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Shifting scenes

DVD camcorders are giving film-makers a few tough dilemas, writes George Cole

These days it's not unusual to see groups of students out and about toting digital camcorders. Indeed, digital video recording and editing are now done in many schools and used for everything from project work to school productions.

I recently got my hands on three digital camcorders, the Hitachi DZ-MV580, Panasonic VDR-M50 and Sony DCR-DVD201. On first appearances, they seem similar to conventional camcorders, but there is one big difference: whereas most camcorders use tape, these use recordable DVD discs. These DVD-cams are compact, use a flip-out colour LCD screen and are easy to use.

The Sony and Panasonic models came without instruction manuals, but were fairly easy to operate. It is only when the time comes to insert a DVD disc that you discover how the companies have made these camcorders roughly the same size as a standard camcorder.

The DVD film discs we play in the living room are 12cm in diameter, but these machines use miniature 8cm discs. Each one can store up to 30 minutes of video on one side, and some forms of disc are double-sided, giving up to 60 minutes' recording time.

DVD-cams have been around for a few years now, but the early models suffered from a number of problems, including low battery life (spinning a disc requires more power than pulling a tape), excess noise and instability - if you moved the camcorder quickly, the picture broke up. The latest models seem to have solved these problems, although at times DVD-cams are not completely happy with fast panning. By and large, though, I was impressed with these products. Sound and picture quality were good and handling was generally excellent.

All DVD-cams are designed to be connected to a PC for editing and manipulating images - all models have a high-speed USB 2 data socket, and Hitachi even provides a CD-Rom that includes USB drivers, an editing package and software for burning your images on to a blank DVD disc. But one of their big advantages is that you can simply take the disc out of the camcorder and pop it into a DVD player or drive - at least that's what it says on the tin.

But I have a few reservations about DVD-cams. First, they are not cheap - prices range from around pound;650 for the Panasonic model to pound;800 for Hitachi's. Sony's costs around pound;700. With some digital camcorders (which use tape) now selling from less than pound;450, schools may decide to opt for this format. Incidentally, blank discs typically cost pound;5 to pound;8 each. But more important are the issues of confusion and compatibility.

First the confusion. You might think one DVD disc would be just like another, but you would be wrong in the case of recordable DVDs. In fact, there are five formats; DVD-Ram, DVD-RW, DVD+RW, DVD-R and DVD+R. I won't bore you with the details - suffice it to say that the first three are rewritable formats. That means the discs can be used and reused like video tape. DVD-R and DVD+R are write-once formats, like CD-R discs.

DVD-cams use three different formats; DVD-Ram, DVD-RW and DVD-R. Most can record on to two different formats. For example, the Hitachi and Panasonic camcorders use DVD-Ram and DVD-R discs while Sony's uses DVD-RW and DVD-R discs.

Then there is the compatibility issue, and playing your DVD recordings in a DVD player or drive. In theory, DVD-R discs should play in all DVD players and drives, but in practice that isn't the case. DVD-RW should play in "most" DVD players - but only if recordings are made in what is known as "video mode". Most DVD players and drives will not read DVD-Ram discs because they use a different file format. Fortunately, most recordable DVD drives are multi-format. My Pioneer drive, for example, is compatible with DVD-RW, DVD+RW, DVD-R and DVD+R discs, but not DVD-Ram. My fairly new Panasonic DVD player can read DVD-RW, DVD-R and DVD-Ram discs, but an older Samsung player can't read any of them. And my Pioneer drive doesn't read 8cm discs in any format.

If you own a recordable DVD drive, be careful when shopping for blank discs - it's very easy to walk into a store and walk out with the wrong type of recordable disc. All in all, the recordable DVD market is a dog's dinner, and there are no signs of things getting better. In fact, there is already talk of another format war when the next generation of recordable DVD formats arrives. And that's a shame because recordable DVD discs offer fast access - because there is no need to spool through metres of tape in order to find the right recording. And the idea of simply playing your camcorder discs in a DVD player or drive is very appealing.

So, is it worth investing in a DVD-cam? That very much depends on whether you want to be at the cutting edge in camcorder technology - and whether your existing hardware can read the recordable DVD discs.

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