As MiniDV cameras begin to face serious competition from DVD camcorders, JVC's Everio line adds another option to the mix: hard drive storage. The compact JVC Everio GZ-MG50 offers a whopping 7 hours of video storage on its iPod-like 30GB hard disk. The midrange GZ-MG50 probably boasts sharper video quality and much better stills than the lower-end GZ-MG30U, but that still would put it behind competing classmates. Despite its massive storage capacity, the JVC Everio GZ-MG50 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 one pound with its battery installed, the Everio is light, but its thick plastic case feels solid enough to withstand typical handling in the field. The hard drive is protected by a shutdown feature that turns off the drive if it senses rapid acceleration--that is, dropping the camera.
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. The latter statistic is particularly useful, given the Everio's short battery life.
Camera operation is extremely simple, though the onscreen menus are somewhat confusingly organized. Setting the clock, for instance, is found in the Display menu rather than under the more intuitive Basic Settings or Camera Settings.
You'll have to remove the GZ-MG50U 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 JVC Everio GZ-MG50 has a feature set that's rather average for a consumer camcorder, except for one big difference: it stores video on a 30GB hard drive. You can record from 7 (Ultra quality) to 14 hours (Normal) of 720x480 MPEG-2 video on the drive or as much as 37 hours of 352x240 footage. This is a dramatic improvement over MiniDV (1 hour at high quality) or Mini-DVD (just 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 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 move 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.
The Everio stores 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.
The Everio's feature set is more typical of a camera half its price. In fact, some of its specifications fall behind those of the lower-end Everio GZ-MG30U. It sports a 15X zoom lens, compared to the 25X lens on the GZ-MG30U. However, it does have a much higher-resolution CCD--1.3 megapixels, compared to 680,000 pixels on the GZ-MG30U.
The camera has a slow-shutter night mode; a variety of manual features, including focus, white balance, and exposure; 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.
The GZ-MG50 captures photos at as much as 1.3-megapixel resolution. You can store as many as 9,999 images on the hard drive or save stills or full-resolution MPEG-2 video directly to SD cards. We expect the JVC Everio GZ-MG50's performance should match that of the rest of the series. That means it 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. Accurate manual focus is difficult to achieve using the smallish LCD and the control pad to adjust. Image stabilization works very well throughout most of the zoom range. We did find focus to be an issue, however, with the autofocus not hitting the mark on about a quarter of our stills.
Zoom controls are responsive and smooth throughout the range, but the zoom rocker has a loose feel that can make control difficult. The Everio's microphone picked up camera narration very clearly, but subjects 10 or more feet away were much quieter. When talking with your subject, you'll find your voice is much louder than theirs.
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, but it's somewhat coarse, making it sometimes difficult to judge focus. Color is fairly accurate, though a bit less intense than what you see in the final footage.
The battery is the Everio's weakest point. Though the camera can record 7 hours or more before you have to return to your computer to clear off some space, the battery is rated at just 50 minutes--and if you use the zoom and occasionally review your footage, you can count on a mere 40 minutes or so of recording. You'll want to supplant the included battery with JVC's optional double-capacity battery--and bring both batteries along. We expect the JVC Everio GZ-MG50's image quality to be somewhat better than that of the lower-end GZ-MG30U, owing to its larger, higher-resolution CCD (1/4.5 inch vs. 1/6 inch). But even the high-end MG70's image quality is noticeably inferior to uncompressed MiniDV footage. On that model, we found detailed areas such as grass lacking sharpness, and we noticed minor color banding, stair-step jaggies on sharp edges, and other artifacts in our test footage. Colors, however, are rich and accurate, though using automatic white balance can result in a yellowish cast in some indoor lighting situations.
With the camera's default settings, footage shot in typical indoor room lighting is dark and murky, and it lacks detail. Turning on the automatic gain control dramatically improves the color and brightness of the image but also adds graininess to your shots. Low-light performance is better than that of the GZ-MG30U, however, with more detail and less grain evident in normal room light. For extremely dark situations, there's a color slow-shutter mode, but it results in blurry, very grainy shots.
Where the GZ-MG70U's still shots were decent, the GZ-MG50's will likely be marginally usable, comparable to what you'd expect from a camera phone.