To date, most domestic high-def camcorders have fallen into one of two format camps - HDV, which is basically an MPEG2 update of the established mini DV tape, and AVCHD. The latter supports the newer and more efficient H.264 codec and a variety of recording media that includes hard disks and solid-state media (memory cards).
One of Panasonic's latest 3CCD AVCHD cams, the HDC-DX1, will also record high-def AVCHD footage to UDF 2.5-formatted mini DVDs. The company claims that such discs, which will run for around 40 minutes if you're using dual-layer media, are compatible with Blu-ray players.
Hitachi opts for Blu-ray
However, Hitachi - ironically the inventor of DVD camcorders - has its own ideas. Two of its latest models will write directly to the newly announced mini Blu-ray media; a range of which has just been announced by Hitachi subsidiary Maxell (TDK and Verbatim also have discs available).
The idea is that after recording and finalising the disc, you can drop it into a Blu-ray disc player and enjoy your footage in potential Full HD quality (a resolution of 1920 x 1080 pixels).
With the exception of Panasonic's DX1, all other HD camcorders require you to plug them directly into an HD Ready TV or - even less conveniently - view your footage on a computer.
There are currently two models in this prestigious range. The BD70E is a Blu-ray only camcorder, able to write to 7.5GB BD-R (recordable) and BD-RE (rewritable) media.
Blu-ray and a 30GB HDD
Upscale of this is the DZ-BD7HE, its 'hybrid' brother. This also includes an integral 30GB hard drive, to which you can record directly. These video clips can subsequently be copied to the 8cm Blu-ray discs. Both of the camcorders can also record standard-definition footage directly to DVD media in MPEG2.
Unfortunately, dual-layer media (Blu-ray and DVD) are not supported by this generation of Hitachi hardware. Another disadvantage is that the BD7HE won't let you record in DVD-compatible form to the hard drive. Instead, you have to transcode from the camcorder's primary high-def format (AVC-compliant H.264) to the MPEG2 of DVD. This can take as long as two hours, for a one-hour movie!
Compatibility of recordings with existing Blu-ray players is a moot point. Our Samsung BD-P1000 won't accept BD-R discs - just as many early DVD players rejected rewritable DVDs. For its part, Hitachi says that recordings made by these camcorders "work on a PlayStation 3".
Design and layout
A little larger than the average DVD camcorder, the BD7HE is dominated by a disc-loading mechanism that's crowned by an enormous Blu-ray logo.
It may tip the scales at over 600g, but it's comfortable to hold - the usual handstrap arrangement applies here. Elsewhere on the body is a slot for SD memory cards, which is intended for still photography only. Dotted around the casing are terminals, USB 2.0 (for transfer of footage to a PC for editing) and composite/S-video (standard-definition output). For those who don't have a Blu-ray player, Hitachi has also included a HDMI port.
Full marks for the 'interactive-guide' user interface, which takes advantage of the inbuilt viewfinder or the 2.7in. flip-out LCD screen. The latter is not big enough to show up all of that high-def detail, but a larger screen would have impacted on the battery life (100 min, with viewfinder).
A nice touch is the one-second quick-start function, which is associated with a low-power standby mode. Just the ticket, then, for those 'once-in-a-lifetime' moments.
Hitachi has plumped for a 10x zoom for these models, although 500x digital is also available. Behind the lens lies a single CMOS image sensor, which currently offers the world's highest resolution (5.3 megapixels). In contrast, Panasonic's competing models use a professional-style 3CCD chip array.
Around half of the 5.3 million pixels are employed for high-def video, unless - one presupposes - digital zoom or the on-board electronic image stabiliser is engaged. In normal use, only still photography takes anywhere near the sensor's full native resolution - one of these modes gives you 4.32 megapixels.
There are five program AE modes, but a roster of manual tweakery ensures that these cams will be well received by creative moviemakers.
You are given control of focus, white balance, backlight compensation and exposure. Audio-wise, the system is two-channel Dolby Digital only. Some camcorders give you 5.1, but for capturing 'location' audio the Hitachi's two channels should be fine.
Two dubbing modes are offered by the BD7HE. One is a basic one-touch function that works at speeds of up to 2x - the other non-linear mode is based around a scene list.
Here, the 'in' and 'out' points of the desired footage residing on the hard disk are defined; copying then proceeds in the order that you have specified. Other features include a flash/video light, cold accessory shoe, three scene transitions (for shooting - no such effects are possible when dubbing) and Hitachi's Picture Master Full HD video processing.
These cams will make it much easier to enjoy HD than ever before - providing that you have a (compatible!) Blu-ray player as well as an HD Ready TV. Thanks to high capacities, practical recording times are available with 8cm Blu-ray discs.
However, more could have been done with standard def. Being able to record in DVD-standard MPEG2 to the HDD (and, for that matter, Blu-ray) would certainly have been appreciated. But for now, Hitachi should be congratulated on its achievement. I wonder when (if ever) we'll see an HD DVD camcorder?