The last time I bought a camcorder was 2000. I bought the game-changing Sony MiniDV DCR-PC100E which, with its semi-professional high specification (pre-dating the word "pro-sumer"), revolutionised the marketplace. I paid £1099, heavily discounted from its list price of £1499. Despite my initial enthusiasm, I probably only used it half a dozen times over the following two years, so flogged it on eBay for a very generous £150. I only realised that much because I had the foresight to keep the original packaging and accessories.
Move forward and over a decade later there is a more compelling reason for using camcorders with the immense popularity of social media and hosting sites like YouTube. That said, actually buying a camcorder is less compelling due to technology convergence. Most smartphones have more-than-adequate cameras built-in - so why actually go out and buy a dedicated camcorder?
Even the best phones tend to have limited capability of 720p HD resolution, whereas cameras such as my selected Toshiba Camileo S30, can offer full 1080p HD. Add some more neat features such as HDMI and video out connectors, bundled desk tripod, and a seriously low sub-£100 actual retail price, and there is a space in a crowded market for this type of device.
So why am I awarding four stars (subsequently downgraded to 1 star - see below) for a device which on the face of it has so many shortcomings? Simply put, because it is fun, convenient and fantastic value for money. If the camera was another £30 more expensive my verdict would have been vastly different. But it isn't – it is easily affordable and great to use. I heartily recommend it should your circumstances be similar to mine – i.e. a desire to shoot YouTube videos on a cheap device in HD quality.
Check back in a few months for my long-term verdict which will be appended to this review.
So on to my Camileo S30. What immediately strikes is its compact size. This machine is truly pocketsize - any pocket - not just the deep caverns found in winter overcoats. The LCD display folds outwards and around and comes with a touch screen exposing the user interface. This is the first disappointment – the interface is an extraordinarily baffling and counter-intuitive array of icons, all of which look like each other. In fact, I should say the first disappointment was the manual, but since I am a technician by trade, I neglected to read it until much later. The manual is poorly translated from Japanese which for a company the size of Toshiba is unforgivable.
As for using the camera, it is simplicity itself. The machine is grasped by the right hand (another negative if you are a southpaw) and care has to be taken not to cover the lens with your fingers – a rookie mistake I have made a few times, primarily because the body of the camera does not provide a natural grip. However, the results more than make up for the discomfort and the camera is good in ultra-low level light conditions as well as normal UK greyness. The lens has a fixed focal length so this causes a severe limitation for still photograph taking in macro mode – you have to ensure the subject is close enough to get the focal point correct.
Empirically I have discovered that the camera has a filesize limit of 3.5GB so depending upon the mode of your recording, you should make some calculations up front to determine how much shooting time you have got. In reality, once the 3.5GB has been used, the camera will start saving to another file although I haven't satisfied myself this is totally seamless and even if it is, you will need some fairly hefty software and hardware requirements to stitch the consecutive parts together.
Ok – after a couple of weeks usage my thoughts can be summarised as:
- Ultra Compact
- Excellent filming quality in full HD mode
- Incredibly cheap
- Bundled extras such as the desktop tripod
- Good in ultra-low light
- Poor manual
- Dreadful user interface
- 3.5GB file limit
- Uncomfortable grip even for a right-hander
- Fixed focal lens and aperture
After owning the camcorder for 10 weeks the machine has died. I had just finished recording some "valuable" footage and pressed the record on/off button. As usual the hourglass came up on the screen as the cached footage was written to the SDHC card. This usually takes up to 30 seconds, but on this particular occasion the machine locked and the hourglass remained for ever. Or until the battery died at least. I removed the disk to check the output in my laptop - sure enough it was corrupt and unplayable. Next I tried to restart the camcorder. Impossible - it will not boot up unless it's plugged into the mains. So something connected to the battery management has died.
I had some warning on this. On a previous shoot the camera switched itself off after 25 minutes. It was possible to restart the machine and the footage was intact, but there is clearly something wrong with its power management. A cursory glance at Amazon reviews of the product suggest this is a design flaw - too many users are reporting the same issue. So I can only suggest one thing - under absolutely no circumstance consider buying this camera.
Amazon have an 'unconditional' 30 day return policy for all products. However, defective items older than 30 days are excluded. The website steers a user around in circles when attempting to return an item beyond 30 days of age. Amazon are suggesting that it is my responsibility to pursue a warranty claim with Toshiba. Why should I? Consumer law is clear - it is the vendor's responsibility to reimburse when the product is faulty.
So, watch this space as I blog all correspondence with Amazon whilst trying to return the camcorder directly to them.
It was utterly impossible to return the product to Amazon - all my efforts were thwarted. I also could not get my money back. So the only remaining option was to return the camcorder to Toshiba. The process can be completed online, but their website was extremely pernickety with the serial number field. The serial number was stamped so small on the camera some of the digits were practically indecipherable; it took fifteen minutes of trial and error to enter an acceptable serial number that matched the model number on Toshiba's database.
Toshiba mail out a return box by UPS. This is problematic to say the least. The first attempt of delivery failed and no 'whilst you were out card' was left. The second attempt two days later did have a card and a link to a web page where I could specify the date for the third and final delivery attempt. Herein lies another problem. I had to add my address on the web form which was later copied manually into another UPS computer system - and a mistake was made so the delivery wasn't successful. Of course that was after I waited in all day for the delivery.
After numerous phone calls it was agreed I could pick up the returns box at the UPS depot. This proved to be a master stroke because the problem with the returns box is you then have to organise another delivery to pick up the box from your property. Since I took the bricked camera to the UPS depot in Kentish Town, I was able to fill the box and give it straight back to the staff.
The camera was dispatched back to Germany. Once it arrived it was checked and the damage was confirmed by Toshiba. Under normal circumstances (according to Toshiba) a replacement would be returned immediately. In reality there were no replacements in stock and so I had to wait three weeks for fresh supplies from Japan.
So far, so good. It looks to me like the firmware has been updated. The camera boots much quicker and (as yet) there have been no power management issues. Time will tell. Wait for the six month update!