Hard disk drives are taking over the world! At one time, HDDs were safely ensconced in PCs and laptops. Then they moved to outboard drives, satellite and cable boxes, combination DVD/HDD recorders, iPod digital audio players…the list goes on. Now the engineers at JVC have created a series of Everio ultra-small, super lightweight camcorders with built-in 20GB or 30GB drives that record up to seven hours of MPEG2 video. This is many times the capability of wildly popular DVD camcorders like the Sony DCR-DVD203 that record 20 minutes of best-quality video on single-sided 3-inch 1.4GB disks. And in keeping with the trend of combining digital still cameras and camcorders, the new GZ-MG70U has a 2.12MP CCD so it takes 1600 x 1200 pixel stills. It’s not the 12-megapixel Canon EOS 5D but it can satisfy your need for a photograph or 10,000.
This is the latest edition of JVC’s Everios that cost $699-$1,000 (street prices). The key differences between them are zoom power, hard drive capacity and CCD for digital still quality. Now you might wonder how a hard disk drive handles the rigors of use, especially when shaky hands and quick movements are part and parcel of camcorder use. That intrigued us as well along with the level of overall quality and convenience this potential mini wonder could deliver. Did JVC hit a home run with the GZ-MG70U? The answer follows…
Features and Design
I’ll confess to using camcorders since the time they looked like shoulder fired missiles using full-sized T-120 VHS cassettes. One of my favorite memories was walking around Walt Disney’s Epcot Center in the ’80s seeing dozens of people struggling with these 10-pound monstrosities. In 1989 Sony shook up the camcorder world with the introduction of a relatively tiny 8mm Handycam (the CCD-TR55). I vividly remember a Sony exec taking it out of his overcoat pocket at the press introduction. Wow! That was exactly my reaction when I took the GZ-MG70U out of the carton. I was looking for other pieces the thing was so small, literally palm-sized (2.8 x 2.8 x 4.3, WHD, in inches). And with the battery and SD memory card it weighs .9 pounds. DVD camcorders tip the scales at around 1.5 pounds and are much bigger since they have to hold blank disks.
The front of the GZ-MG70U is dominated by a 10x optical zoom lens with an f/1.8 aperture rating. Like the Canon Optura 600 there’s no built-in lens cover just a clunky cap that’s attached to the wrist strap. It’s just as lame here as with the Optura. There’s also a built-in flash, stereo speaker and remote/camera sensors. Unfortunately there’s no AF Assist lamp or video enhancement light to help with stills and video in low light. The right side is plain, other than the DC input and type that proclaims “Hard Disk Camcorder” with an embossed HDD logo. I guess they want to let folks know it uses a hard drive. On the top you’ll find a wide/tele key and the basic mode switch (off, play, record) with lights to indicate power and HDD access. There is no accessory shoe, another oversight. The left is dominated by the flip-out 2.5-inch LCD screen (rated an O.K. 112K pixels). The screen turns 270 degrees. When open you have access to a number other controls including the mode (video or still), an S-video output, Delete and Menu keys. Alas no S-video cable is supplied. The flash key has options for auto, auto red-eye reduction, on, slow synchro and off. The Info key tells how much recording time is available and to the minute how much battery life is left, a great feature. The supplied battery that connects on the back is rated 50 minutes, close to DVD camcorders. There’s a four-way controller with center OK button. In video mode it’s simple making manual adjustments for auto exposure, focus, white balance, shutter speed, program AE or special effects. JVC doesn’t win any raves here since they’re a basic set with only four Program AE options (Twilight, Spotlight, Snow and Sports). In still mode you can adjust AE, focus, white balance and shutter speed.
On the back of the camcorder are the record button, A/V and USB outs. The bottom has a tripod mount and slot for an SD card. The camcorder kit has what you need to get going including an AC adaptor, wireless remote, cables, neck strap and the Digital Photo Navigator V.15 software CD ROM that includes PowerDVD 5 NE, PowerDirector Express NE and PowerProducer 2 Gold NE for the PC and Capty MPEG Edit EX for the Mac. There’s also a straightforward 64-page owner’s manual and a 36-page booklet for loading the software with baby steps to get you started. No SD card is included or any other recording media since the HDD holds it all. JVC recommends using a brand name SD card rated 10 Mbps.
Just to let you know you have something different on your hands, JVC includes a “Read This First!–How To Handle The Hard Disk Camcorder.” HDDs may be old news but they have their baggage. JVC immediately warns that you should make backups on your PC or on DVD. What they don’t say is patently obvious–hard disk drives crash and burn and you better make a backup, just as you do for your important files at home or work (you do back up, right?). They also tell you to format the HDD and SD card for stable speeds and operation. Getting uncomfortable? JVC tells you to reset the camera if it does not operate correctly, shades of Ctl-Alt-Delete! Maybe it was the lawyers getting involved or a real warning, I’m not sure since my drive didn’t crash (whew) during my test period.
