Review: Toshiba H30 compact HD camcorder

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Short version: The H30 represents the final and most refined form of the traditional family camcorder. But with HD cameras appearing on every device, is a traditional camcorder something you need?

Features:

  • 1080p video
  • 5x optical zoom
  • SD card storage
  • Touchscreen LCD
  • MSRP: $250 ($180 street)

Pros:

  • Very compact and light for traditional form factor
  • Extra modes can come in handy
  • Much better image quality than pocket cams

Cons:

  • Video quality only so-so at 1080p
  • Menu navigation feels slow and inexact
  • No manual focus mode

Full review:

The advent of HD recording in regular point-and-shoots and in pocket cams like the Flip has put pressure on the traditional style of camcorder, and there hasn’t been much of a response. They haven’t changed much over the last decade or so, other than to continually decrease in size and increase in resolution. That’s good, but the original flavor will soon cease to impress even the most naive buyer. For now, though, they’re still here, and the H30 seems to combine the virtues of low price, compact body, and decent functionality.

The camera itself is extremely small. As you can see, it’s dwarfed by a can of beer — and it’s lighter as well. Its strength and durability are about what you’d expect; it’s plastic but well-built and has very little in the way of breakable stuff on it. The controls are minimal: zoom rocker, two mode switch buttons (motion/still), a record button and a dial that doubles as a directional pad. Once you flip out the LCD, there’s a power button and a “world” button which I’ll get to later. But it’s very economical control-wise, and nobody is likely to be confused by its operation.

The LCD, of course, is a touchscreen and most of the functions are available through the menu. You’ve got your usual resolution and scene mode select (the H30 does 1080p/30, 720p/30, WVGA/60, and VGA/60) and of course format and all that. The H30 also has a few special modes:

Macro, in which the focus is locked at its closest setting
Motion detect, which will start recording when it sees motion
Slow motion, which appears to fire at about 120FPS (1/4 normal speed)
Time lapse, with frame intervals of 1, 3, and 5 seconds

They all do more or less what you expect. Slow motion really kills the exposure, but outside in good light you should be okay. Macro lets you get close but not ridiculous close — about three or four inches away from the subject. Time lapse works fine, but the screen remains on the whole time (battery warning) and it’s disappointing that it shoots video frames and not stills.

That reminds me: you can of course take pictures with this thing, but I don’t recommend it except as a last resort. Much as how point-and-shoots take rubbish video for the most part, camcorders tend to take rubbish pictures. The H30 is no exception. Don’t look too close and the occasional snapshot will be fine if you can’t reach your other camera, but the noise, compression artifacts, and oversharpening are insane.

Another handy feature is pre-recording. If you’re waiting for something to happen or just too slow on the draw to catch the start of a race, some first steps, or some hilarious pratfall, you’ll appreciate this. Just hit the little “world” button; now, when you hit record, it will include the previous three seconds in the video. Parents will appreciate this, though I assume it reduces battery time. The same button during playback marks movies for immediate upload to YouTube if you use their software.

Navigation of the touch menus is straightforward, but not exactly snappy. Some of the buttons are also rather small and take careful aim to hit. Overall it is functional, but doesn’t feel robust.

The 3″ display is bright and responsive in normal operation, though. It reflects the framerate being recorded (except in slow-mo mode), so motion is more fluid in 60FPS mode, but it looks fine at 30 as well. It’s not particularly high resolution, but it’s easy to read and it’s clear when things are in focus (or not).

5x zoom is handy, though it seems to go in and out awfully slow. Using a pocket cam a lot, you forget how handy a real zoom can be.

Video quality is… well, 1080p is a stretch on all compact devices with small sensors. People want to shoot at 1080p for some reason, even if the image quality suffers, and even if it’s going to be uploaded to YouTube in the end anyway. It’s no different with the H30. The usual suspects turn up immediately: oversharpening, skew, smearing… the usual. Look at the full frame pic here:

See how very little detail is reflected in the bricks and tree bark? The encoding isn’t up to the task, though the H30 does have better glass in front than any pocket cam. The end result is video that most people will find satisfactory, but would have trouble really saying is high definition. Skew is also very pronounced. Take a look at this little sample video:

http://vimeo.com/moogaloop.swf?clip_id=12842244&server=vimeo.com&show_title=1&show_byline=1&show_portrait=1&color=ff9933&fullscreen=1

See what I mean? It’s present on almost all video devices now, but it’s always more visible on the cheaper ones. I’m not sure I’m prepared to say that the video on the H30 is significantly better than pocket cams, but I do think that the bigger lens and optical zoom give it at least a noticeable advantage in clarity and usability.

Conclusion

At $180, the H30 is easy to recommend — if you think a traditional camcorder is worth your money at all. It’s a bit larger and more complicated than your average Flip or Kodak, but it also brings marginally better image quality, optical zoom, and a few extra features many consumers will find handy. On the other hand, a PlaySport can be had for $120, and my personal favorite P&S, the EX-FC100, for $200. The most compelling feature of the H30 is really that it’s the same device we’ve been using for ages, just packed into an incredibly tiny package. We’ll all be recording video with our iPhone 4s and Droid Xs soon enough, but in the meantime it might be reassuring for a lot of people to have something like this sitting in a drawer, familiar and reliable.

Product page: Toshiba Camileo H30

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