Hard disc drive (HDD) camcorders are the newest wave of home video makers–and they’re pounding another nail in the coffin of tape-based models. Think of the Apple iPod blowing out the cassette Walkman for another example of HDDs trumping other technologies. As we’ve reported since January CES tape is going the way of the dodo as DVD-based camcorders take the market by storm and newer HDD and memory card based editions improve in quality and drop in price. Toshiba, a company not well-known for portable electronics other than a couple of Gigabeat MP3 players and portable DVD players, has recently introduced two HDD models, the 30GB gigashot GSC-R30 and the $999 60GB GSC-R60. When you add a half dozen JVC Everio G series models and the new Sony DCR-SR100, you have more than a blip on the radar screen–you’ve got a full-blown trend!
We’ve reviewed a 2005 Everio and weren’t that impressed with the video even though it and other HDD camcorders record DVD level MPEG2 quality (9 Mbps top setting). We were mightily taken with its seven-hour capacity, something no tape- or disc-based camcorder offers. With its 30GB drive, the Toshiba gigashot records 6 hours and 47 minutes of MPEG2 video. It can also take thousands of 2-megapixel stills. Let’s see what tales the GSC-R30 had for us when we took it through its paces…
Features and Design
The gigashot GSC-R30 has a vertical shape, radically different than the more horizontal JVC and Sony HDD models. It’s more like the SD-based Panasonic SDR-S100. Whether this is a good or bad thing is totally your call–we strongly recommend you handle any camera or camcorder before you put your money down. That out of the way, the GSC-R30 feels comfortable, once you adjust the Velcro wrist strap. With the proper fit, your index finger falls on the wide/tele toggle switch and the snapshot key for stills is right behind it. There is an indentation on the front so your fingers can curl around the body as you hold it. It’s nicely done.
The camcorder measures 1.9 x 4.7 x 2.8 (WHD, in inches) and weighs 15.8 ounces with battery, SD memory card, strap and lens cap. You definitely won’t get a hernia walking around with it. I do have to complain (naturally) about the funky lens cap. It’s attached by a string to the wrist strap and flaps in the breeze as you shoot. It’s like something out of the Dark Ages. Sheesh. It takes away from the overall sophisticated look which is mostly dark gray with touches of silver.
Taking off the lens cap you’ll find a 10x Canon optical zoom lens which is a decent range but pales in comparison to the 2006 JVC Everios such as the GZ-MG37. This new 30GB model costs the same as the Toshiba but has a 32x optical zoom. Ouch. But that’s not the whole story. The Toshiba has a much larger CCD (2.12MP) and takes much higher quality stills so bear that in mind since larger imaging devices usually deliver higher quality video with less noise. The JVC has a 680K CCD. And the Toshiba takes 1600 x 1200 pixel stills versus 640 x 480 for the Everio. Back to our brief tour…Also on the front of the GSC-R30 is a flash for improved still quality, an AF Assist lamp that also does double duty as an auxiliary light, a front LED and remote sensor. The top has a stereo mic, a tiny speaker but no hot or cold shoe.
The left side of the camcorder is fairly plain since this is where you’ll find the articulating LCD screen. The screen measures 2.5-inches and is rated a good 207K pixels. By comparison the JVC GZ-MG37 has a widescreen LCD for framing 16:9 videos for your new HDTV rather than the traditional square 4:3 shape. The Sony DCR-S100 has one too. This is a pretty major oversight but since this is Toshiba’s V.1.0 camcorder, figure widescreen LCDs will be part of the package next year. JVC’s initial HDD camcorders also had 4:3 screens.
The right side is also fairly plain with the wrist strap, zoom switch and shutter key for snapshots. You’ll also find a compartment with a flimsy door covering the DC in and A/V out connections.
The rear of the camcorder initially appears very busy with switches and decals galore. Once you get over a little shock, everything is nicely labeled. My guess is that many of these buttons will disappear next year as they’re eliminated and incorporated into software. As for the here and now, there are power and mode switches (video, still, playback). There’s also a jog wheel to spin through the onscreen menus with a four-way joystick in the center. To the right of them is the red-colored record button. There are also buttons for the built-in light, backlight compensation and menu. You’ll also find an SD card slot.
On the bottom is a battery compartment door, a special USB connector and tripod mount. The battery is rated a whopping 2.5-hours by the company.
Since there’s no blank media involved, you won’t find a tape or disc with this baby. It comes with a 1200 maH lithium ion battery, AC adaptor, special USB cable, an A/V cable with S-video out, remote control, lens cap and software CD ROM. The disc has ACDSee PowerProducer 3; another disc has the owner’s manual in PDF form. There’s a three-language Quick Start guide (18 pages in English) to get you going as well as a pocket-sized Quick Help guide that unfolds like an accordion. I’m all for saving trees but an in-depth printed owner’s manual you can throw in your bag would be a good thing.
