After a stuttering start when it appeared that only one manufacturer, JVC, saw the potential of recording to hard drive, the HDD format is now becoming very popular. Sony and JVC have several models available between them and Hitachi has recently introduced an HDD and DVD hybrid model, in the shape of the DZ-HS303.
It initially seemed that Panasonic was looking towards removable storage as a future format, due to the launch of camcorders like the SDR-S100 and SV-AV50 which record to SD card. However, this new model, the SDR- H20, marries both formats, HDD and SD, to create a camcorder with so few moving parts that it makes mini DV look like a Heath Robinson illustration.
The 'business' end of the H20 features an f1.8 lens and an 800,000 pixel CCD, but neither is really likely to catch the eye of the consumer. No, where the H20 really steps into the limelight is with its combination of Hard Disk Drive (HDD) and SD card recording and in its sheer capacity for recording your movie footage and stills.
On the right-hand side of the camcorder sits the hard drive - all 30GB of it. It's capable of storing up to 27 hours of video footage in its LP mode, while in its top XP mode there's room for seven hours of recording.
The SD card - a 512MB version is supplied with the pack - is slotted into the left-hand side of the camcorder, though you'll have to open the 2.7-inch widescreen LCD to access it. The 512MB card doesn't have anything like the capacity of the hard drive, but it's the versatility that makes this such a beneficial design element.
If you want to store large amounts of material then it's possible to buy SDHC (High Capacity) cards up to 4GB in size, but, as an indicator, in XP mode the 512MB card can store six minutes of video and 25 minutes of video in LP mode.
The camcorder isn't capable of automatically swapping between HDD and SD to keep you shooting continuously, but you'll find it's a quick process of flicking between the two settings by using the menu system. Speaking of which, the H20 uses an identical menu system to that which has appeared on its recent mini DV and DVD models.
It's a system that's intuitive and easy to use - based around a single menu button and a multi-function joystick, both at the back of the camcorder. Push the menu button to gain access to effects, features and setup options, or press the centre of the joystick and then navigate around the functions you want.
Both HDD and SD recording mediums use MPEG2 compression, but differ slightly in the way they record audio. In HDD mode the H20 records using 16-bit Dolby Digital, while in SD card recording it switches to MPEG1 Audio Layer 2 (in layman's terms, Dolby offers much more clarity).
In bringing together these recording formats Panasonic has avoided the temptation of sacrificing conventional videomaking features, so users will find a creditable inventory of functions on the H20's specification sheet. Among these are a 32x optical zoom - that, thankfully, should negate the need for anyone to consider using the 50x or 1,000x digital zooms - as well as an optical image stabiliser and a five mode program AE.
On the face of it, the Panasonic SDR-H20 is undoubtedly aimed at the middle-ground user - being neither a budget model, nor having the pizzazz required for an enthusiast product - but it still includes a wide range of manual controls: focus, white balance, shutter speeds and exposure.
Being a mid-market camcorder this does, sadly, mean that some of the manual controls aren't as large or easy to use as they would be on an enthusiast model. It would mark a definite improvement if a manual focus ring were included, rather than asking the joystick to multi-task yet again.
The camcorder's stills capability is a disappointing area, highlighting the shortcomings of a 'mere' 800,000 pixel CCD in an era where everyone's counting megapixels. Stills can be captured at two quality settings, high and normal, but it's in terms of resolution that the main complaint resides - there's only 640x480 and 640x360 modes; the latter offering a 16:9 aspect ratio.
A far more productive inclusion is the Playlists option. This means it's possible to gather together your favourite clips. You can add scenes to a playlist you've already created, move scenes around within one, and delete unwanted clips. Best of all, editing scenes on a playlist doesn't affect the original scene at all.
Though Mac fans will barely twitch at the software offerings on display - there's none for them - anyone with a PC running Windows XP or 2000 can make use of an interesting program, ImageMixer 3. The software enables you to playback and import images onto a PC, edit movies, automatically write images from HDD to DVD, make DVDs from your playlists and link to the software support site.
ImageMixer 3 also allows you to use the DVD Copy setting, which is a one-button, one-push way of authoring DVDs. Place the H20 in Playback mode, press the DVD Copy button on the cam, connect via USB cable to the PC and insert a blank DVD. First, movies are recorded onto the disc, then still images as a slideshow. It's a simple and effective feature, and makes disc creation something everyone can enjoy.
There were no great surprises when we played back our test footage from the H20. Images recorded onto HDD were generally solid and contained a good, though not exceptional, level of detail. We found that on more complicated scenes, such as those with fences, railings and fast-moving traffic, there was a soft edge to a lot of the shots.
Picture stability is fair. We noticed jitter on several shots of brickwork and there was generally a fuzziness at the edge of the frame, again on more complicated images. Colour accuracy is good, although the H20 has a tendency to over-expose in its Auto Exposure mode - a case of too much gain, perhaps?
Footage saved to SD card does not quite match the HDD material, offering slightly less in detail and clarity, but we feel that it's an excellent back-up/alternative to have, especially if it means you get, rather than lose, that important shot.
Audio quality is, again, reasonable rather than resounding. There's a tinny quality to some of our outdoor recordings and a definite lack of warmth when someone is speaking to camera.
It's always a disappointment when a camcorder with such a great set of features doesn't quite have the image and audio quality to match them and this is the case with the H20. Everything is in place for a great camcorder, but due to an average performance it's merely a decent model.
Perhaps an upgrade to include a megapixel CCD and a higher-calibre lens might deliver the really superb shots we think this model is capable of. Robert Hull
Cam Size: The SDR-H20 is short and slightly stumpy in stature. Weight-wise, the cam is surprisingly light for something that holds a 30GB hard drive