After years of pretty stagnant camcorder sales of around 4-5 million per year, it’s expected close to 20 percent more will be purchased in 2007. To this observer the reason is pretty simple—HDTV. People are buying flat-panel televisions by the millions and really enjoy HD programming and higher-quality DVDs on widescreens. Standard definition 4:3 aspect ratio video really doesn’t cut it anymore—especially on a pretty flat panel display. Enter the many high-def camcorders now widely available. Walking into a big box retailer recently I saw over a half-dozen on view along with many less-expensive SD camcorders. This trend will continue as HD camcorder prices continue to drop to more reasonable levels. It really is a HD World, as many Japanese companies have hyped for the last decade. A good example is the new JVC GZ-HD3, a hard disk based HD camcorder that’s the less expensive sibling to the GZ-HD7 released earlier this year. We weren’t too thrilled with that one, given its high price ($1,699 USD list) and so-so video quality. Along comes this new one for $400 USD less. Instantly you might think this is a much better deal but looks can be deceiving. Let’s give it a workout and see if it belongs on your shopping list…
Features and Design
I really, really like HDD and flash memory based camcorders. They’re so compact and look way cool unlike that DVD-based clunker just reviewed. Because there are no drives (tape or disk), companies can create really small, sleek designs such as the Sony HDR-CX7. The GZ-HD3 measures 3.25 x 3 x 6.125 (WHD, in inches) and weighs 1.5 pounds including the battery. It’s hardly a featherweight because of the 60 GB HDD and overall build quality; it feels very solid. By comparison, the more expensive and also very solid HD7 is 3.67 x 3.1 x 7.365 and tips the scales at 1.7 pounds with the battery. The CX7–which only uses memory cards for media–really is a lightweight at just a pound fully loaded. As always we urge you to hold your prospective purchase to see which feels the most comfortable. The all-black GZ-HD3 has glossy and textured finishes and fits comfortably in the palm of your hand.
The front is dominated by a 10x Konica Minolta HD lens surrounded by a built-in lens hood. You can hit 200x with the digital zoom but we always urge you to turn this feature off since the results are filled with digital noise. The hood can be removed and it accepts 46mm filters. Directly below the lens is a switch that flips back the lens cover (it’s not automatic when you power off or on). This seems a bit quaint but at least it’s not a lens cap attached by a string! There’s also a Focus Assist button to help when you’re manual mode, a compartment with mic-in and USB ports as well as tiny LED light, like the Canon HV20. These lights are pretty useless with very small coverage areas. Still it’s better than nothing for capturing a close-up in dark areas; a flash would be more useful in my opinion.
The left side features a fold-out 2.8-inch LCD monitor rated 270K pixels, similar to the HD7. When closed there are a variety of logos touting the FullHD 1080 video, 3CCD system, HDD and more. It’s a bit messy for my tastes but these are not objects d’art but home video makers. To the left of the monitor is a Light switch that lets you adjust the LED (always on, auto on or off). When you flip open the monitor you’ll find three controls on the left side for Index, Function and a nice joystick for navigation through the menus. Index quickly tells you how much battery life and space is available on the 60GB HDD. Function opens a variety of manual adjustments while the stick quickly accesses the five Program AE options (portrait, sports and so on), backlight compensation, spot metering and a Night mode for shooting in the dark. This is all nicely done and simple to operate. On the body itself are keys to switch between auto/manual recording, Menu, Direct Back Up and play/record along with a speaker and S-video output.
The top of the camcorder has a stereo mic (not 5.1), a cold accessory shoe, the wide/tele zoom switch and a dedicated snapshot button. The rear is dominated by the battery which is inset and discrete. To the right is a compartment with iLink, HDMI and component outputs while above the battery are A/V out and DC-in ports. You’ll also find the record button, a mode dial to switch between video/stills and lights to indicate which mode you’re in and to show if the battery’s charging.
There’s nothing on the right side other than an HDD emblem since this is the location of the hard drive. On the bottom of the camcorder is the SD card slot and a tripod mount.
The GZ-HD3 is supplied with the things you need to get started other than an SD card. Of note are the component video cable and a CD ROM with CyberLink’s PowerCinema NE, PowerProducer and PowerDirector to help you burn BD discs and perform basic edits.
