The inexorable march away from tapes and discs has picked up steam in Camcorder Land—and this trend will continue until MiniDV and DVD home video makers take their place on the obsolete shelf next to Walkman cassette music players and analog televisions. This won’t happen overnight, but it’s happening right in front of our eyes as flash-based and hard disk drive camcorders win-over the public and take share from competing formats. Basically, it’s the iPod Phenomenon dramatically reshaping the camcorder biz. According to industry execs, tape and DVD cam sales are dropping while the new—and definitely cooler—formats take over. Almost all of the recent releases were memory card, flash or HDD based. And many of them are high-definition. I’m a big fan of high-def hard drive camcorders because their storage capabilities can’t be beat. It’s great not worrying if you have enough blank tape or DVDs for saving memories. And the small size and weight of flash-based models is also a winner. Finally, a high-definition camcorder is the only way to go, even though they’re much more expensive than SD ($799 USD is still about the cheapest, compared to $250 USD for MiniDV). With these preferences on the table, I was happy to test a new JVC HD Everio with a 120GB HDD. This high-def camcorder saves up to 15 hours of best-quality AVCHD video plus it performs several other unique tricks we’ll disclose on the following pages. Is it worth 1,300 clams? Read on, read on…
Features and Design
The black-bodied GZ-HD40 has a 3.3-megapixel CMOS sensor (a first for JVC) and is a compact, sturdy little camcorder that tips the scales at just 19 ounces with the battery attached. It feels good in the hand and the adjustable Velcro strap allows for a comfy-but-snug fit. Overall design is subdued but the designers went wild on the outer LCD door adding too many logos. One cool thing is that the large letters “HD” turn blue when you power up and open the screen. We’re always suckers for a light show. The camcorder measures 2.87 x 2.68 x 4.87 (WHD, in inches, body only). Unfortunately when you connect the battery, it sticks out from rear, messing up the design lines. I much prefer a recessed battery well—found on Canon, Sony and Panasonic models—than this in your face configuration. At least they didn’t stick the HDMI connection behind the battery like the folks at Panasonic (check out our Panasonic HS9 review).
One of the more unusual features of this camcorder is not external but internal. It (along with the $999 USD 80GB HD30) are the only models capable of recording two types of HD video: AVCHD and MPEG-2 TS. You may ask yourself why on earth would they do this? Pretty simple—it provides options for quality and recording time. It also gives video editors wide software choices. One of the critical specs for superior video is the bit rate shown as Constant Bit Rate (CBR) or Variable Bit Rate (VBR), rated in megabits per second. In theory, the higher the spec, the better the quality. The highest for AVCHD in this Everio is 17 Mbps while MPEG-2 TS is 26.6 Mbps. This higher bit rate gives you the quality but it also takes more space. So if you want to record 15 hours of 1920 x 1080 video at top resolution, you’d set it to record in AVCHD. If you’re looking for the best quality and “only” need 10 hours, use MPEG-2 TS. Menu options let you change on the fly—which is what we did in our testing. For the record Canon recently introduced three AVCHD models that record at 24 Mbps. The most similar to the HD40 is the 120GB Vixia HG21 ($1,299 USD) with a 12x zoom and optical image stabilization. We’re on the list to review one so we’ll report as soon as we can. Also for the record HDV tape-based camcorders record at around 25 Mbps, the reason their quality was better than earlier AVCHD models. We digress…now back to the HD40.
The front of the HD40 is dominated by the 10x optical zoom which is a shade less than competing Canons and Sonys with their 12x lenses. This camcorder has a manual lens cover switch rather than auto but at least it’s not a plastic cap tethered by a string. Also up front is a tiny LED light that’s really only good for subjects less than 5 feet away. Above the light is a sensor for the supplied remote control and below the light is small door covering the USB out port.
The right side holds the 120GB hard drive and there’s a logo attesting to this fact. Towards the front is a compartment with inputs for headphones and optional accessory mics. On the left is the swing-out LCD screen. It’s a good-quality 2.8-inch monitor rated 207K pixels with a 16:9 aspect ratio so you can properly frame your widescreen high-def recordings. On the left side of the screen are several handy controls and a joystick. Hit the Index button and you’ll see to the minute how much recording space is available. It’s pretty amazing seeing 15+ hours. Tap the button again you’ll see to the minute how much battery life is left. The 4-way joystick helps you navigate through menus and make manual adjustments. The Menu button gives you access to just that.