After loading the battery, charging it and popping in a 2GB SD card it was time to give the gigashot a workout.
Image Courtesy of Toshiba
The GSC-R30 comes to life when you flip open the LCD screen. In about three seconds it boots up and you’re ready to shoot. Setting the time and date is simple, giving you a chance to play with the jog wheel and joystick. If you’d like, the camcorder lets you choose the type of album you’d like to store your footage in. There are over 25 to choose from such as Drive, Party, Summer and so on. One is even called Sad but I don’t know how many people take out their camcorders to record teary events such as funerals but Hollywood remade the Poseidon Adventure for $150 million so what do I know?
Surprisingly for a first generation product, the GSC-R30 has a nicely designed GUI for the initial setup. There are a few brain-twisters such as “LED” under Set Up refers to the AF Assist lamp on/off. Why not just call it AF Assist? Even with that, the rest of the settings are easy to access and adjust using the jog wheel and joystick.
After making all of my adjustments for initial Auto recording of video and 2MP stills with ISO 100 (200 is the only other option), it was time to try and fill the 30GB HDD. I took a load of video and it barely dented the capacity. And what did I experience on my TV screen and PC during playback? The good, the bad and the ugly.
Let’s get to the ugly. There were several issues. The results when shooting in low light were poor with loads of noise and soft colors. Focusing was not a problem in most instances but the results were sub par even though the camcorder grabbed a bit before zeroing in. Even when using the LED light, video quality was disappointing because it pumps out a minimal amount of illumination. Indoor close-ups were O.K. using the light but wider shots were clear misses. And yes, I adjusted white balance, sharpness and ISO for better results but they were just marginal improvements.
The bad had mainly to do with viewing video because getting to playback scenes on TV was not as intuitive as it should be. The software engineers created too many steps before you can highlight a scene (or album) and watch it. Instead of a group of thumbnails you have to scroll through them one-by-one. Yes, there’s a way to get to the thumbnail view but you have to load the manual and read the PDF. Please fix this for V.2.0, please.
As for the good, the GSC-R30 did an acceptable job outdoors–although not great. Colors were fairly accurate but there was some delay getting a sharp focus. And that old bugaboo of digital noise reared its ugly head once again. I squawked about this with the JVC Everio too; the Toshiba is no exception. HDD camcorders record MPEG2 video and the compression rate is much higher when compared to MiniDV. This compression really taxes the MPEG encoders/decoders which results in video noise. On the plus side, the LCD screen worked well even in bright sunlight and the battery lasted a long time–2-plus hours–even with loads of zooming and auxiliary light use.
Usually I have disdain for 2MP images but I have to admit the gigashot did a fine job, even with 8 Â½ x 11 prints although that would be the limit. I took some close-ups (not macro) outdoors of blooming rhododendrons and they came out fine. For 4 x 6s you should have no problem with this type of shot. When it came to wide landscapes, the GSC-R30 had trouble focusing and the shots were bad.
We’re back to Square One with the HDD camcorders we’ve tested. We love the capacity and the benefits of HDD recording. That said video quality is not worth the trade-off in our real-world trials. You can buy a decent MiniDV camcorder for half the price. You can spend about the same money ($700) for the Sony MiniDV DCR-HC96 and be way ahead of the game in terms of quality. And if you want some of the pluses of HDD recording such as thumbnails, there are always DVD camcorders like the recently reviewed Panasonic VDR-D300 ($999) that’s outstanding.
The 2.12MP Toshiba gigashot GSC-R30 has a list price of $799 but can be found for under $700–a lot less than the 3.3MP Sony DCR-SR100 with Dolby Digital Surround capability ($999) and about the same as the second-generation JVC GZ-MG37 with its more powerful zoom but
smaller CCD and puny still capability. The buzz on the ‘Net has Sony solving the quality problems of the initial HDD camcorders with the DCR-SR100. We’ll get one in as soon as we can to give you our three cents. Bottom line: the Toshiba gigashot GSC-R30 is clearly Version 1.0 and you should look elsewhere to satisfy your HDD jones.
- Tons of storage (almost 7 hours of DVD-level video)
- Excellent battery life (over 2 hours)
- Easy-to-follow onscreen menus
- Records acceptable at best video outdoors
- Good supplied software bundle
- Too much digital noise
- Poor video in low light
- 2.5-inch LCD not widescreen
- No hot or cold shoe
- Funky lens cap
- No printed owner’s manual