Image Courtesy of JVC
Prepping the GZ-MG70 was a breeze. You simply attach the battery, plug the AC adaptor into the DC input, wait for about 90 minutes and you’re fully charged.
JVC has created a very easy-to-use menu system for everything from setting the clock to adjusting resolution and manual tweaks. It’s extremely readable and simple to follow. Any camcorder user would find it very familiar. The only unusual setting was buried in Basic and dealt with Drop Protection. When enabled it helps the HDD curl into a ball as the camcorder falls to the floor (it kills the power). It’s more complicated than that but that’s what’s happening. JVC points out the function cannot protect the HDD every time it’s dropped. I didn’t have the heart to heave the $1,000 camcorder onto the floor, so I’ll take JVC’s word for it.
I initially set the GZ-MG70U on Ultra Fine which is 720 x 480 pixels at 8.5 Mbps, the same MPEG2 setting used by DVD camcorders. Like all camcorders, it’s as easy to use as a light switch. Simply put the GZ-MG70U is record mode, open the LCD, press record and you’re in business. The palm-sized unit fit nicely in my hand with the index finger resting on the wide/tele zoom switch and the thumb on the record button. I shot some scenes in Auto of fall foliage capturing a wide range of colors. Although I didn’t drop it, I did roughly shake the camcorder to see if the HDD would skip. It didn’t. I also wanted to see how the built-in image stabilizer worked. It was pretty good, not great, especially with extremely zoomed scenes. Along with outdoor shots that included the New Jersey seashore, I also recorded indoors with the Gain Up setting turned on. I also took a number of photos using auto and manual focus.
The camcorder doesn’t have a viewfinder, just an LCD screen so you’re at the mercy of its quality which is not a good thing. Although it withstood hard sunlight and you can adjust brightness via the menus, the 112K pixel screen is not very accurate. Moving my eyes from the subject in real life and then watching it on the LCD was disconcerting. It wasn’t anywhere near the same, particularly with shades of red and orange. After using the Kodak EasyShare One, it was especially jarring. Once I made my rounds it was time to check out the results.
Before getting into the details, I have to give JVC credit. With the 30GB HDD, I barely gave a thought to extra media (disks, tapes or memory cards). It almost seemed like a bottomless pit. The battery gave it up long before the drive. If you buy this one, a large spare is an absolute must. JVC sells one that lasts almost 4.5 hours.
Videos were played back on a Toshiba 36-inch 4:3 digital TV using S- and composite and on a Dell Dimension 9100. Although the GZ-MG70U does not have a FireWire out (just USB2.0) transferring video to the PC was fast after loading the supplied software. Stills were recorded to an SD card and printed directly from the computer to a Canon MP780. And what did I see?
Like DVD camcorders, stills are generated for each scene so it’s a snap moving from place to place during playback, something no tape-based model can do. It’s a great feature. Video quality was a mixed bag. It did not have the noise I’ve seen on some DVD camcorders but the camcorder had real problems with a windswept tree; the leaves were not distinct and this was with footage shot with only the optical zoom; the digital zoom boost that reaches 200x was turned off. Yet in some other scenes, colors were very accurate and blacks were rich and deep. The camcorder also had problems with some of the last roses of summer; colors just weren’t right and didn’t have punch. It really seemed to have problems delivering strong reds. During a walk near the beach on a windy day, the mic made it sound like I was standing in the middle of Hurricane Katrina. Definitely make sure the Wind Cut setting is enabled if there’s a breeze about. But the waves hitting the shore looked nice on the large TV screen.
I was pleasantly surprised as far as stills were concerned. Remember it has only a 2MP CCD, placing it a notch above camera phone resolution although the lens is far superior to anything available on a mobile. Expect to print 4x6s and nothing more but that’s all you should expect from a 2MP file. It wasn’t the Optura 600 but it wasn’t a disaster either. I shot using manual focus and it worked well when I could make out the subject on the LCD. This was an issue with direct sunlight.
This camcorder really is a mixed bag. Sometimes the video was spot on, others it didn’t make the grade. Digital stills were acceptable for 4x6s. Yet you can record seven hours of MPEG2 video and even step down the quality so you can record over 30 hours without even thinking of finding another blank disk or tape. Unlike DVD camcorders there’s no finalization process for playback but eventually you’re going to finalize a disk when you burn videos from your PC’s hard drive. Battery life was a bit less than stated but with this much capacity several spares are in order. What can I say? I would hope engineers working on camcorder MPEG2 encoders/decoders continue to make progress. JVC did not hit a home run with the GZ-MG70U, more like a double. That said, I’d be hard pressed paying $1,000 for it.
- Incredible capacity
- Incredibly small and lightweight
- Decent video and still quality
- No AF Assist lamp for stills
- Only 2MP still quality
- No accessory shoe or FireWire output