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The latest version of Hitachiís go-anywhere Weather Cam is now even more independent, we take a close look at the remarkably versatile VM-H80



Camcorders come and go but only a few of them ever leave a lasting impression. The Hitachi VM-H70 Weathercam, launched exactly a year ago, was one of the exceptions, and it looks like its successor, the VM-H80 could do the same. The two machines share an almost identical specification, however the new model does have a few little extras which weíll come to in a moment, but first the basics. This is a Hi8 camcorder, itís a slim, compact design with stereo sound and a 12x zoom lens. It has just a handful of creative facilities, somewhat surprising in view of the fact that it costs the best part of £1200, but this machine has hidden talents. The most important one is a tough watertight case. Itís not a new idea but in the past so-called Ďsportsí camcorders have been huge great lumpy things, usually housed  in bright orange or yellow cases, that look fine on the beach, but a little out of place on dry land. The H80, like its predecessor, is far more discreet, it would pass for an ordinary camcorder, in fact itís the sort of machine you could take anywhere, without it looking like a fish out of water...


The H80 is not being billed as a water-proof or underwater camera, Hitachi prefer terms like water-resistant and splashproof, but off the record it can withstand total immersion in water  for short periods, to a depth of up to a metre. We actually tried an H70 in a swimming pool last year, and it survived unscathed, though itís not the sort of thing we recommend you try as it would almost certainly invalidate the guarantee. Suffice it to say this is the sort of machine you could take on a boat, or use on the beach, without fear of it getting wet. The case can also take the knocks and bumps of an active outdoor life. When the H70 was launched Hitachi demonstrated it taking the weight of a full grown man; weíll take it as read the H80 is equally strong. (To be honest didnít think it was a good idea to try it with our H80 review sample as it was the only one in the country at the time.)


The rest of the feature list echoes the H70. It has an electronic image stabiliser, 2x instant zoom (taking the maximum zoom to 24x), thereís a backlight compensation facility, 16:9 recording mode (black bars top and bottom of the picture), simple 2-line titler, insert edit and itís powered by a lithium ion battery. This is smaller and lighter than a nicad pack of similar capacity, and it fits inside the machine, in a watertight compartment behind the hand-grip. Incidentally these batteries do not suffer from cell-imbalance or Ďmemoryí effects, and the power-level indicator can be believed. The trade-off is slightly longer charging time, and higher replacement cost.


Layout and handling are unchanged from the H70, with the bulk of the controls on the back panel. Here too is the manual focus control knob; itís tricky to use at first but you quickly get used to it. Instead of the usual zoom rocker the H80 has three buttons, one for instant zoom the others for selecting wide or telephoto; theyíre covered by rubber membranes, which makes them a little stiff. One welcome change from the H70 is an on-screen indicator that shows when the electronic zoom takes over from the optical zoom, there is a consequent change in picture quality, which isnít readily apparent from the viewfinder display.


Now we come to the important new features. The fader has 3-modes, normal fade to or from black, plus thereís a zoom fade, and a horizontal wipe, both to white. The price, which is the same as the H70 at launch, now includes a VM-RM70 edit control handset. This is a simple 4-scene edit controller that was first featured on the H70, but was sold as an optional extra for £30. Itís well worth having in any case, and it works with a wide range of VCRs as it has a stored library of IR commands.



Weíve saved the best Ďtil last, and thatís the H80ís optical link system. We previewed it a few months back when the machine was first announced, but now weíve had a chance to give it a thorough road test. Optical link does away with need to plug the camcorder into the TVís AV socket.  You can still do that, it has an AV socket but as an alternative the machine modulates the video and stereo audio signals onto an infra-red carrier beam, emitted from a little window on the front of the machine, next to the microphone. The beam is picked up and decoded by a small black box that sits on top of the TV; this plugs into the setís AV socket, so thereís no physical link between the camcorder and the TV, and no need to rummage around the backside of the TV every time you want to watch a home video movie. Itís exceptionally simple to set up and use, and it works amazingly well, though there are a couple of points to watch. Optical Link can only handle composite video signals and unless the camcorder and TV are no more than a metre or so apart, and carefully aligned, there is a reduction in picture quality (compared to a hard-wire connection), and an increase in noise. Picture quality is still good, but itís not up to serious copying or editing.



Although we didnít give the H80 as thorough a dunking as the H70 we did treat it to a shower and half an hour in a bath of cold water. In both cases the machine was set to record for the duration of the test, so we could observe the results. After the machine had been dried off we checked around the tape and battery compartments, and the cover for the microphone and AV sockets, to see if any water had got in. Weíre pleased to report it passed with flying colours and they were all as dry as a bone. As a matter of interest underwater picture quality is good, though the autofocus wanders a bit. Sound is muffled, though thereís really not a lot to hear in the average bath, apart from a dripping tap...


