As many camcorder manufacturers have discovered, three low-resolution sensors can sometimes take you a lot farther than a single high-resolution sensor. Unfortunately, while that may have been true for a standard-definition world, it doesn't seem to carry over to high-def--at least, not in the case of the JVC Everio GZ-HD7. Perhaps it's because JVC uses three extremely small 1/5-inch sensors, each with approximately 976x548 pixels, interpolating and interlacing to generate 1,920x1,080 1080i HD video. Perhaps it's because of the demanding MPEG-2-TS (transport stream) compression and encoding the HD7 uses to write video to its 60GB hard disk drive.
But whatever the reason, the HD7 simply can't produce video to rival that of similarly priced single-chip competitors like the Sony Handycam HDR-SR1. It's a pity, too, because the HD7 has all the features you'd expect from a camcorder in its price class, including manual aperture and shutter speed adjustment; a very nice manual focus implementation; low-noise, low-light video; bright LCD and eye-level viewfinder; an external mic input; and an accessory shoe. With a few exceptions, the control layout, too, seems designed for actual manual use rather than for show. (For details and further commentary on the design and features, click through to the slide show.) I docked it a point in the design ratings, though, because several important shooting controls--gain control, wind filter, white balance--are buried in the menu system, and because you're forced to use the LCD too often. The latter is especially significant in light of the HD7's poor battery life.
The HD7 can output in two different 1080i formats. The first, 1920x1080, dubbed "FHD" for "Full HD," uses variable bit rate compression for a theoretically better picture. The second, 1440x1080, dubbed "1440 CBR" uses constant bit rate compression, and is the HD format you must use if you wish to edit your video with iMovie; iMovie doesn't speak FHD. On Windows, I suggest you stick with the bundled Cyberlink software for playing, editing and burning your FHD video. Figuring out which third-party software will work with FHD and how to finesse it takes some major Googling.
Canon HV10 or HV20 for far less money. You may be willing to pay a premium for hard-disk-drive convenience, but you shouldn't sacrifice video quality. Some of the problems with the HD7's video include severe interlace artifacts, horizontal jitter and stutter, and blown-out highlights. Video looks far sharper when shot using a tripod, with very little motion in the scene, but even then you can see interlace artifacts while zooming and on moving objects. For better or worse, the FHD and 1440 CBR video looked quite similar to each other.
But performance represents the weakest aspect of the HD7. First, the battery lasted for only 20 to 30 minutes of my field testing, despite the fact that I shoot primarily via the less power-hungry eye-level viewfinder. Second, the optical image stabilizer seemed completely ineffectual. The product manager admits that the OIS is "underperforming" and that the company is "looking into it." Hmmm. The lens focuses relatively fast and displays surprisingly little chromatic aberration--just the expected amount on high-contrast edges--but exhibits some barrel distortion at the wide end, which isn't so wide that it's worth forgiving. Only the audio performed as expected, and the wind filter completely cut the effect of the day's loud breeze.
All of which adds up to a pretty disappointing camcorder, especially given the JVC Everio GZ-HD7's relatively high price tag. Check out any of the models on our top HD camcorders list for a better option.