After the battery was charged and SD card loaded, it was time to put the unit through its paces.
Image Courtesy of JVC
Testing and Use
The GZ-HD3 is a high-def camcorder that uses three 570K pixel CCDs to capture images. It doesn’t record 1920 x 1080I video like the more expensive HD7 but 1440 x 1080I footage. JVC uses the MPEG-2 TS recording system, not AVCHD as do Panasonic, Sony and Canon. If you stay within the JVC ecosystem (burners, software) this shouldn’t be an issue.
Since there’s no drive to boot, the camcorder is ready to go in less than two seconds. HDD popularity is growing wildly—SD and HD—because of the massive storage available. A 60 gig drive holds five hours of XP-level video and if you knock it down to SP, you can save seven hours worth of memories. Compare this to 40 minutes for a 4GB card or 30 minutes with a 3-inch dual layer DVD. It’s easy saving an entire vacation without downloading to a laptop or dropping a bundle on a dozen SDHC cards. There are other issues we’ll get to shortly but this is amazing stuff.
Since it was the start of Fall with leaves starting to do their “color thing,” I took a drive to see how well the unit would capture the vividness of the reds and oranges—always difficult for most camcorders. I also took shots indoors with available light using the usual hodgepodge of Auto and Manual settings.
First off, the camcorder is very comfortable to operate with all the controls logically placed. The LCD screen held up well, even in direct sunshine. JVC makes you work to adjust the brightness (it’s buried way too deep in the menu system), but I found I really didn’t need it that often. (For the record, the HD7 has a very good EVF to use in difficult situations.) The zoom moved quickly through the 10x range. Focusing for the most part was quick and accurate although there were problems in areas with little contrast when I turned the light off. Here I moved into Manual mode and made adjustments using the Focus Assist. It worked well.
I did most of my recording in Auto and Program AE since this is what the vast majority of people do. There is a Manual mode where you can adjust brightness, shutter speed (to only 1/30th ), aperture (to f/2.2), four white balance options, a variety of effects including sepia, Tele Macro and Zebra (for measuring brightness). It’s not a great arsenal but it does help you tweak some settings—if you even care to do so.
Image Courtesy of JVC
After I did my video and still recording, it was time to view the results. I used component video outs to a Toshiba 1080I HDTV and made prints on a Canon MFP. As I settled in I expected to be disappointed, as I was with the GZ-HD7. Surprise! The video was quite good especially when there was plenty of daylight. Colors were very accurate including the very red leaves of a turning maple tree and a bright blue Fall sky. I could see very little noise with the outside footage displayed on my HDTV. What was noticeable was the lack of optical image stabilization as I panned the trees and skies. The GZ-HD3—a $1,299 USD camcorder—has digital image stabilization, not the much better optical systems readily available. I know companies try to reach specific prices at retail and strip features in order to do so. In this case they should’ve charged another $50 USD for it. Camcorders with OIS take much less jerky results.
Where the camcorder clearly falls short is with indoor footage in low light. Colors tended to be a bit more yellow and when I shot some dark scenes, the noise was quite evident. I set the unit to Night mode and it captured the scene but there was heavy smearing on the LCD as I moved the camcorder. For the record, the low light footage was not nearly as good as the Sony and Canon HDV camcorders recently reviewed. An optional light is a key accessory if you plan a lot of indoor shooting.
You know the story with the stills. As I’ve said many times before it’s the rare camcorder that takes a good photograph. This one takes 1920 x 1080 pixel images—measly 2-megapixel files. You can’t even buy a 2MP camera today other than a cheesy cell phone. And since there’s no flash or AF Assist lamp, don’t expect much—this way you won’t be disappointed.
The GZ-HD3 camcorder is a good performer when there’s enough light. Video quality under these conditions is very pleasing and natural—like real life, the way high-def is supposed to be. When you go indoors there’s a fall off with lots of noise and issues grabbing quick focus. And I’m really disappointed JVC dropped the OIS—especially for the camcorder costing around $1,200 USD. If you can live with the downside, you’ll love the five hours of storage, nice ergonomics and pretty HD video.
• Excellent video with enough light
• Bountiful storage
• Nice design and ergonomics
• Noisy video with low light
• No optical image stabilization