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Weatherproof camcorders have all been big, unfriendly-looking things, until now. Hitachi's H70 is the first of a new breed of tough, go-anywhere, do-anything machines, and we've got one of the first models in the country



Given that most camcorders will spend a good proportion of their working lives in the great outdoors it's surprising how little attention most manufacturers pay to weatherproofing their machines. In practice most camcorders will live to tell the tape if they suffer the odd splash, or rain shower, but if water -- especially sea water -- gets inside, it's often fatal.


Over the years several manufacturers have developed 'splash-proof' or weather-resistant machines, but they've usually been huge, brightly-coloured lumpy affairs, fine for the beach but distinctly out of place at weddings or more formal occasions... Sports or marine housings are available for a lot of machines these days though they can be horribly expensive, costing as much as budget camcorders in some instances, and that can be difficult to justify if you and your camcorder are only liable to get wet a couple of times a year.


Hitachi, who are no strangers to weatherproof camcorders  -- remember the SP1 -- have come up with an alternative, it's the VM-H70 Hi8 Weather Cam, and it goes on sale in July for just under 1200. The first thing you notice about the E70 is that it looks so very ordinary, no flashy colour schemes, plus it's roughly the same size, shape and weight as their other Hi8 machine, the H37 but that's where the similarities end. The H70 is a real tough customer, we haven't tried it yet but Hitachi reckon a man can stand on the two-piece casing without damaging it, and unofficially, survive immersion in water up to a depth of one metre. That we have tried, we'll let you know how it got on in a moment.



Apart from the Hi8 recording system and stereo hi-fi sound the specification is fairly basic, with few creative facilities. That's understandable, given that this machine is designed to operate in situations where there may be little or no opportunity to fiddle around with knobs and buttons. That puts a heavy burden on the H70's auto-exposure system, Hitachi have used a combination of their digital signal processing system and some fuzzy logic, to enable this machine to work in as wide a range of conditions as possible, with minimum intervention.


There's no shortage of secondary features though. They include a fader, backlight compensation button, 16:9 'cinema' recording mode, electronic image stabiliser, insert edit and a digital zoom that extends the optical zoom from 12x to 24x. There's also an instant zoom which magnifies the image by a further 1.5x, a simple 2-page/2-line x 16 character title generator, and it comes with a tiny IR remote control handset.  For an extra 30 you can buy the VM-RM70ED handset, it contains a 4-scene edit controller and multi-brand VCR control system. It's very similar to JVC's random edit system, automating the transfer of selected scenes from the camcorder to a VCR, the H70 also supports syncro edit, whereby a single selected scene can be copied to a compatible (Hitachi)VCR.


The H70 notches up another notable first, it's the first non-Sony machine to use a lithium ion rechargeable battery. They're smaller and lighter than nicads of equivalent capacity, and do not suffer from any debilitating memory effects. Hitachi have saved themselves a lot of work by using a Sony-made battery pack and charger, so in this case, at least, we won't have to suffer a repeat performance of the NP pack incompatibility fiasco.



Most of the controls are on the back panel,  apart from a couple of buttons on the right side of the machine for the fader and electronic image stabiliser. The zoom is controlled by three buttons, two for wide and tele setting, and in the middle one for the instant zoom. The standby and mode selection switch is situated just behind the viewfinder, and the record/pause button is on the battery compartment door.


Manual focus is unusual, it's controlled by a knob on the back panel. It's not as awkward as it looks, though it is a two-handed job, and the inner-focus system is not as smooth or progressive as we would have liked.


AV inputs and outputs, including S-Video signals, are all carried on a square 20-pin connector, this design is unique to Hitachi. It's small and works well enough but is completely out of step with the rest of the industry. It also means that Hitachi have to include extra leads in with the accessory pack, which must add to the cost. The optional edit controller/remote handset plugs into the microphone socket, sited next to the AV terminal.


There's a set of contacts on the underside of the machine, these mate with the battery charger, which can charge two batteries at once (one on the charger, the other inside the machine). The pack supplied with the E70 is rated at 1.2Ah and takes a hefty two and a half hours to charge on the unit, and six hours if it's inside the machine. The good news is that under normal shooting conditions you can easily get 40 to 45 minutes recording time per charge.



Unlike a conventional camcorder the H70 casing is split into two hollow sections, joined together just behind the lens barrel. This gives it its extraordinary rigidity, and reduces the length of the join -- and hence the potential for leaks -- compared with the more conventional 'clamshell' type construction, where the casing is split lengthways. There are just three openings, the cassette and battery compartments, and the cover for the AV terminal. Around each of them there's a red silicone rubber gasket, these should be replaced periodically and Hitachi have suggested that this might be done by the user, though details have still to be finalised. The control buttons on the back panel are all protected by rubber membranes and other possible entry points, around the viewfinder hinge, and microphone etc., are fully waterproofed.


