Test Bench: Hitachi VM-D865LA Digital8 Camcorder

When Sony introduced the Digital8 format in 1999, it opened up a new world of inexpensive digital video for consumers. Now, Hitachi follows suit with its own Digital8 model, the VM-D865LA. Sporting a small (2.5-inch) flip-out color LCD monitor, microphone input, five digital effects and FireWire digital input/output, the VM-D865LA is intended for the average home videographer who prefers ease of use over manual control.

Familiar Look

The look and feel of the VM-D865LA is the tried-and-true, comfortable design popularized by Sony and Canon in the early ’90s. Though not particularly compact, the camcorder fits easily in the hand, and offers easy access to the zoom and record controls with the right hand. Placement of other controls on the camcorder is logical and ergonomic — with the camcorder in the right hand, the left hand is free to manipulate the fader, backlight compensation, digital effects and titler.

In Practice

At first glance, we thought the VM-D865LA had a manual focus ring, due to the heavy machined ring circling the lens. When we tried to turn it, however, we quickly learned that it’s for looks only and is not a focusing system. The actual focus system uses a pair of small buttons located on the back of the camera.

When shooting with the 2.5-inch LCD as your viewfinder, it’s fairly easy to get in an outdoor situation where the image is difficult to see. We found that the LCD’s brightness lacked a bit. Though the brightness adjustment located on the side of the monitor assembly helped somewhat, it was still difficult to make out the images in daylight shooting conditions. This is a common complaint with many LCD displays. Plan to use the eyepiece if you’ll be shooting out of doors.

The focus system on the VM-D865LA is acceptable, but not ideal. It might be difficult to pull off complex on-screen focusing feats with this camcorder, yet it isn’t hard to dial in a sharp focus, especially if you use the black-and-white viewfinder instead of the LCD.

The autofocus system is not overly responsive to changes in the scene at times, it took a full two or three seconds for the image to resolve sharply in the viewfinder. This can be a blessing as well as a curse. In some situations, auto focus features that are too sensitive can have a frustrating effect of highly mobile focus shifting.

Typical of most consumer-grade camcorders, the battery pack that comes with the VM-D865LA provides only about twenty or thirty minutes of shooting time. A second battery would be a wise investment.

Kudos to Hitachi for including a microphone input on this camcorder; though the VM-D865LA’s stereo on-camera mike is excellent, it doesn’t compare to the clean, crisp sound you get when you use an external mike. Curiously, Hitachi chose to omit a headphone output on this camcorder. It would have been a great boon to the user if they had included some way to monitor the sound, other than the built-in speaker, which is activated only on playback.

Backwards Compatibility

Possibly the most exciting feature of the Digital8 format is its ability to playback and output standard 8mm and Hi8 analog tapes. For the videographer who used 8 or Hi8 in the past, but wants to go digital, this is a brilliant feature. It means that you can put your old Hi8 tapes into the camcorder, plug it into your computer and voila, it outputs a digital signal. Hitachi’s more expensive Digital8 model (VM-D965LA $799) takes this technology a step further. It is capable of accepting inputs from an external source and outputting that signal through the FireWire port. Essentially, the VM-D965LA acts as a complete media converter on top of being a digital camcorder.

Picture and Sound

The quality of video shot on the VM-D865LA is better than most cameras you’ll find in its price range. It’s a good sign for the industry when digital-quality video becomes available at such a low price. Currently the VM-D865LA is the cheapest digital camcorder on the market.

Another good sign is the further proliferation of the FireWire digital input/output, which makes it possible to retain every bit of that excellent quality when you edit your videos on a computer. With this little jack, it’s possible to plug directly into your DV iMac, Sony Vaio or other FireWire-equipped computer.

While some video editors with legacy systems may regret the lack of an editing interface such as LANC, it is a tribute to this camera’s futuristic outlook that it instead relies on the FireWire interface to provide remote control for batch capturing, etc. We laud Hitachi for joining the Digital8 revolution; while the VM-D865LA isn’t perfect by any means, it is a good camcorder for the price, and a sign of things to come.


Format: Digital8

Lens: 22:1 optical, 500:1 digital

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

Viewfinder: 2.5-inch color flip-out LCD;

0.5-inch monochrome CRT

Focus: Auto, inner manual

Max shutter speed: 1/4000th of a second

Exposure: Auto, Program AE (Sports, Portrait, Spotlight, Gain-up)

White balance: Auto

Digital effects: Mosaic, Negative/positive, Half-mirror, 16:9, Art

Audio: 16-bit or 12-bit

Inputs: FireWire (IEEE 1394), S-video,

composite (RCA-style) video, stereo audio, microphone (1/8-inch mini)

Outputs: FireWire (IEEE 1394), S-video,

composite (RCA-style) video, stereo audio

Edit interface: FireWire (IEEE 1394)

Other features: Electronic image stabilization, fader, titler, time/date stamp

Dimensions: 4 3/8 (width) by 4 3/8 (height) by 7 15/16 (depth) inches

Weight: 1.84 pounds

Performance Times

Pause to record: 2 seconds

Power-up to record: 6 seconds

Fast-forward/rewind (60 min. tape) : 4 minutes and 33 seconds


  • Digital8 quality
  • FireWire
  • Microphone input


  • Sluggish operation
  • No headphone jack


  • An affordable Digital8 that puts out high quality images.

Hitachi, Ltd.

1855 Dornoch Court

San Diego, CA 92145




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