The Good: Compact, light; makes it easy to record high-quality video
The Bad: Pricey, considering the hard-to-use PC software
The Bottom Line: Worth considering if you want a camcorder that records onto a hard drive
I learned a few things on my recent vacation to Hawaii. Laid-back island life is way nicer than the Silicon Valley rat race. Opening a coconut is harder than it looks on TV. Oh, yeah, this too: I really don't have a lot of use for a camcorder.
Some people making this realization might instantly think, "Great! I just saved myself 1,000 clams!" Unlike me, those people haven't signed themselves up for a batch of camcorder reviews in the next month. Ouch.
So, as we kick off this series, be forewarned: I'm a tough crowd. Since we aim to make reviews as relevant for the technophobe as the technofanatic, I reckon that makes me something of an ideal camcorder critic. Indeed, I don't have kids. I find taking home movies of my beloved cat to be rather pet-obsessed—even for me. What's more, I apparently lead a boring life. Even in Hawaii, I found little that absolutely had to be documented. And when I suggested shooting some video around the office, an adamant cubemate made it clear she'd rather I didn't.
My first camcorder is JVC's Everio GZ-MG505. It retails for between $1,100 and $1,200, depending on where you buy it. It records onto a hard drive, not a DVD or tape. Some people say that hurts the quality, but it was a plus for me. Who wants to bother with DVDs and tapes? As far as I'm concerned, recording onto a hard drive just means I have to deal with one less accessory.
My experience using the camera was pretty good. It's a nice size—easily tucked away in backpacks, comfortable to hold for long stretches. Not a standout in terms of aesthetics, but a compact, attractive-enough device. The screen pops out to the side and swivels around like most camcorders, and I was a fan of the menu and navigation between different features. The zoom was handily located on top of the camera, where my index finger was anyway. I pretty much picked it up and started shooting.
The quality of the display screen is nice, too. I wouldn't have thought you could capture the colors and scenery of Hawaii well on digital video. But then I watched the video of our trek to a secluded, white sandy beach, and the closeup of a large turtle sunning itself on a rock. The camera captured the colors, sounds, and somehow even the feel of that day in a way I didn't expect.
But then I tried to import all that feel-good footage onto my computer. My idea was to stitch together all the random vacation scenes into a movie, burn it onto a DVD, and send it to the friends with whom we traveled. I've been playing with this software for three days and still haven't mastered anything close to that. The disk from JVC installed three programs onto my machine and it took me hours just to figure out which one does what. The manual hardly clears things up.
Once I imported all the video, I had no clue what to do next. And there were significant time lags between each step. I'd leave the video to upload, or process, or whatever I was trying to do at the time, get busy with something else, and totally lose interest in the project.
The software tries to lead you through it. There are descriptors—things like "Get started here!"—that go with different buttons. But somehow it was still utterly confusing. My husband had a much easier time, but he also has a Mac and the software for editing on a Mac was much easier to understand than that for a PC. That said, he was irritated he couldn't import it to Apple's (AAPL) iMovie. He found a workaround, but it took a few days of researching and a lot of jumping through hoops.
Even though I wouldn't use it as much as some people, I like the idea of having a camcorder around the house. But with such a steep price tag and frustrating software, I don't think this one would be the pick for me. Still, if you own a Mac, like the idea of a camcorder with a hard drive, and are in the market, it's well worth your consideration.