We've been eagerly awaiting a chance to get our hands on the JVC HD Everio GZ-HD7 hard drive camcorder, and now that we've had one here for the past few days, we were not disappointed. Here are our impressions of its usability, picture quality and overall design.
Holding the camcorder is a delight. It feels like the designers of this device have carefully considered the user, because this little camcorder fits perfectly in the hand. Nice usability touches such as powering the camcorder on when you open its 16x9 widescreen display, a little focus assist button up front right where you need it, and our favorite, an easy-to-use focus ring, add a lot to this overall user-friendly package.
Navigating the menus is easy, too, where you can either control them with little buttons beside the viewscreen, or use buttons located on the camera body. A slight distraction is the red pilot light on the camcorder itself, making you think at first that you're recording. But there's a red REC indicator on the viewscreen that shows you when you're actually recording onto the unit's 60GB hard drive.
And yeah, there's the big plus with this camcorder: There's no tape involved. All your footage is recorded on that 60GB hard disk. The hard drive can store nearly five hours of footage at its highest- quality setting, gathering video with three CCDs and laying it down at a full 1920x1080i. It uses electronic pixel shifting to spread out the pixels, but the result is ultra-high quality. No, it's not up to the standard of professional-level 3-CCD camcorders such as the Panasonic HVX200, which uses similar raster-stretching techniques, but then you can buy three of these JVC HD Everios for the price of one of those.
Looking at its picture in a 720p monitor, we realized that yes, this is the real thing: tack-sharp HDTV with a camera small enough to fit in the palm of your hand. Never have we seen such great video coming out of a camera so small and so cheap. It doesn't feel cheap, though, and we were also highly impressed with its f/1.8 - 1.9 Fujinon zoom lens, 10x optical glass that's plenty fast and crispy-critter sharp.
There is image stabilization on board, too, but we didn't get as much benefit from that as we have in Sony and Canon camcorders in the past. Since we like to use a tripod as often as possible anyway, that's not a huge factor for us, especially when the lens zoomed all the way out. But still, trying to zoom all the way into its full 10x length made for some really shaky looking shots. We agree with David Pogue that this Everio's image stabilization leaves much to be desired.
Upon close examination, the camcorder's image quality does contain compression artifacts, but they weren't glaringly obvious to the uninitiated. The picture doesn't look as buttery smooth as uncompressed HD, nor is it quite as good as HDV video. Even so, we found the colors to be vibrant and true without being overbearing, and the overall impression is that this is definitely HD we're dealing with, and its sharpness is impressive. It's not quite up to professional standards, but for amateur work, it's good enough to be considered overkill. The most significant flaw we could see was its low-light performance, which looked a bit too grainy for our taste. We had hoped for better in that department, especially with three CCDs.
What about editing this footage? Well, that's a weakness thus far. It outputs regular MPEG-2 in a wrapper called .tod that can be edited far and wide, but you'll need to use conversion software to make that happen. In addition to that mpeg format, its star format is the new AVCHD, a flavor of MPEG-4 that uses the vaunted H.264 codec. Problem is, the mighty pro editing apps such as Final Cut Pro and Adobe Premiere Pro are clueless when it comes to AVCHD; even the latest upcoming CS3 version of Premiere Pro doesn't support it. Ulead just announced its VideoStudio 11 that handles the nascent AVCHD format, and then there's the excellent pro editing app Sony Vegas and the untested but previously crash-prone Pinnacle Studio 11, but so far, that's about it. There is a crude editing/conversion application included with the Everio camcorder, but c'mon software developers! AVCHD is a format that's been here for over a year, with Panasonic, Sony, Canon and JVC on board. Where are you? The dearth of easy editing choices lessens the appeal of this camcorder and all others using AVCHD, but that's hopefully a temporary problem.
As a stopgap, JVC offers its VD40 burner it calls a "Sharestation" that can let you offload HD footage onto a garden-variety DVD, and then play back those videos directly to a TV without using a computer at all, an innovative approach. But the problem there is, those discs won't play back in a DVD playerâ€”you must use the Sharestation. We'd rather just see a capture/edit/output workflow like we've become accustomed to with DV.
Summing up, this is a great camera for your $1700 (and it can already be found for less than $1500 and falling), far surpassing any cameras that were available in the past for this price. However, we haven't tested its competitors, but one thing's for sure, the quality of these HD camcorders, recording on hard disks without tape, is astounding. The JVC Everio GZ-HD7 gets a qualified cheer from us here, and we can't wait to see what its competitors can do.