Labels on the side of the machine and warnings in the instruction book give lots of sensible advice about what to do if the machine gets wet, and stress that it's not an underwater camcorder, but Hitachi happily demonstrate the H70 working in a fish tank, so we couldn't resist getting our sample wet, purely in the cause of investigative journalism you understand...


Our normal test for splash-proof camcorders involves leaving them under a running shower for twenty minutes, whilst recording. This is a somewhat harsher test than the official JIS standard,  which stipulates a fairly gentle stream of water playing on the case for five minutes. We thought the H70 deserved an altogether more rigorous dousing so we weighed it down (it floats...), and dropped it into a bath full of cold water, where it remained switched on and recording, for 40 minutes.



The moment of truth. After drying it off, and connecting the machine up to the charger and monitor it worked perfectly with no apparent ill effects. The tape and battery compartments were both bone dry, but some water had penetrated the AV socket cover. It was only a drop or two -- nothing too serious - but we suspect this may be due to the catch, which doesn't feel particularly secure, and needs a fair amount of pressure to engage. The microphone drained off almost immediately and sound returned to normal straight away.


But what about recording quality on dry land? Our sample turned in a very healthy set of results, a comfortable 400-line resolution figure in the Hi8 mode, and just over 250-lines on good MP tape. Noise levels were well below average, in both recording modes and colours -- in good natural light -- were crisp and well defined. The auto-only exposure system did very well and wasn't fazed by sudden changes in light intensity; shutter speed is shown in the viewfinder, we're not sure why because you can't do anything about it.


The electronic zoom kicks in automatically after the optical zoom has reached 12x, at which point there is a very slight reduction in picture quality, it might have been more helpful to have some sort of viewfinder indication to warn when this happens.


The H70's image stabilisation system is electronic, and by current standards a little old-fashioned as there's a noticeable reduction in picture quality when it is engaged. It's reasonably effective but out advice is that if you've got the shakes, get a tripod.


Sound quality is good, even underwater though treble response takes a dive, along with the rest of the machine. Out of the water the audio tracks have a clean, even response, and the microphones provide some sense of depth but not much.



It's the most fun we've had in the bath for quite a while, but seriously, the H70 has shown that it can survive an accidental dunking and we're happy to recommend it to accident-prone outdoor types. It's not going to disgrace itself in polite company either, it looks smart and there's been no compromise over AV performance. The only minus points are the very limited manual exposure options, and the obvious premium that has to be paid for all the weatherproofing. However, if you do your movie-making in the wet we reckon that could be money well spent.



There was a small spate of weatherproof camcorders a couple of years ago but since then most manufacturers have opted for the simpler, and we suspect more profitable solution of including sports and marine housings in their range. Only two machines remain, and they have both been discontinued for some time, so you may have to shop around for the JVC GR-AW1, and Hitachi SP1. The AW1 was the cheaper of the two, at just under 900, but we were not impressed, and the sample we tested leaked. The SP1 cost 1000, and it worked reasonably well, but it wasn't the sort of thing you'd want to pack in light weekend luggage. For the moment, at least, the H70 is in a class of its own!



Make/model                           Hitachi VM-H70 

Recording format                           Hi 8/8mm

Guide price                                1200



Lens                             f/1.8, 5-60mm

Zoom                            x12 optical, 24x digital

Filter diameter            46mm  

Pick-up device            0.3in CCD

Min. illum. (lux)            3



Long Play (LP)                 yes/no             

Max. rec. time                 120mins (SP mode only)

IR remote control       yes

Edit terminal                            yes (see text)


MAIN FACILITIES               

Auto Focus                               yes      

Manual focus                 yes      

Auto exposure               yes                              

Programmed AE                          no        

Fader                                        yes                  

Manual white balance no        

Auto white balance             yes                                          

Manual zoom                             no        

Power zoom                              yes                                                                              

Insert edit                                  yes      

Character generator                       yes      

Digital Superimposer            no        

Image stabiliser             yes                  

Video light                                 no        

Battery refresh               no                                        

Accessory shoe             no        




time/date recording, syncro edit, record review, backlight compensation, 16:9 recording, optional edit controller



Viewfinder                       0.6in monochrome

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



Stereo                             yes      

Audio dub                          no                            

Wind noise filter     no                    

Mic socket                        yes              

Headphone socket         no 

Microphone                    stereo unidirectional electret



Sockets                           AV out/edit control (square multi-pin), external

                                        microphone (minijack), DC power (base-mounted contact      


Size (mm)                        88 x 109 x 244

Weight                            1.1 kg (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                     400-lines

Colour fidelity               very good

Picture stability             very good

Colour bleed                  negligible

White balance                good

Exposure                       good

Autofocus                      average

Audio performance       very good

Insert edit                      good

Playback thru adaptor  N/A



Value for money          8

Ease of use                  9

Performance                9

Features                      8



R Maybury 1994 2904




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