Samsung takes some interesting turns to deliver its semibudget-priced, flash-based HD camcorder. On one hand, the SC-HMX10 seems to offer quite a bit for the money, including 720p video, 8GB built-in memory, manual exposure controls, and a microphone input, all in a diminutive package. On the other hand, you can see where they cut the corners to achieve the aggressive price, primarily by neglecting optical image stabilization, eschewing 1080i video, and using a small 1/4.5-inch sensor.
Light (it weighs less than 13 ounces) and compact, the HMX10 has an attractive, functional design with a few perks and a couple of pains. Despite the plastic casing, it feels quite solid. It's a little taller than other flash-based models, which makes it a bit easier to grip, and all the operational controls--zoom switch, photo button, power, mode, and record fall comfortably under your right thumb or forefinger. The grip rotates about 150 degrees, and though you can leave it at any point in the rotation, it locks into only two positions. The first slight rotation drops it by about 5 degrees, increasing the height for larger hands, one of the cleverer designs I've seen lately. You can continue the rotation to about 150 degrees, which I find less useful, since the controls aren't very accessible that way.
The battery and SDHC slot sit on top of the camcorder, hidden beneath a tethered cover. As with cassette-based camcorders, a top-loading media slot is the most convenient location, and if you shoot with a tripod, it's also the best place for the battery. In many cases with other camcorders, even though the battery is accessible while mounted on a tripod, the battery release may by obstructed. It also provides a built-in lens cover with a mechanical switch, a nice feature that has become typical in camcorders in this price range. I also like the fact that despite shipping with a cradle, Samsung retains the USB and other connectors on the camcorder.
Unfortunately, though, Samsung went with a touch-screen interface for the HMX10. I generally find that touch screens aren't very comfortable to work with on the 2.7-inch displays common to this class, and Samsung's proves to be no exception. I found the system to be frequently unresponsive, and require multiple presses to recognize input. That said, the menus are organized fairly well. The mode switching presents another frustration. As it toggles through each mode, it tries to initialize for photo, video, or load thumbnails, depending upon which mode you're passing through. As a result, it bogs you down and can even make you miss shots.
While I applaud the manual controls--shutter speed, gain, and focus--in a model of this price class, they're not quite as useful as they should be. It offers 29 exposure steps, but they seem to operate linearly, which means they visually clip off to black quite suddenly, effectively decreasing the available adjustment range and providing only the coarsest of control. Furthermore, though you can adjust the shutter speed as high as 1/10,000 second, you can't drop below 1/60 second to shoot in low light. Without any sort of magnification and finer control than the touch screen allows, the manual focus is close to useless. The camcorder also has a video light, but you've got to dive into the menu system to turn it on.
The HMX10 records noninterlaced 1280x720 video using MPEG-4 AVC/H.264 encoding, similar to that used by AVCHD. Unlike the typical AVCHD camcorder, the HMX10 requires only a class 2 SDHC card (2MB/sec) rather than a class 4 or better card (4MB/sec and up). That's because AVCHD camcorders generally record 1080i video with its concomitantly higher bit-rate needs. Because of the smaller files, you can also fit more video; for instance, the internal 8GB is rated to hold 88 minutes of best-quality video, compared with about 20 minutes for a 1080i AVCHD model. However, the largest single clip it will capture is 2GB--not a big problem, but one to be aware of if you need "set it and forget it" recording.
Software support turned out to be one of the HMX10's more unpleasant surprises; I suspect, but don't have time to prove, that the codecs necessary to work with the Samsung's MPEG-4 files have glitches on 32-bit AMD Athlon systems. PCs and Macs using Intel chips didn't exhibit any of the problems we experienced on AMD systems, which ranged from crashing QuickTime playback to a complete inability to process the video with applications such as Ulead VideoStudio, Sony Vegas Movie Studio Platinum, and Pinnacle Studio 11 Plus (at best, they seemed to play just the keyframes). Adobe Premiere Pro didn't recognize the files at all. Only the bundled Cyberlink suite worked properly. Note that even most problematic AVCHD-format video doesn't seem to have any platform-related issues, just format-support ones.
Overall, the HMX10 performed adequately. The zoom switch is a bit loose, making it hard to get a consistent zoom rate, but is fine for casual use. In good light, autofocus is just a tad sluggish, and it has the typical problems differentiating between foreground and background subjects. In low light, the focus pulses even once it's locked, another common problem with consumer models. The audio also sounds mostly good, though the sound on several of my clips was completely obliterated by static for an unknown (and unreproducible) reason.
The video quality is just mixed enough to disappoint. It's surprisingly sharp, and the colors, while not terribly accurate, generally look saturated and pleasing. Though low resolution, still photos look OK. But the HMX10 generally renders inconsistent exposure across the frame, completely blown out highlights in sunlight, sallow skin tones outdoors, and mushy low-light video.
The Samsung SC-HMX10 is an especially difficult camcorder to rate: for everything I like about it, I have a matching complaint. If it cost $200, I could probably overlook its issues, but it's not cheap enough to merit that much forgiveness. After all is said and done, the fact remains that decent HD recording has not yet hit the bargain bin.