We'll start with the good news. Hitachi's goal of an inexpensive camcorder, combining the long recording times and stability of a hard disk drive with the easy playback and distribution of a DVD, merits attention.
Furthermore, from that limited perspective, the hybrid DZ-HS300E succeeds. Its one-touch dubbing from the 8GB hard disk to the internal miniDVD is definitely more convenient and less expensive than the docking solutions from companies such as Sony and JVC.
At 434g, the HS300E is relatively light, but it's large and bulky and won't quite fit into a jacket pocket. The four-way switch that you use to navigate the menus -- necessary if you want to choose from among the handful of scene modes and white-balance presets -- feels stiff and is frequently nonresponsive if you move too quickly. It forces you to slowly and deliberately cursor through the menu choices.
The design of the Power/Mode switch, however, ranks as the HS300A's biggest flaw. It slides far too easily to the Off position from HDD and SD modes. There's a tiny lock switch to prevent it from accidentally moving from the HDD to the DVD position, but not the reverse.
Though 8GB doesn't seem like much, it's enough to hold about 110 minutes of highest-quality video, which should suffice for most purposes. If not, Hitachi offers a 30GB model, the DZ-HS500E. Aside from capacity, the only difference between the two is the HS500A's 30x lens, which outzooms the HS300A's 25x version.
Since even 8GB is far more than you can fit on an 80mm (3-inch) DVD, the camcorder includes some limited editing capabilities, allowing you to select, combine and add effects to clips, as well as create and edit playlists. It's hard to see what you're doing on the small 69mm (2.7-inch) LCD, though. You can choose from among a broad selection of 80mm optical media for recording or distribution as well -- the HS300A supports DVD-R, DVD-RW, DVD+RW and DVD-RAM.
In most other respects, the HS300E is your typical budget camcorder, and that's bad news for a hard drive/DVD-based model. Its 1/6-inch 680,000-pixel sensor records 410,000-pixel video, which simply isn't enough for the MPEG-2 compression algorithm to encode without significant degradation. Severe edge crawl and jaggies, fringing and a variety of false-colour artefacts -- especially around light sources -- render the video close to unusable. Even for YouTube.
At least it performs reasonably well, with decent focus speed and accuracy. The zoom switch is a tad sensitive, but not too bad if you're not high on caffeine. If you plan to hang out at the extreme end of the zoom range, though, use a tripod -- you don't want to rely on the HS300E's electronic image stabilisation as your only means of support.
It's a shame about the slippery power switch and poor video quality, because the idea of the Hitachi DZ-HS300E has great mass appeal. We suggest, however, that you look at other budget models before you part with any cash.
Additional editing by Kate Macefield