Just last month, we had the absolute pleasure of reviewing Samsung's SC-HMX20C -- which, if you couldn't tell, we really liked. This month, JVC's GZ-HD40 arrived, and we set out to put it through the same paces. Upon ripping the box open and wrapping our paws around it for the first time, we were simultaneously pleased with how light it felt and somewhat dismayed by the bulky design. Still, there's more to a camcorder than external pizazz, so join us after the break as we test out this dual-format device on a fantastic weekend filled with sun, sand and sunburn.
JVC's design scheme is nothing to get excited about. In our eyes, the unit seems a bit boxy -- old fashioned, if you will -- and a touch large for a handycam. Folks won't have any trouble handling this thing with one hand, but it's not exactly the most comfortable camcorder we've ever held. To its credit, the HD40 was lighter than we expected it to be, but the size prohibits it from being easily (read: comfortably) carried about in one's cargo pocket. Beyond all that, the build just felt cheaper than we reckoned a $1,299.99 camera should. The materials just didn't feel high-end enough (or mid-range enough, to be honest), and the flimsy manual Lens Open switch was a real puzzler.
We did, however, appreciate the onboard port selection. A full-size HDMI port, mini-USB connector, AV output and microSD card slot were all found alongside a microphone input. The HDMI / AV output ports enable video playback straight to an HDTV without a dock (which is also included).
Alright, so the overall design is questionable, but how about the interface? Unfortunately, we can't say that there's too many highlights here, either. One of the first things we noticed is that the camcorder turned on as soon as the flip-out LCD was, um, flipped out. Some may love this, some may despise it. It sort of grew on us, to be honest -- particularly since it enabled lighting fast boot-up after the initial turn on sequence. In other words, shutting the screen once it was booted on put it in some form of sleep mode, and flipping it back open enabled us to capture time-sensitive moments with ease.
Also of note, the lens cover didn't automatically open when the unit was turned on or set to movie / still shot mode. Instead, users have to manually flip a switch beneath the cover itself. For some, this may not matter that much; we weren't particularly fond of it. Starting / stopping captures was handled by a nicely placed thumb button, while the zoom was handled up top. Speaking of which, we weren't thrilled with the sluggishness of the zoom, but at the same time, it did prevent us from zooming in way too fast. One of those love / hate things, you know?
We did appreciate how easy it was to switch (again, a manual toggle) from live video mode to still shot mode, but sadly, flipping over to the latter wasn't worth a whole lot -- more on that in a bit. The actual flip-out display was plenty bright and rather impressive in its own right, but the user interface left a lot to be desired. First off, JVC assigned way too many options to each button on the display and inner side panel. To further complicate matters, the UI had a few critical areas tucked away deep within the menu structure. For example, switching between AVCHD and MPEG-2 recording wasn't on the main menu; rather, it was curiously hidden within Basic Settings alongside unrelated options like language, clock adjust and date display style.
Once you learn the device, navigating isn't all that difficult, but it's still not intuitive, which really shouldn't be too much to ask on a device of this caliber. Another huge knock (to us, anyway) was the lack of a touchscreen. The entire UI has to be navigated with a trio of buttons (one of which is actually a tiny joystick), which isn't exactly the quickest way to get around in there. As a result, there's no icons to guide you -- just a traditional list of textual choices that don't do a phenomenal job of explaining what they're there for at times. If this seems harsh, let us remind you that this isn't some chintzy camcorder from DXG -- far from it, actually -- and for 1,300 bones, we simply expected a much more polished UI (and a touch panel).
We'd also like to touch on one more point: there's no secondary record stop / start button nor zoom button on the flip-out panel. Maybe it's just us, but we found that having these buttons near the hand likely holding the flip-out display really handy on the SC-HMX20C. Again, we understand that the omission of the aforesaid buttons comes as a direct result of having to place navigational buttons there instead, but still, it is somewhat frustrating to think of what could have been.
Okay, if you've stuck with us this far, you're probably hoping that the video performance is this unit's saving grace. We can't wholeheartedly say that it is, but there's not much to kvetch about here. Logging clips is quick and painless once you get everything just so, and while the MPEG-2 clips are way easier to digest on the average computer, the AVCHD clips are likely what you're after. For some, they'll savor the format. For others, they'll loathe it. Low-light performance was expectedly subpar, even with the absolutely blinding light parked just below the lens. In you're hoping to shoot after sunset, we'd recommend looking elsewhere.
As for resolution choices, you've got three levels of AVCHD quality (but c'mon, with 120GB of internal hard drive space, you won't be leaving the maximum detail option), along with two choices for MPEG-2 (Full HD and 1440 CBR). Unfortunately, there's no slow motion mode or anything else of the sort, but there is an option for capturing with or without x.v.Color in AVCHD / MPEG-2. Logging clips in broad daylight produced relatively satisfactory results, with images that were sharp and detailed. Audio capture was remarkably average, with nothing to complain about but nothing to get overly joyous about.
As for other related details, the included data battery threw out a range of 95 minutes on a full charge, and in our testing, we found it to be accurate enough. If you're actually wondering just how much data can fit on this thing before you unload, expect upwards of 15 hours in best quality AVCHD or close to 10 hours in MPEG-2. In other words, your battery is going to die a few times over before you run out of capacity.
As always, we don't seriously expect you to make your HD camcorder decision based on how well the thing handles still photography, but given that JVC added in the option to snap pics to the internal hard drive or a microSD card, we figured we'd test it out. Unfortunately, we've got more bad news on this front. Images taken at high noon on a cloudless day were less than impressive, and shots captured in dimly lit scenarios were downright poor. Sure, this thing will get the job done in a pinch, but even an inexpensive point-and-shoot could easily outdo the HD40 in the still shot department. Check out what we're referring to in the gallery below.
After a solid weekend at the OBX with JVC's capacious HD camcorder, we left underwhelmed with its overall performance. To be frank, the value just isn't here. For $1,299.99 (MSRP), we simply expected more all the way around. If internal capacity is paramount, the HD40 will be tough to beat. But if you're down with snagging an HD camcorder with much less internal space and way more impressive results, we can't help but recommend that you skip over this one. Nothing about the HD40 is remarkable (save for the aforementioned HDD size), and everything else is average at best.
If this unit was priced way below what it is, we might be singing a different tune, but honestly, we've seen better results from camcorders that cost hundreds less. Granted, none of those alternatives have a hard drive big enough to hold 15 hours of Full HD footage, but what good is 15 hours of HD footage that really isn't all that spectacular? Unless you've personally played with the Everio HD40 and just found yourself immediately drawn, we can't say that your hard-earned Benjamins should be exchanged for this one. Have a look at the clips below and see if meets your standards.
Original .MTS Files, likely preferable for Windows users. Right-click and Save As...
47MB: Beach clip
48MB: Yet another beach clip
59MB: You've got one guess...
63MB: Evening shot on the water
65MB: Almost dark shot on the water
QuickTime Files, likely preferable for Mac users. Right-click and Save As...
169MB: Beach clip
166MB: Another beach clip
299MB: Yet another beach clip
302MB: You've got one guess...
158MB: Evening shot on the water
125MB: Almost dark shot on the water