which you can quickly produce edited footage might also appeal to more advanced camcorder users who require quick and dirty editing in the field without a computer getting in the way.
If you need to take still shots, the Hitachi can take photos at a resolution of 1.2 megapixels (1,280 x 960). These are either written to DVD-RAM or stored in an optional SD card that slots into the side of the camcorder.
Provided your recordable DVDs are clean, the Hitachi is absolutely painless to operate. The 64mm (2.5-inch) LCD screen is clear and visible in all but the harshest sunlight. It's not a touch screen, but it is easy to navigate menu options using the small pad on the side of the camcorder.
Because the Hitachi takes time to read the contents of a recordable DVD, there's an annoying lag between switching the camera on and being able to record -- this can be as long as 15 seconds. If you're planning on capturing an errant UFO you'll find it’s likely to have hurtled back into space before the Hitachi's DVD drive has even spun into life.
The DZ-MV580E has good image stabilisation. Even tightly zoomed-in, your footage has a steadycam look to it. Hitachi claims a 145-minute shooting time from a fully charged battery, but we found it to be slightly less than this. Your mileage will depend on whether you elect to use the flip-out LCD viewfinder, how trigger happy you are with the zoom control, and whether you extensively edit in camera.
The standard of image we achieved with the Hitachi wasn't dramatically different from what we've seen from MiniDV cameras in the same price bracket. We were pleased to find that the Hitachi didn't suffer from any image distortion when we bumped or shook the camera during recording. The DVD drive inside is clearly well protected from shock.
We were particularly impressed with the Hitachi's performance in low-light situations. In a room lit with only one desk lamp in a far corner, the Hitachi could still pick out newspaper print clearly enough to be read, with acceptable contrast and minimal graininess. This is not an environment you should record video in, but it was interesting to see that the DZ-MV580E coped well with this more demanding situation.
Because the Hitachi writes MPEG-2 video straight to DVD and is capable of three increasingly compressed recording modes, you're not going to achieve quite the same clarity of image as you can with miniDV. But given where the Hitachi sits -- at the entry-level end of the camcorder range -- it fares well against similarly priced competition.
Edited by: Mary Lojkine
Additional editing by: Nick Hide