Samsung is branding the HMX-H300 as the “ultimate HD family camcorder,” and it’s easy to see why after looking at the price and specs. The H300 records 1080/60i high-definition, offers a relatively deep 30x optical zoom, sports a 3-inch LCD touchscreen, and has manual picture controls found on many higher-end camcorders.
Priced $399 at launch (although I’ve seen it on sale for as little as $280), the H300 is one of four devices in the 300 lineup, which includes the H303 ($449), H304 ($499), and H305 ($599, although, this model seems to be no longer available from Samsung). The differences between the models come in the form of on-board flash memory, which ranges from no memory on the H300 to 32GB on the H305.
Does the ultimate HD family camcorder live up to Samsung’s billing? Read the full review to find out.
I tested out the HMX-H300, but there should be no difference in the form or function between it and the others in the 300 family, sans the on-board memory.
My basic buying advice has always been to save money and go with the cheapest option if you’re only sacrificing memory. I say this for three reasons. One, storing videos and pics on devices is risky, and you could lose any footage permanently if you accidentally drop the camcorder. Two, SD cards are inexpensive and an 8GB class 10 SDHC card can be had online for less than $15. Three, the $600 you’d spend on a 32GB H305 would be better spent on a more feature-rich device of the same price.
BUILD AND DESIGN
It seems Samsung deliberately bucked the 'small and light' trend because the HMX-H300 is larger and heavier than I would have expected looking at the spec sheet. It feels surprisingly solid and built for daily use. It’s not ruggedized and shouldn’t be tossed around, but I can see it easily surviving the rigors of daily family wear and tear. It measures 1.95 x 2.23 x 4.71 inches and weighs half a pound, so it's no heavyweight, but it is heavy enough for comfortable and stable shooting. I have issues with extremely light camcorders and 'camera shake,' since it seems as though something as faint as a pulse could cause it. That’s not the case with the H300.
The H300 features the typical camcorder build, but it tapers upward on the top toward the rear of the device, where the zoom lever and photo button sit. On the front of the H300 sits the lens and manual lens cover over the left and right on-board stereo microphones. Opposite that on the back sit the lithium ion battery, record/stop button, charge light, mode indicator light, and a slot hiding the DC-in jack.
The side to the left of the lens houses the Velcro hand strap, SD/SDHC slot, and a manual lens cover switch. The display dominates the right side and opens 90 degrees to reveal the power button, information icon toggle button, optical image stabilization button, and Smart Auto button. Underneath those sit the HDMI, USB, and AV jacks.
The H300 top houses the zoom lever, photo button and mode button. Tripod receptacle and battery release switches are located on the bottom.
Ergonomics and Controls
All told, it has a good feel with just the right thickness for shooting, but it’s not without problems. The manual lens cover is awful, and not just because it's manual (and I too often forget about it). On more than one occasion, it failed to close all the way, remaining open just a crack. The buttons tucked under the display also present issues as they are recessed and can be tough to push, and they provide limited feedback, making it difficult to tell if they are actually pressed. In addition, the zoom lever is a bit loose for my liking, but it is still possible to maintain a steady and controlled zoom.
And this is a minor gripe that still irked me, but the SD card slot should be on the other side of the H300. It's on the palm side, meaning that if you are shooting with the H300, you are covering it up. I shouldn't have to take the camera off my shooting hand to swap cards.
Menus and Modes
All menu items can only be accessed through the touchscreen. Simply tap the “menu” icon to bring it up, and the up and down arrows to navigate. Both still and video options are lumped together and overall the menu is easy to navigate.
The actual menu items can be confusing to those unfamiliar with cameras and camcorders however, as there is little to no explanation or information as to their function. Compounding this is the fact that the H300 offers more manual picture controls than the average family camcorder and a handful of non-intuitive features like “Super C. Nite.”
Menu items include:
There are also the standard playback and general camera settings options, including power management, HDTV connection, and content protection features.
The H300 has a 3.0-inch touchscreen display, which I’ve long maintained is the minimum size for touch controls. It opens 90 degrees and rotates 270. There are information icons cluttering up the edges, but those can be easily toggled on and off with the push of a button. The 230,000 pixels is a little low, but I don’t think anyone will have issues with monitor fidelity.
Unfortunately, the H300 lacks any type of display control in the settings, so there is no way to brighten the screen to help cut through glare from, say, the sun. So outdoor shooting can be problematic. Also, the touch input is not all that sensitive, and it requires a decent amount of force for any touches or taps to register.
