As the battle heats up between DVD, SD, and MiniDV camcorders, JVC has entered the market with a fourth media option that borrows as much technologically from the iPod as it does from competing cameras. The JVC Everio GZ-MG20U eschews removable storage and instead includes a built-in 20GB hard drive (similar to that found in the iPod) for an extremely impressive 4.5 hours of storage at best quality and as much as 37 hours of Web-quality footage. With a 25X zoom lens and a built-in video light, it offers solid camcorder features, but its wimpy battery poops out long before you can fill much of the massive storage space with the camcorder's mediocre recordings. For such a capacious camcorder, the JVC Everio GZ-MG20U is extremely small. It's short in both height and length, though it's as wide as a typical DV camcorder. This gives it a boxy look, but it's amazingly comfortable for one-handed shooting and easily drops into a jacket pocket. Weighing just 0.9 pound with battery installed, the Everio is very lightweight, but its thick plastic case feels solid enough to withstand typical handling in the field. A feature that senses rapid acceleration (read: dropping the camera) protects the disk by shutting down the drive.
The Everio's smallish size precludes a lot of external controls. The exterior of the case has only three switches: a power/mode control, a zoom rocker, and the record button. Flip open the LCD to find just five more buttons and a gamepad-style menu navigation control. One nice touch is an Info button that gives one-touch access to the amount of available recording time, as well as estimated battery life.
Camera operation is extremely simple, though the onscreen menus are somewhat confusingly organized. You'll find the option for setting the clock, for instance, under Display rather than under the seemingly more logical Basic Settings or Camera Settings.
You'll have to remove the camera from a tripod if you want to swap an SD card, but it's not an issue when recording to the nonremovable hard drive. The most notable feature of the JVC Everio GZ-MG20U is its 20GB hard drive. You can store from 4.5 (Ultra quality) to 9 (Normal) hours of 720x480 MPEG-2 video on the drive, or as much as 37 hours of 320x240 footage. This is a dramatic improvement over MiniDV (1 hour at high quality) or MiniDVD (a mere 20 minutes at high quality). Of course, once you do fill the camera's drive, you can't swap discs--you won't be able to record more until you move some files to your personal computer or delete some footage.
If you typically move footage to your PC for editing, the Everio's storage scheme works wonderfully. Plug in the USB 2.0 cable--there's no FireWire support--and you can use the bundled video-editing applications to copy files to your Windows or Macintosh computer, or just drag and drop the files to your hard disk. You'll need to learn at least some basic video-editing skills to move the files to DVD. The camera doesn't generate DVD menus, so you'll need to load the footage into the bundled CyberLink PowerProducer application (or another third-party app) to create a stand-alone DVD. PowerDVD software is included for playing the files directly from your hard disk or from DVD.
JVC stores the video in files with an unusual MOD extension, but they're actually standard MPEG-2 VOB files with Dolby Digital sound, and we had no trouble loading them into third-party editing applications. The camera shoots in 4:3 or wide 16:9 modes.
Other than the standout 25X zoom lens and the built-in video light, the Everio's feature set is more typical of a camcorder half its price, including the 1/6-inch 680,000-pixel CCD. There's a slow-shutter night mode; a variety of manual features, including focus, white balance, and exposurel; and a few gimmicky digital effects modes. You'll also find four program autoexposure modes: twilight, spotlight, snow, and sports. The Everio lacks an accessory shoe and doesn't support an external microphone. While it supports S-Video and composite output, there's no corresponding input, so you can't use the camera to convert your analog videos.
Still image support is limited to VGA-resolution stills. You can store more than 10,000 shots on the hard drive or shoot stills or full-resolution MPEG-2 video directly to SD cards. We expect that the MG20's performance matches that of its identical twin, the GZ-MG30, which takes about 6 seconds to power up. Once it's up and running, it's very responsive, with a delay of only a fraction of a second between pressing the record button and capture kicking in. Automatic features work well. Autofocus and exposure reacted quickly to fast pans from light to dark areas. Image stabilization does a good job throughout most of the zoom range--only at the farthest reaches of the 25X zoom is camera-shake significantly noticeable. However, accurate manual focus is difficult to achieve using the smallish LCD and the control pad for adjustments.
Zoom controls are responsive and smooth throughout the range. However, in quieter shooting situations, the microphone clearly picked up the zoom motor as well as the click of the zoom switch being released. Otherwise, the microphone performs well, capturing subtle noises clearly.
The camera lacks a viewfinder; the flip-out 2.5-inch LCD is the only method for framing shots. The LCD is viewable in a variety of lighting conditions, and the color is fairly accurate, though a bit less intense than what you see in the final footage.
The battery is the Everio's Achilles' heel. Though the camera can record 7 hours or more before you have to return to your PC to clear off some space, the wimpy battery is rated at just 1 hour--and if you use the zoom and occasionally review your footage, you can count on only a mere 45 minutes. You'll want to supplant the included battery with JVC's optional, double-capacity battery--and bring both batteries along. We expect that the JVC Everio GZ-MG20's video quality matches that of its identical twin, the GZ-MG30, which means last-generation DVD-camcorder output. This makes sense given that both types of technologies use MPEG-2 compression. Footage is somewhat softer and more prone to color banding and other artifacts than uncompressed MiniDV footage. Overall, we'd have to class the Everio's image quality at merely mediocre under ideal shooting conditions. There are noticeable stair-step jaggies on sharp edges, and textures such as grass lack fine detail. Colors, however, are rich and accurate.
With the camera's default settings, footage shot in typical indoor room lighting is dark and murky, and it lacks detail. This can be addressed by turning on the automatic gain control. This dramatically improves the color and brightness of the image but also makes for very grainy footage. Indoor shot quality matches what you'd expect from a camera a third of the Everio's price.
The Everio includes a built-in camera light. Though it appears blindingly bright when you're on the subject end of the shooting experience, in fact, it noticeably illuminates objects within only a couple of feet of the camera. For extremely dark situations, there's a color slow-shutter mode, but it results in blurry, very grainy shots.
Still-image quality is terrible. The VGA-resolution images lack detail and are grainy no matter what the lighting conditions.