Compared to their hard-drive and tape companions, Mini DVD camcorders get a rather bad rap. Tales of file errors, confusion over having to finalise discs and difficulties editing footage are common. Worst still are the anguished requests for help when discs containing baby's first steps succumb to the disc malfunction monster.
Despite such woes, DVD cameras certainly have their place; the main advantage is being able to pop out the disc and instantly view your footage by chapter on a PC or DVD player. But the format has so many critics that the products can be a tough sell.
Sony's latest DVD cams address these concerns by offering three formats — discs, inbuilt flash memory and Memory Stick — in one hybrid device. Previous hybrid models have only allowed still images to be stored in the flash memory, but these babies accept video footage on all three formats.
Disc-toting camcorders can often look a bit awkward with their circular drives tacked onto the side of the product's body. The DCR-DVD810 thankfully doesn't suffer from this affliction — its disc section nestles nicely against the main body of the camcorder, with no funny-looking protruding bits that are uncomfortable to hold. The slim width reduces the overall weight to 400 grams without the battery, which is light enough not to cause fatigue during tripod-free shooting.
The hinge on the 2.7-inch touchscreen LCD feels a little flimsy, but the screen itself is easy to use, with menus laid out simply and settings broken into logical categories. If you're frequently switching between media for your movies and stills, you'll need to get into the habit of selecting the right one before you start recording.
The AU$799 DCR-DVD810 is one of two standard-def models in Sony's latest DVD/flash range, and offers a 4.2mm CCD sensor, 1.1-megapixel resolution, 25x zoom and 5.1-channel sound.
While the on-board flash storage isn't exactly vast at 8GB, it's enough to store almost three hours of standard-quality footage, or just under two hours of the high-quality variety. Compare that with the 22 minutes you'll get from a disc, and the whole hybrid thing starts to make sense. It also allows for a bit more flexibility after shooting, with the ability to transfer footage from flash memory to disc, or Memory Stick to disc, in-camera.
Then there's the third storage option: Memory Stick. The expansion slot allows several gigs worth of footage to be crammed onto a stick in MPEG2 format, but you'll need to purchase sticks separately, and higher-capacity ones cost half the price of the camera.
To test the DVD810, we shot indoors and outdoors (in sun and shade), using both the DVD and flash memory. Overall, colours looked washed out, with blacks especially suffering from a lack of definition. Zooming in on black lettering resulted in a hazy reddish-brown outline fizzing outwards from each character.
With all settings adjusted to auto, the DVD810's best performance was outdoors in variable lighting conditions. When capturing a person moving rapidly between a shaded area and a sunlit one, the camera adapted quickly, adjusting its light settings to keep faces visible. There was also good clarity in close-ups shot at higher light levels, both indoors and outside.
Video shot indoors at night on DVD showed a yellow mottling when played back on a DVD player and 50-inch plasma screen.
The 5.1-channel audio capture is decent, but the inbuilt mic picks up a lot of surrounding noise. One option is to invest in an external mic for the camcorder's hotshoe — this would also reduce pick-up of the creaking sounds made by the lens as it zooms in and out.
The DCR-DVD810 won't please everyone, but it does make for a lightweight, affordable choice for those struggling to decide between disc-based, internal and removable storage. Image quality isn't stellar, but for situations requiring quick-and-dirty shooting and flexible file transfer options, it's a cheap and cheerful choice.