The H300 has an interesting mix of manual and automatic settings, though I suspect Samsung’s targeted consumer will stick with the Smart Auto dummy mode. There should be no issue there, as it does a respectable job of choosing the proper preset for any particular shooting situation. There is one issue with it that I found rather annoying, however. When on, Smart Auto hijacks the camcorder. It disables OIS DUO (a combination of digital and optical image stabilization), leaving the standard OIS as the default, and Smart Auto has to be turned off before allowing access to the menu screen. It's a small annoyance, sure, but it seems wholly unnecessary.
While I commend Samsung for including so many manual controls, I wish the designers had made adjusting them easier. All manual adjustments to the picture have to be made in the touchscreen, which is too small and not touch-sensitive enough to be effective. Also, there is nothing in the way of onscreen guides to aid in adjusting. For example, there are no zebra stripes to indicate over-exposed areas, or lines to guide focus. I suppose the controls could be fun to play with and maybe help some newbies get comfortable, but they are not particularly useful with this sort of implementation.
On the bright side, the Samsung HMX-H300 exceeded expectation with its battery life. Samsung advertises three hours of juice from the lithium ion battery, and I managed to squeeze out three hours and nine minutes of constant shooting. Also, the optical zoom extends a decent length to 30x (digital zoom goes up to 300x, but as with most digital zooms, it’s useless as it destroys image fidelity). However, there are camcorders with deeper zooms in this class, including the Panasonic SD80 that extends to 37x.
Video, Audio and Stills Quality
Samsung H300 video quality is acceptable for a low-priced camcorder, but on the low end of what HD camcorders are capable of producing. The biggest problem affecting the H300’s output is ghosting, especially with moving objects. Ghosting is perhaps best described as 3D video viewed without 3D glasses, in which moving objects appear to have a transparent “ghost” double just overlapping them to one side. With stationary or slow objects, the H300 is fine, but ghosting will probably occur while shooting any objects or subject moving at a moderate speed, like a child’s sporting event.
Detail and textures are also lacking, putting the H300 just a step above pocket camcorders in that department. Colors are also hit and miss as the H300 has a tendency for oversaturation (especially reds and greens, which look near radioactive), and overexpose areas.
The H300 actually performs surprisingly well in low light. Noise and grain are present, but footage that would be near unwatchable with a weaker camcorder come out okay with the H300, complete with a minimal level or detail and discernable colors.
Audio pickup from the on-board stereo mics is also predictably mediocre, with tinny sound resulting from any source not emitting audio directly at the mics. There is no external mic input, which stinks, and the only mic feature is a wind cutter that does little.
Operation and Extras
Thankfully, the H300 shoots MP4 files, which are easy to manage. Extracting clips is simply a matter of dragging and dropping them off the SD card, and most PCs and Macs should be able to handle the files. The camcorder ships with Intelli-studio software that does little to alter my distaste for pre-packed video suites. Intelli-studio is not as buggy as some of the pre-packaged programs shipping with camcorders just a year ago, but chances are you have something better on your PC (Windows Movie Maker, Windows Live Movie Maker) and definitely your Mac (iMovie).
The H300 also ships with an AC power adapter, AV cable, USB cable, battery and CD ROM. Buyers will have to supply their own SD cards unless they purchase the devices with on-board memory, and they’ll definitely need an HDMI cable if they’d like to stream their HD video from the camera to an HDTV at its maximum resolution.
To quote a popular television theme song: "you take the good, you take the bad, you take'em both and there you have" the Samsung HMX-H300.
The good is an excellent build quality, solid design, 30x optical zoom, and impressive low-light performance.
The bad is mediocre video quality complete with ghosting, a manual lens cover that sometimes doesn’t close all the way, and lousy audio pick up.
The manual picture controls don’t factor in the good or the bad. Yes, having them is a plus, but they are so impractical with the touchscreen controls and lack of on-screen guides, that I can’t see anyone ever using them regularly. Had Samsung added “advanced” features like an external audio jack and automatic lens cover instead of manual focus and exposure controls, the H300 would be a real winner.
As it stands, the H300 is not a bad buy for the family’s first camcorder, owing much of that to its solid build, but only if it’s available on sale. Serious videographers, however, might want to venture further up the price chart for their next device.