With the screen open you’ll find a variety of keys on the main body. They’re pretty standard—delete, auto/manual/info, play/record, quick review/direct backup, direct disc/focus assist and power on/off. You’ll also see the fan inlet and outlet to cool the HDD; the speaker is here as well.
On the top of the HD40 you’ll find a stereo mic, a cover for the accessory show (cold, unfortunately), several indicator lights along with the wide/tele toggle switch and a snapshot button for taking photos (2432 x 1368, 3.3MP). They can be saved to the HDD or a microSD card. The back is dominated by the battery (again unfortunately). To the right of it is a tiny mode switch (video/still), the record button and two compartments for a variety of connections—DC-in to charge it, HDMI, component and A/V out to watch your recordings. On the bottom is a compartment for the tiny microSD card which can also record HD video if you have a Class 4 or higher card. 4 gigs will give you another 30 minutes of AVCHD footage. There’s also a connector for the supplied Everio dock which basically replicates all the ports on the unit so you can have a tidy desktop—or wherever.
The JVC Everio GZ-HD40 comes with a solid kit: AC adapter, battery, component, A/V and USB cables, a remote, the dock and software CD-ROM including CyberLink PowerDirector 6 NE for HD editing, PowerProducer 4 NE for authoring Blu-ray, AVCHD and DVD disks, PowerCinema NE for Everio for HD file management and playback and PowerDVD 7 NE to playback AVCHD disks. You’ll need an HDMI cable and microSD card to round it out along with a spare battery since the HDD and LCD screen gobble power like crazy.
Once the battery was charged and card loaded, it was time to shoot some video.
Image Courtesy of JVC
Performance and Use
Before I get into performance let me ask—why didn’t JVC put optical image stabilization in a $1,299 USD camcorder? How decisions like this are made when similar Canons and Sonys have OIS is pretty amazing. “Yes, but our camcorder has two types of HD recording” is the most likely rejoinder. It doesn’t cut it. Enough of my ranting.
I set the HD40 to basic auto mode and initially shot XP best quality AVCHD video then recorded similar scenes in the finest MPEG-2 TS FHD footage. Sadly, JVC makes you work hard to do this. You have to hit menu, go to Basic Settings, then choose Stream Format, then pick between the two. This really should be simplified but I guess people aren’t going to frequently switch between them. Then again they might so it should be easier.
Camcorders are one of consumers favorite CE products since all you do is set them to Auto, aim, frame and record, zooming all the while to your heart’s content. It’s so simple they’re a blast to use. Even if you switch to Manual, the HD40 is an easy tool. You have options for manually adjusting the focus, white balance, shutter speed, aperture, sharpness and so on. The camcorder also has basic Program AE settings for typical scenes such as Portrait, landscape and so on.
The first cool breezes of fall had arrived so it was time to record some colorful trees, bright blue skies and a variety of Crayola-like mums to set the scene. I also shot some material indoors to see how the camcorder handled low-light. I took a bunch of still to see how they would come out.
Before getting into quality, let me note that the camcorder handles well, the controls are within easy reach, it zooms and focuses quickly with little “grabbing.” It’s quite responsive.
Once done recording, it was time to play them back on my 50-inch 1080P Panasonic plasma via HDMI. One of the cool things about this camcorder is the fact it upconverts the 1920 x 1080I video to 1080P at 60 frames per second using a Genessa chip found in high-end JVC HDTVs. When I watched the video “1080P” was one of the onscreen displays. Granted it wasn’t as good as a Blu-ray Disc, but I was very pleased with the color accuracy and lack of noise in broad expanses on blue sky. Foliage and flowers were as on target as could be. Where the HD40 fell down was indoors with low light. Colors tended to wash out and noise was definitely on display.
Although I closely examined the screen, there’s wasn’t a night-and-day difference between AVCHD XP and MPEG-2 TS FHD video. That said I could see some compression artifacts in the AVCHD footage, particularly in treetops moving in the breeze. What is night-and-day is still quality. This camcorder—and practically every other one—simply can’t take a decent, well-focused photograph. And, is the case with so many camcorders, the mic made the wind sound like Hurricane Ike—even with the wind cut filter on.
The GZ-HD40 and its smaller sibling, the HD30, are weird ducks. They take quality video but I don’t understand the need for two types of HD recording. I would much rather see JVC use MPEG-2 TS and add optical image stabilization. That would be a much more appealing package. Bottom line? A solid but not outstanding high-def camcorder but you have to love that 120GB HDD.
• Massive 120GB storage
• Great color in good light
• Compact and responsive
• No optical image stabilization
• Noisy in low light
• Zoom should be more powerful