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Well, it’s cheap… Setting a new low price benchmark for Hi8 the Samsung VP-M54 makes high-band recording technology available to a much wider audience but Rick Maybury wonders if a few too many corners have been cut to get the price down?



Peering through the Samsung VP-M54’s viewfinder is like looking back through time – a long way back… To begin with the viewfinder image is black and white, and its strange construction and eyepiece optics make the image appear a long way off, it’s a bit like looking at a distant cinema screen with one eye closed. Although this is a Hi8 machine it is clearly derived from Samsung’s most recent budget 8mm model (VP-M53), which accounts for the shape and a truly bizarre mixture of features.


Although we wouldn’t expect to find an LCD colour viewing screen on such an inexpensive machine, what appears to be some serious cost cutting is taken to an unusual extreme with an old-fashioned mono audio recording system. However, that contrasts with several decidedly up to date and up-market features, like a digital image stabiliser, an absurdly powerful 440x digital zoom, multiple special effects – including picture-in-picture – and a lithium ion battery. The replacement cost of the latter probably represents a sizeable proportion of the price of the machine!


Lets take a closer look. There’s no way it could be described as a pretty machine, but it’s not exactly ugly either; it’s plump and curvy in a comfortable sort of way, quite a handful to hold but the casework doesn’t feel very substantial; some panels flex and rattle alarmingly. There’s a generous assortment of exposure and creative options, they include five program AE modes (sports, portrait, spotlight, sand/snow and high-speed shutter). The selection of digital effects is even more impressive, there’s twelve of them in all, most of which you will be familiar with, but it’s worth having a look at a couple of the more unusual ones. ‘Make Up’ is the most interesting one with only the selected colour (red, yellow, blue or green) displayed in an otherwise black and white image. Emboss gives the picture a sort of 3D effect and Ghost adds ‘trails’ to movement. The picture-in-picture (PIP) facility mentioned a moment ago isn’t as interesting as it sounds. It’s used in conjunction with the digital zoom. The inset PIP sub-screen shows the unadulterated image through the lens whilst the rest of the screen shows the electronically magnified picture, and this is what ends up on tape. We’re not exactly sure what it’s good for, but probably someone will find a use for it.



The secondary controls are truly horrible; the manual focus thumbwheel on the side is quite stiff and makes a grinding noise and the on-screen menu system is much too complicated. You have to press a button on the side to call it up then make selections with another stiff and grindy thumbwheel on the back. Selections are confirmed with another button on the back and the thumbwheel is used to change a selection, then you have to go back to the first button to exit the menu. It’s almost impossible to remember the correct sequence of buttons if you’re in a hurry.


Here’s a snippet of good news. If you don’t go made with the zoom the battery pack is good for up to 2-hours recording time and being lithium ion it doesn’t deteriorate or develop a memory to anything like the same extent as NiCad. Li-Ion packs can also be given repeated top-up charges without problems and the battery is charged in-situ.



Picture quality is in the Hi8 ballpark with definition a smidge over 370 lines on our test machine. Colour rendition is fair and noise levels are about average, in other words it’s okay, but not great. We could live with that but it all goes disastrously wrong when it comes to deck stability. Our sample was very touchy, even a slight tap would upset recording and playback and a swift pan can induce a very distinct wow and flutter on the soundtrack. Unfortunately that’s not the end of it, the deck mechanism is noisy and a persistent whine ends up on the soundtrack, even when there’s a fair amount of ambient noise. The microphone also picks up handling noises and needless to say the grinding noises made by the two thumbwheels (manual focus and menu select) come through loud and clear. Actual sound quality isn’t too bad but being mono it comes across as a flat and lifeless, accompanied by a lot of noises you’d rather not hear.



True, you won’t find many cheaper Hi8 machines than this one, and AV quality is noticeably better than whiskery old 8mm and VHS-C but the disadvantages outweigh the good points. We’d suggest anyone on a tight budget hankering after a high-band camcorder keeps saving, or check out the bargains amongst discontinued and last season’s models.



Samsung VP-M54, Hi8, £350



Lens                             f/1.6, 3.6 – 79.2mm

Zoom                            22x optical, 440x digital

Filter diameter            46 mm  

Pick-up device            0.25in CCD

Min illum                       0.3lux  

Long play (LP)                        no                   

Max rec time                        120mins

IR remote control                        yes

Edit terminal                        no


MAIN FACILITIES               

Auto focus                                yes                                          

Manual focus                 yes

Manual white balance yes (2-mode preset)

Auto white balance             yes

Auto exposure               yes                              

Manual exposure                       no

Programmed AE                          yes (5-mode)  

Fader                                        yes                  

Backlight compensation            yes                              

Manual zoom                             no        

Power zoom                              yes                                                                              

Insert edit                                  no        

Audio dub                                  no

Character generator                       yes                  

Digital superimposer                 no        

Image stabiliser                         yes                  

Video light                                 no        

Battery refresh               no                                        

Accessory shoe             no        



time/date recording, picture-in-picture (PIP) record review, tally lamp, snap shot recording, digital effects (‘make up’ – see text -- emboss, 16:9, cinema, negative, mirror, mosaic, monochrome, sepia, ghost, strobe, low-speed shutter), self timer



Viewfinder                       0.6 in monochrome

Viewfinder info               deck mode and status, low battery, tape count, fader, focus mode, tape end, time/date, title, zoom position



Stereo                                       no        

Wind noise filter                         no                   

Mic socket                                yes                  

Headphone socket              no        

Mic                                           omnidirectional electret



Sockets                                    AV out, microphone (minijack), S-Video out (mini DIN),

DC power (DC jack)


Dimensions                               101 x 104 x 174mm                      

Weight                          740kg (inc tape and battery)



Batteries (Lithium ion and lithium), straps, AC charger/power supply,

AV lead             yes      

video light                      no                    

remote control            yes      

cassette adaptor n/a                   

RF Converter             no        

SCART adaptor            yes                  



Resolution                                 370-lines

Colour bleed                              slight

White balance                            fair

Exposure                                   average

Auto focus                                  average

Audio performance                   poor



Value for money            7

Ease of use                   6

Performance                  7

Features                       8



R Maybury 2000 2908





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