In the land of digital video, the consumer is king. Even so, consumers can feel slightly overwhelmed by the choice of digital video now available. Hence Hitachi's new idea. Why choose between Hard Disk Drive (HDD) and DVD, it argues, when one camcorder can give you both?

Packed inside the HS500 is a 30GB HDD, and an 8cm DVD drive that's compatible with DVD-RAM, -RW, -R and Plus RW media. But is Hitachi really offering a two-for-one best of both worlds, or is it just a manufacturer unsure which way a declining camcorder market is heading trying to hedge its bets?

Design and layout

There's nothing remarkable about the HS500's design, save for the fact that it has merged HDD and DVD drives into a camcorder that's no bigger than your average standalone DVD or HDD cam.

The HS500 provides a steady shooting platform, the 505g weight making it easy to hold the camcorder steady. It's comfortable to use and you can access major external controls with your shooting hand.

A button above the 2.7in LCD screen activates the onscreen menu system, which is then navigated using a multi-selector pad. The menu is laid out in a predictable way to make it easy to scroll through, and select from. Our only complaint is that the multi-selector pad is too small for most fingers and would benefit from having more pronounced ridges - or really, be more like a joystick.

Design elements that are worthy of praise include a Quick Start button that allows you to get the camcorder ready for shooting in around one second.

This also helps to get the most out of the lithium-ion battery, which we felt drained very quickly when shooting in continuous mode. We also liked the zoom control, which is smooth and, unusually for a non-enthusiast camcorder, offers slow zooms rather than the much-too-fast variety.

We were a little aggrieved that you can't snap digital stills in either HDD or DVD mode. Instead you have to switch to SD card mode if you want to capture photos. DVD and Hard Drive are both capable of storing a mixture of media, so it shouldn't be a problem.

And, the small array of buttons - which actually look after some important features - behind the LCD screen would really benefit from being more user-friendly. The buttons themselves are adequately large but they're simply not responsive enough.

Features

Where HDD and DVD benefit over tape is in the way they allow users to manipulate and play with footage almost immediately. With footage shot in both media it's possible to create playlists of your favourite clips, delete, divide or combine clips and add titles to clips so you have something to jog your memory.

What's also practical about the HS500 is that it features a one-step dubbing function allowing you to transfer footage from HDD to a DVD disc in your camcorder and to burn the disc, enabling it to be played in a home DVD player or computer drive.

You can capture footage to HDD and DVD (or both). In our test we shot footage in the maximum resolution XTRA mode in HDD and also in the XTRA mode using a blank DVD-R. You also have the option to record to DVD-RAM, DVD-RW and DVD Plus RW 8cm discs.

Before you make your choice, however, it's worth finding out what each disc can offer. We found we couldn't access editing functions with DVD-R, but could using Plus RW and RAM.

You can enjoy between seven and 23 hours of recording time by opting to use the 30GB hard drive in the variety of resolution settings, but opting to use a dual layer DVD gives you recording times of between 36 minutes and 120 minutes per disc.

Performance

The HS500 would be capable of much more if Hitachi had added higher performance optics to this model. The general impression is of a camcorder that has plenty of potential but which needs that little extra to make it special. The 2.0 lens could do with being wider (1.8, or even better an 1.2 version would help) and that 1/6in 800,000 pixel CCD is too restrictive.

On our test footage we found a very noticeable variability within the colour performance. The vibrant yellow of the Chinese State Circus trucks is spot on in

one sequence but was then reduced to a more muddy green version in another - and this without us making any changes to the lighting or camera setting.

Picture instability (jitter) is evident all over our test material, no matter whether it was shot outside on a brightly lit day, or inside under a mixture of natural and tungsten light. Looking closely at the footage you see the picture shimmering on brickwork, leaves and on a circus marquee. In fact the only time this jitter isn't evident is on close-ups.

In fact we found that with close-ups (both indoor and out) the HS500 delivered a great amount of detail, good sharpness and fairly accurate colour levels, and this is where the camcorder's performance is at its best.

Overall, the HS500's indoor performance is average - but we mean that in a reasonable way. Footage is not blighted by a struggling autofocus; instead most of our material remains rock steady. There's a high level of grain - even in a room lit well by a mixture of natural and artificial light - but the colours, though muted, are fine.

The audio quality, using the Dolby Digital system, is genuinely pleasing. Dialogue delivered directly to camcorder is clear and precise, and as a subject moves away from the microphone the drop in volume is consistent.

We recorded a selection of music to the camcorder and again the results were impressive. There are accurate bass notes, so the overall sound doesn't major in the treble, and a general warmth to the audio. Footage was recorded to HDD and DVD-R in the maximum resolution settings for each.

Conclusion

Great concept, but it's not quite the finished article. Good features include the Quick Start, multi-DVD compatibility, clever dubbing/burning facility and the ease of use, but the image performance needs improvement.

It still represents good value for money for the casual moviemaker - getting it for under £375 should be easy enough - but a boost in the optics and CCD department could pay real dividends for filmmakers and Hitachi.