In the dry picture quality is virtually unchanged from the H70 with horizontal resolution spot on 400-lines on Hi8 recordings. Using good quality MP tape low-band resolution was a little over 240-lines. Colour fidelity in natural light is spot on; tungsten light produces slightly exaggerated reds and tube lighting gives a slightly yellow caste but in general colours are solid and well defined. Noise isnít a problem in good light either, though thereís a marked increase in grain using only normal indoor lighting.


The stereo recording system has a flat, even response but the microphones have been optimised for forward sensitivity, so channel separation is not that wonderful. The soundstage is fairly narrow but thereís enough spatial cues to make it clear youíre listening to a stereo soundtrack.


The image stabiliser works well enough, though there is a noticeable reduction in resolution when itís engaged. The VM-RM70 edit controller is a very welcome addition to the accessory pack. Itís fairly basic, compared with most types of edit controller, it only has a 4-scene memory and accuracy is at best to within half a second of the designated edit points, but thatís missing the point. Itís just the job for tidying up holiday movies, and when you consider that the majority of camcorders donít have any editing facilities at all, then the H80 is well ahead of the game.



If youíre into video movie-making in a serious way then the H80 is not going to do you too many favours, there are plenty of better qualified machines on the market, some of them costing a good deal less than £1200. But thatís not what the H80 is about, itís a rugged go-anywhere, do-anything sort of machine, just the job if your holidays and leisure activities involve getting wet, so on that basis it comes highly recommended. The edit controller and optical link system are the icing on the cake. In fact Optical Link is something weíd like to see other manufacturers adopt, itís a great time-saver and precisely the sort of feature that helps to dispel the myth that video movie-making is complicated and Ďteccyí. Itís probably too much to hope for a common standard, or for it ever to be built into TVs or VCRs but itís interesting to note that the computer industry --  who make camcorder manufacturers look positively chummy -- have agreed on an IR communication link for portable PCs and peripherals, maybe there is hope after all...



The H80, like the H70 before it, is in a class of its own. Since last year no new water or splash-proof camcorders have appeared. If you plan on getting wet the options are to buy a sports/waterproof housing, assuming one is available for your machine, or track down one of the handful of specialist camcorders that appeared over the past three of four years. They include the JVC GR-AW1, and another Hitachi model, the SP1. Both machines have been discontinued but for the record the AW1 used to sell for £900, (and one we tried leaked....) and the SP1 sold for £1000. The good news is that the H70 is now being discounted and we have seen them selling for less than £900.



Make/model                               Hitachi VM-H80E

Recording format              Hi8/8mm

Guide price                              £1200



Lens                             f/1.8, 5-60mm

Zoom                           x 12 optical x 24 electronic

Filter diameter            46mm  

Pick-up device            0.3in CCD

Min illum                     4-lux   



Long play (LP)                        no

Max rec time                        120mins

IR remote control                        yes

Edit terminal                        yes (proprietary, see text)


MAIN FACILITIES               

Auto focus                               yes                                          

Manual focus               yes      

Auto exposure             yes                              

Programmed AE                    no       

Fader                                       yes (3-mode)

Manual white balance            no       

Auto white balance                       yes                                          

Manual zoom                           no       

Power zoom                            yes                                                                              

Insert edit                                yes      

Audio dub                                no

Character generator                     yes                  

Digital superimposer               no       

Image stabiliser                                  yes                                          

Video light                               no       

Battery refresh                         no                                       

Accessory shoe                 no       




water-resistant casing, time/date recording, record review, tally lamp, backlight compensation, optical link, instant zoom, 4-scene edit controller, 16:9 pseudo cinema mode



Viewfinder                       0.6in monochrome

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



Stereo                                      yes      

Wind noise filter                                         no                   

Mic socket                                yes                  

Headphone socket              no       

Mic                                           single-point stereo



Sockets                                    multi-pin AV, microphone/edit control (minijack)

Dimensions                              236 x 108 x 87mm                      

Weight                         0.9kg (inc tape and battery)



Batteries (nicad and lithium), straps, AC charger/power supply, edit control handset, mike cover, brush, terminal cover, optical link

AV lead                        yes

video light                   no                   

remote control            yes      

cassette adaptor            n/a                  

RF Converter             no       

Scart adaptor               yes                  



Resolution                               400-lines (S-Video),

Colour fidelity                           very good

Picture stability                         good

Colour bleed                              none

White balance                            average

Exposure                                   average

Auto focus                                  good

Audio performance                   good

Insert edit                                  clean

Playback thru adaptor              n/a



Value for money         8

Ease of use                  9

Performance               9

Features                      9



R Maybury 1995 2105





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