The camera rests comfortably in your right hand, providing easy access to the zoom rocker and the power/mode switch. The primary controls work well, but the flush touch-sensitive buttons for changing exposure and manual focus can be difficult to use in the field. You adjust manual focus and exposure controls with touch-sensitive plus (+) and minus (-) buttons, which we find far less convenient than a dial or a ring. The DVD hatch sits on the right side of the camera, so a tripod won't interfere with disc swapping. The DZMV550A's drive requires the caddy for all discs (Hitachi includes one in the box with the blank discs); you must remove them to use them with your PC. The standout feature of the otherwise average Hitachi DZMV550A is the ease of in-camcorder editing afforded by the DVD-RAM format. You can delete unwanted clips as easily as you would remove shots on a digital camera. Hitachi builds a basic video-editing workstation right into the camera: Remove segments of a clip by splitting it and cutting out the unwanted portion, rearrange your clips and omit (without deleting) unneeded footage, add fades, and create a playlist that will show your edited creation.
In addition to 8cm DVD-RAM discs, the DZMV550A can also use write-once DVD-Rs, which are compatible with a wider range of players. Many DVD-ROM players can read DVD-RAM discs, though few can write to them; however, only select (mostly Hitachi and Panasonic) set-top DVD players support the discs. The DZMV550A has a number of editing features that work with only DVD-RAM discs, so the optimal way to use the camera is to film on DVD-RAM, then use your computer to burn the final footage to a DVD-R disc.
The DZMV550A provides a USB 2.0 connection for transferring both still images and video. You can use the bundled DVD-MovieAlbumSE software--a very limited video editor--to transfer footage and convert it to VOB, the standard format for DVDs. The USB connection also mounts the drive as a volume on your system, which allows you to drag and drop files using Windows Explorer. You won't find a FireWire port, and there's neither software nor drivers for the Mac.
The camera records using MPEG-2 compression and can hold 20 to 60 minutes per side of a DVD-RAM disc or 15 to 30 on DVD-R. However, the DZMV550A stores video in DVD-VR format, which Windows editing applications are only now starting to support, so importing your footage into your video editor or DVD-authoring program might require a bit of research on your part. Though this model supports only 4:3 recording, stepping up to the DZ-MV580A will buy you 16:9 wide-screen capability. In exchange, however, you sacrifice the DZMV550A's 18X optical zoom for the DZ-MV580A's 10X.
The rest of the camcorder's feature set is relatively ho-hum. It uses a 680,000-pixel sensor, the same as most new budget camcorders. Automatic and manual white balance, exposure, and adjustments are available, as well as five programmed auto-exposure modes. You can save 640x480-pixel stills to either DVD-RAM or SD/MMC media. The DZMV550A sports S-Video and composite outputs but offers only composite input. If you want to convert old analog tapes to digital format, the higher-end DZMV580A with an S-Video input may be a better choice. Don't figure you can turn on the DZMV550A right before you need the big shot--it can take 10 to 20 seconds to initialize and catalog its disc before it's ready to shoot. Once you've finished booting the camera, though, all other operations feel very responsive.
Though the 2.5-inch LCD is very sharp, it's small enough that manual focus can be a bit tricky--it helps to zoom in on your subject first. The LCD rotates 180 degrees, but you can't tilt the color viewfinder. Autofocus works very quickly in bright conditions; in dim room lighting, it can take a second or two to zoom in, but once it locks on its target, it focuses accurately.
The camera's electronic image stabilization works well, betraying a shaky hand at only the highest zoom levels, and it has no visible effect on image quality. Sound quality is very good, and though sensitive, the microphone didn't pick up any drive motor noises. The DZMV550's video quality matches that of a good entry-level MiniDV camera. Video is generally crisp, and hues are accurate, though a bit oversaturated at times. At the lowest compression level, the video rarely displays any compression artifacts. At medium and high compression levels, banding becomes very evident in areas with high brightness gradations.
All consumer-level video cameras have difficulty shooting in low light, and the DZMV550A proves no exception. But despite grainy low-light footage, the video looks brighter and more colorful than what we've seen from many comparable camcorders. And we prefer a grainy but recognizable picture to a dark, muddy, indiscernible one. You can reduce the graininess with the Low Light program auto-exposure mode--similar to Sony's Color Slow Shutter mode--but it trades a slower frame rate for the sharper frames.