High Definition (HD) camcorder buyers face a whirlwind of choices including formats, recording media and price. Which is best–HDV, AVCHD, MPEG-2, MPEG-4? Should I go with tape, flash memory, hard drives or mini DVDs? And should I spend $700 USD–or lots more? Yikes! I haven’t seen this much tumult in camcorder land since the analog 8mm and VHS-C formats were duking it out at the time the original Dukes of Hazzard were on the tube (not reruns). We’re talking mid-‘80s folks. Things were pretty calm on the home video-making front for many years since the introduction of the digital mini DV format in 1995 so it was about time things got shaken up a bit. And nothing shakes things up like a transition from standard definition to HDTV. Take a look at flat panel televisions if you really want to see a cutthroat battle and consumer confusion. As for those competing camcorder formats all you need to care about is choosing the model that fits your needs and budget.
That’s where we come in with our reviews as well as the feedback from our readers. Recently we tested the Canon HV20. It uses the HDV tape-based format and video quality is outstanding. But it does use a cassette, albeit a small one, and rewinding/fast forwarding seems something out of the ‘80s, not 2007. Enter the new three CCD JVC GZ-HD7, a high-def camcorder recording to a 60GB hard disc drive that holds up to five hours of 1920 x 1080i video at 26.6 Mbps (similar to HDV). No other HDD high-def camcorder has this big a drive—at least right now. Sony plans to introduce a 60GB edition in June. However it uses the more compressed AVCHD format at 1440 x 1080 pixels so the HDR-SR7 holds an amazing 22 hours of top-resolution video. Naturally we’ll test this one as soon as we can. The pluses of a hard disk drive (HDD) are many beyond storage but my favorites are self-generated index points and the ability to hop from scene to scene at a press of a key. HDDs have their own issues that we’ll discuss in more detail on the following pages…
Features and Design
The Everio HD7 is a hefty camcorder but has a nice solid feel, balancing well in the palm of your hand. It has a stealthy, pro look with its black body and lens hood. The camcorder weighs 1.7 pounds with battery and measures 3.67 x 3.1 x 7.36 (WHD, in inches). It definitely doesn’t look or feel like a toy and really stands out from almost all of the 80-or so camcorders currently available.
The front of the camcorder is almost completely taken up by the Fujinon 10x optical zoom lens with a wide f/1.8 aperture rating. One of the outstanding features is the manual focus ring that surrounds the lens. This ring makes it very easy to zero-in for a sharp focus when you’re in manual. Next to the lens is a Focus Assist button that puts a blue highlight around your subject ensuring sharp focus with the ring. Near it is a button to engage the ring. There’s a manual lens cover switch on the right side of the lens barrel. An automatic cover would’ve been nice but at least it’s not a cap connected by a string! Unfortunately there is no AF Assist lamp, built-in flash or light. Underneath the lens is a slot for an SD or SDHC card. If you want to record video to the card, make sure it’s classified Class 6. A 4 gig card will hold 25 minutes of SP not Full HD 1920 x 1080i video. All other SD/SDHC cards will record 1440 x 1080 Fine stills in the 4:3 mode or 1920 x 1080 in 16:9.The 60GB hard drive hold almost 10,000 stills and five hours of best quality video. Amazing stuff…
The top is fairly plain with a stereo microphone (mic), a 3CCD logo, the wide/tele toggle switch, a Snapshot button for taking stills and a cold accessory shoe; a hot shoe would’ve been most welcome. The right side is the compartment for the HDD and the main mode dial that’s operated by your thumb when your hand is in the comfortable strap. A small compartment covers the external mic input and A/V connector jacks.
On the left is the swing-out 2.8-inch screen that’s decent, but I would’ve liked it to be a bit sharper. In order to adjust the contrast, you have to go into Setup, find “Bright,” then make the changes up or down. Note to JVC engineers: change “Bright” to “LCD” next time around. It’s not a touchscreen but on the left side is a joystick to move through the menu options and a very handy key to see how much space is on your hard drive and how much juice is left in your battery (in minutes). Some have complained about battery life but I found it was pretty close to specs. A Function button accesses other menu choices when you’re in manual such as White Balance, Tele Macro and Zebra (more on this one later). Within the LCD compartment on the main body are keys for play/record, Menu, Info and Direct Back Up/Event. Event lets you label specific recordings with icons such as vacation or party so you can access them more quickly, one of the great benefits of HDD recording. There are also output jacks for S-video and component video cables. Above the screen on the body itself is a backlight compensation button as well as another to switch between auto/manual recording for videos and stills.
The rear is dominated by two things—the rechargeable battery that sticks out a bit awkwardly and a huge (.57-inch) pull-out viewfinder. This is one of the best EVFs I’ve used in a long time and it has a comfortable eyecup and diopter control. On the right is the mode to dial to switch between off/video/stills, the record button and a light that tells you whether you’re camera or movie mode. On the left are dedicated buttons for aperture, shutter and bright (exposure compensation) tweaks. A handy dial below them lets you make these adjustments. Beneath the battery is a compartment for the HDMI, Firewire and USB outputs. Behind another smaller door is the DC-in jack to recharge the battery.
