The Good: Well-placed controls and a wealth of manual adjustment features
The Bad: Controls not intuitive for novice users; poorly lit indoor scenes hard to capture with auto-record
The Bottom Line: Compact size and fine features notwithstanding, it's not well suited to mainstream consumers
With HDTVs selling at a fast clip, it's a given that consumer-electronics companies will look to capture that segment of the audience that wants to view life's images in all their high-definition glory. Already, the camcorder field is growing crowded with devices that can record HD video and still photos on internal hard-disk drives.
JVC recently joined Canon (CAJ), Panasonic, and Sony (SNE) with its GZ-HD7U hard-disk camcorder, which records images to a 60-gigabyte drive using the older MPEG-2 format for data compression. The $1,300 camera uses three image sensors to capture scenes at 1080i high-definition resolution instead of the single sensor offered by some of JVC's competitors. The added complexity of combining three images likely contributed to the subpar picture quality I encountered with this camera.
From All Sides
The GZ-HD7U is a thoughtfully laid out, nice-looking device. On the right side sits the internal hard drive, which can record five hours of full HD images. There's also a hidden port for an external microphone and an AV connector for transferring video directly to a DVD recorder. A lens cover switch sits to the right, just behind the lens itself, while the mode dial, recording button, zoom toggle, and still-snapshot button are on the back right.
The rear houses a fairly small battery that provides slightly more than an hour's shooting time. Beneath the battery, there's a slot for an HD multimedia interface cable for direct viewing of recorded video on an HDTV. The USB port (to connect with a computer) and the AC adapter plug (to recharge the battery) are nearby. There are also buttons to adjust aperture priority, shutter priority, and brightness.
As is typical, the left side handles most of the action. Along the 2.7-inch wide-screen liquid-crystal display, there are quick-press buttons to determine how much recording time you have left, choose among shooting modes such as portraits and sports, and add special effects. The physical menu controls, however, are situated a bit oddly, side-mounted on the unit next to the component and S-video outputs instead of on the LCD screen.
Image Quality at Issue
Recorded images can look pretty good when the JVC camera is at its best. Unfortunately, those times are few and far between. Images often looked grainy and film-like rather than digital and crisp.
One major shortcoming is poor retention of detail while panning and tilting the camera to capture images around you. During editing, I found that I had to jettison about half the scenes from a summer pool party because they were too blurry—even though I had turned on image stabilization while shooting. Naturally, the results were much better while holding the camera perfectly still or using a tripod, but this sort of defeats the purpose of buying a handheld device.
Another recurring issue was difficulty in capturing scenes in low-light situations. Friends at a birthday party looked unnaturally red. What's more, there were noticeable artifacts—image defects caused by the software—which is unacceptable for a camera in this price range.
To be sure, more experienced users can mitigate some of the image-quality problems by diving into the menu for adjustments. You simply press the menu button on the left side of the camcorder and use a joystick on the LCD screen to adjust the white balancing and image quality—as well as turn on the image stabilization, which most users would do just as well without due to the aforementioned shortcomings.
Still, I was disappointed that the menu navigation was not as intuitive as that on earlier JVC models or competing devices. Likewise, I was surprised that the camcorder did not have a touch screen, an increasingly common feature on even lower-end devices.
As with other camcorders, editing remains a challenge for more casual users. JVC includes CyberLink editing and playback software for Windows (MSFT) computers, as well as software to help transcode the footage for the iMovie format on Mac machines. Even with Apple's (AAPL) radically revamped edition of iMovie, it was a chore. I had to buy Quicktime Pro for $30 to copy the images from the JVC hard drive to the Mac, then code that into iMovie. Once I did that—a process that took a couple of hours to convert a measly 30 minutes of footage—iMovie made it a snap to throw together a five-minute clip with music and transitions. Mac users should take note: Before shooting any video, set the encoding quality to 1440 x 1080 pixels, which JVC dubs "1440 CBR" in its recording-quality menu. The constant bit-rate compression at that resolution will make Mac computers happier to accept the information.
Not for the Casual User
For now, mainstream users might do better to stick with camcorders that use the HDV format. Such devices also use MPEG-2 compression to capture high-definition content, but record it onto the same DV and MiniDV tapes originally developed for standard-definition recording. While there are quality compromises attendant to the tape format, the tapes are relatively cheap and can be thrown into a drawer to edit at your leisure. With hard-drive recorders, you must transfer content to a computer frequently to avoid running out of storage capacity. JVC does offer an optional dock, called the HD Share Station, with which you can burn images to a DVD, but that will set you back an extra $400.
The JVC GZ-HD7U is a nicely designed device that serious videographers might find acceptable. But for the vast majority of people who merely want point-and-shoot capability, I'd suggest looking elsewhere.