Benchmark:Hitachi VM-H955LA Hi8 Camcorder

Look, Ma, Two Hands



VM-H955LA Hi8 Camcorder

($799)

Hitachi Home Electronics

PO Box 3900

Peoria, IL 61612

(800) HITACHI (448-2244)

www.hitachi.com

The VM-H955LA is Hitachi’s newest and best camcorder in the Hi8 category. It targets the entry-to-mid-level hobbyist. This moderately priced camcorder has all the automated features that make videomaking fun and easy for beginners. It also includes some of the manual controls that the more experienced shooters may crave. This model seems like it was designed to use its automatic mode, so for those who like to fiddle with the controls – especially while recording, the VM-H955LA might be limiting.

Moderate in size, the VM-H955LA is compact enough for travelers and its automatic features let users quickly point, shoot and record without having to bother with any adjustments.

Keep on Trucking

The VM-H955LA comes equipped with an impressive 3.5-inch flip-out color LCD screen and a monochrome viewfinder. The flip-out LCD screen is perhaps this model’s strongest feature. The tiny viewfinder is a handy backup if your battery is low, otherwise, don’t bother with it. The LCD screen is large enough to easily view all of the elements of a scene and it makes for great trucking (moving forward or backward) or dolly (moving side to side) shots. The adjustable screen flips up to 180 degrees, which enables you to comfortably walk and record at the same time without having to worry about bumping into a pole or tripping over a log.

We tested the maneuverability of the camcorder with the flip-out screen by following a cooperative cat around an alley. Keeping up with the feline was tricky, but the VM-H955LA handled itself admirably, especially the autofocus, staying in focus even when Scruffy rubbed up against the lens. The footage, shot at a quick pace, was fairly steady. By flipping the screen so we could watch the unfolding scene as we walked, we captured exciting low angle action footage.

While trucking, the image was pretty steady. With the image stabilizer turned on, the footage was even steadier.

The flip-out viewscreen is also handy for reviewing taped footage. With a small speaker next to it, this camcorder doubles as a nice compact video player.

The ease and functionality of the LCD screen was almost enough to overlook this camcorder’s major shortcoming.

Shaky Grip on Reality

Most of our complaints revolve around the VM-H955LA’s clunky, inconvenient placement of control buttons and handgrip. It was designed for videographers to hold with both hands and to use the LCD screen exclusively. When you abandon the flip screen and rely on the viewfinder, using one hand to hold the camcorder, you’re left with an unwieldy camcorder that’s awkward to hold and clumsy to operate. The handgrip with strap is of mediocre design and like most camcorders, is made for righties. The camcorder’s weight is unbalanced so when you hold it in your right hand, gravity naturally pulls it to your left.

The manual control buttons are located near the back on the left-hand side of the camcorder and make for awkward adjustments especially while recording. In order to push any of the buttons that control the digital effects, fades, image stabilizer, display or manual focus, you must use your left hand to push the buttons. This is a major design flaw that can cause unwanted jerky movement to the camcorder.

It’s Automatic, Baby

The VM-H955LA features enough automatic controls like automatic focus, automatic exposure and electronic image stabilization to make it an easy starter for beginners. At the same time, it allows the more experienced videographers some amount of manual control with a six-mode exposure, digital effects, fades and manual focus. Unfortunately, to turn the manual focus on, you must awkwardly push two control buttons at the same time. This may not sound like a big deal, but if you want to switch to manual focus while recording, it’ll jiggle your shot.

The VM-H955LA features a 22:1 optical zoom and a 400:1 digital zoom. The zoom motor isn’t the fastest in the world, but it worked well. Like many camcorders that feature ridiculously high digital zoom capabilities, it’s not practical at full zoom because the picture becomes grainy, pixelated and jumpy. If you’re going to utilize the digital zoom with autofocus, it’s best to place the camcorder on a tripod to minimize any movement that might trigger the autofocus to re-adjust itself. For intermediate distances, the picture was fine and the electronic image stabilizer worked well.

The autofocus adjusted very well when zoomed all the way out. It had no problem focusing as we panned across the room. When zoomed half way in, we needed to slow down the motion of the pan in order for it to focus properly. It also focused well when zooming in and out, matching focus to zoom perfectly.

The adjustable AE program dial controls the shutter speed. There is an automatic mode that allows the camcorder to adjust itself according to ambient conditions. It works fine and is quite sensitive. When you want a faster shutter speed you can turn the program knob to sports mode. For other situations, there are various other modes besides auto to choose from (portrait, spotlight, backlight compensation and gain-up).

The Final Credits

The VM-H955LA comes with a simple built-in titler. The control buttons are not intuitive and the titles appear in only one color. There are a few preset titles in English, French and Spanish. It’s a little tiresome to cycle through the characters, choosing letters and numbers, but at least it has the feature if ever needed.

On a sounder note, the built-in microphone picked up sound clearly. There is however, no external microphone jack or headphone jack. These are the little things that the more experienced videographers would sorely miss.

The lithium-powered battery that comes included with the camcorder held up for about forty-five minutes while using the view screen and occasionally reviewing recorded footage. Hitachi upgraded its battery charger; now you can charge the battery while it’s in the camcorder. A small but appreciated detail.

The single A/V cable outlet is conveniently placed on the right side of the camcorder and it’s easy to plug into a VCR for editing or viewing.

The built-in light works like a miner’s lamp. The light appears artificial and the illuminating angle doesn’t hit the same spot as the lens, so it’s always just a little off. For anything other than COPS style lighting, you’re better off turning on all of the lights in the room.

If you’re comfortable with a nearly all-automatic, point and shoot camcorder then the VM-H955LA could be an ideal choice for you. But if you like more control while recording, then you might prefer a more ergonomic camcorder. –DC

Tech Specs – Hitachi VM-H955LA Hi8 Camcorder

Format Hi8

Lens: 22:1 optical zoom, 400:1 digital zoom, f/1.6, 46mm filter diameter

Image Sensor: 1/4-inch CCD, 470,000 pixels

Viewfinder: 3.5-inch color LCD viewscreen, monochrome viewfinder

Focus: Auto, manual

Maximum Shutter Speed: 1/4000 of a second

Exposure: 6 AE Modes: auto, sports, portrait, spotlight, backlight, gain-up

White Balance: Auto

Digital Effects: 6 modes(16×9, Negative/Positive, x400 Digital zoom mode, Art, Mosaic, Half-mirror)

Audio: Stereo

Inputs: A/V jack (to either RCA or S-video cable)

Outputs: A/V jack (to either composite video with stereo RCA or S-video cable), composite, RCA mono audio

Edit Interface: IR

Other Features: PAL Playback

Dimensions: 4 11/16 (height) x 4 1/16 (width) x 7 1/8 (depth)

Weight: 1lb 15oz (sans tape and battery)

Video Performance :(approx.)

Horizontal resolution: (camera): 360

Horizontal resolution: (playback): 360

Performance Times:

Pause to Record: 1/10 of a second

Power-up to Record: 2.5 seconds

Fast-forward/Rewind: (60 min. tape) 3 minutes

strengths:

  • flexible viewfinder
  • playback speaker
  • PAL playback
  • easy point and shoot camcorder

weaknesses:

  • awkward ergonomics
  • no microphone jack
  • no headphone jack

summary:

Good point and shoot camcorder that offers some degree of manual control. Great for two-handed, automatic shooting.

–DC


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