The GZ-HD7 comes with a good kit. Along with the camera and lens hood, there’s the rechargeable battery, component, A/V and USB cables and a remote. If you want to buy an HDMI cable, expect to pay $30-$40 USD; better yet, ask the dealer to throw one in since you’re spending a pretty penny for this camcorder. The CD-ROM has a number of programs to help you deal with high-def video and stills. These include Cyberlink PowerCinema NE for Everio, PowerProducer 3 NE and PowerDirector 5 NE Express plus a Digital Photo Navigator Ver. 1.5. Once the battery was charged, it was time to see how it performed.
Image Courtesy of JVC
Testing and Use
The GZ-HD7 uses MPEG-2 Transport Stream (TS) encoding and at the best setting records 1920 x 1080i video. If the five hours of storage aren’t enough, you can move to SP for seven hours total. It uses three 570K-pixel progressive CCDs to record video. In most cases three chips are better than one since each is dedicated to a specific color (red, green, blue), resulting in more accurate colors. In the case of the HD Everio, the quality was good in bright light but was not as accurate as the single chip 2.96MP Canon HV20. In dark scenes, particularly those shot indoors, there was a lot of noise—again the HV20 was better.
Controls are logically placed, making it easy to change modes and settings. The camcorder has a 10x Fujinon zoom that moves through the range quickly and has little trouble grabbing focus, even in dark scenes. Like any camcorder, the new HD Everio records in Auto, the simple point-and-record mode the vast majority of consumers use. In fact, when you’re in Auto, you can do little more than change the zoom—all others options are locked out. Moving beyond Auto takes a very moderate learning curve, mastering the manual options such as focus, compensation, aperture and so on as well as navigating the menu system. I particularly liked the focus ring that helps you zero in on your subject. Definitely keep the Owner’s Manual nearby when you first take it for a spin.
I shot similar scenes with the JVC and Canon HV20 and while you’d be happy with the GZ-HD7 by itself, side by side—or more accurately, one after the other—the Canon was the best. This was especially noticeable in low light scenes which the HV20 handled with less noise. And this was without using a color enhancement light.
Overall video quality was good, not breath-taking, something you could say about the Canon HDV footage—especially shot outdoors. Indoors there was a more yellowish cast than the HV20 and colors were not as realistic. Outdoors, the green leaves of rustling leaves were very distinct and there was barely a spec of noise in the blue skies. The camcorder handled blues quite well (especially skies and water) but had trouble making reds pop—they were a bit muted for my liking. Also Canon’s optical image stabilization system worked better. There was barely any jitter with the HV20 while it was much more noticeable for the HD Everio. As noted earlier, this camcorder has a Zebra setting, something found on pro-level models. What this does is help you adjust brightness levels for white objects.
Like almost all camcorders, the GZ-HD7 takes digital stills as well but they’re 1920 x 1080 in the 16:9 mode. There is no built-in flash so indoor shots are grainy yet those taken in bright light were acceptable. In other words, don’t expect to make 13×19 prints from these files. Overall quality was O.K., and acceptable for viewing on an HDTV.
The key issue with any HDD-based camcorder is this—how do you get the video off the hard drive so you can share it? Hitachi came up with the novel idea of a standard definition hybrid featuring hard disc and DVD drives so you can simply port your footage to disc without a computer, then play it back on your DVD player. High-definition video complicates this quite a bit since combo HDD/Blu-ray Disc camcorders are still an engineer’s dream in a Japanese lab.
In a perfect world, the buyer of the HD Everio has a Blu-ray burner in their PC or Mac as well as a Blu-ray player hooked up to a HDTV. The supplied software lets you burn BD discs. And the extended family has them too so they can enjoy the high-def footage. Since this is not a perfect world, JVC has a reasonable interim solution, the $399 USD Share Station. You connect the GZ-HD7 to it, load a DVD-R/-RW disc and it’ll copy HD Data Files to disc so you can offload your video. You then can watch those discs through the Share Station via a HDMI connection to your TV. This doesn’t help the family but what can you do; they just have to make the move to BD. No one said being on the cutting edge of technology was a poor person’s game.
As a fan of HDD and high-def camcorders, I really wanted to like this one a lot. Its form factor and control layout are excellent. The manual adjustments take this up a big notch compared to competitors. And the amount of storage is amazing. That said, it is expensive and the video in less-than-optimal conditions was not as outstanding as one would expect from a HD camcorder. And the optical image stabilization wasn’t that effective, especially when compared to the recently reviewed Canon HV20. My dream camcorder at this stage is the HD Everio that delivers Canon-level video and has that company’s OIS. Somehow I don’t think I’m going to see that collaboration. And so the search for the ultimate sub-$1,500 USD HD camcorder goes on.
• Good, not great video quality
• Five-hour capacity (best resolution)
• Excellent manual options
• Attractive form factor
• No AF Assist lamp, flash or light
• Offloading and storing HD video