At the high end of the budget spectrum, JVC's GR-DF550 stands toe-to-toe with similarly priced camcorders such as the Canon ZR400 and the Sony DCR-HC42. What does it bring to the moviemaking table that you can't find elsewhere? Nothing significant, but the important elements are there: compact design, solid daylight video, reasonable low-light performance, and enough manual settings to satisfy savvy home videographers. Alas, even novice users will have to become somewhat adept if they want to make sense of the GR-DF550's complex controls, which aren't adequately explained by the anemic instruction manual. But any effort you have to put in is definitely worthwhile, as this camcorder can produce compelling results both indoors and out. Squat and boxy, the JVC GR-DF550 looks a bit more compact than it really is. Though significantly shorter than the Canon ZR series and Sony budget HC series, it's also fatter, so it doesn't slip quite as easily into a pocket. Even so, this is one diminutive camcorder, weighing just a little more than a pound (with battery and tape) and measuring roughly 3 by 2.9 by 5 inches.
This model has one fairly major design advantage over Canon's ZR series: its top-loading tape compartment, which greatly simplifies tape-swapping when the camcorder is hitched to a tripod. Other than that, the design is fairly typical, with a thumb-operated mode dial at the rear and various controls inside the LCD well. The camcorder also sports a cold shoe on top for accessories, an SD/MMC slot on the bottom, and a diopter-adjustable electronic viewfinder. We didn't love the push/pull zoom lever, which we found a bit imprecise.
Operating the GR-DF550 in Auto mode requires little user intervention. Upon switching to Manual, however, you'll have to face the camcorder's awkward array of controls. Part of the problem lies in labeling; one button is marked E-mail on top and Index below, while another is marked SEL and Store. So you not only have to know what these functions do but also how to access one or the other. There's also a five-way D-pad control, which is small and stiff, and a video/memory switch that toggles between tape and memory-card recording. Needless to say, you'll need the manual to decipher many of these controls.
Thankfully, the camcorder's onscreen menus are relatively easy to access and navigate, with only one sub-branch for each of the nine main sections. Most of the options are self-explanatory, though you may need to consult the manual for a few of the more obscure settings. Just one problem: the manual is quite terse in its coverage of the camcorder's features and operation.
As with many compact camcorders, various connectivity ports, including DC, USB, and FireWire, are scattered in seemingly random fashion around the body. Because they're hidden behind plastic doors that blend in almost seamlessly, they can be a bit tricky to spot. The JVC GR-DF550 neither raises nor lowers the bar for budget camcorders. If you like a powerful zoom, you'll appreciate its JVC-made lens, which has an optical reach of 15X--slightly longer than that of the Canon ZR400 (14X) and the Sony DCR-HC46 (12X). In Auto mode, the GR-DF550 takes charge of focus, exposure, white balance, and the like. By switching to Manual, you can adjust not only these settings but also the iris, shutter speed (from 1/60 to 1/4,000 second), image stabilization, and gain. You also get access to a fairly standard roster of scene modes (Sports, Twilight, Classic Movie, and so on) and fader/wipe effects. JVC's NightAlive mode promises effective nighttime shooting akin to Sony's NightShot, but we experienced better results without it.
Speaking of low light, the GR-DF550 includes a backlight-compensation mode, dual LEDs for illuminating nearby subjects, and filters that JVC claims reduce noise by as much as 30 percent. We were intrigued by the camcorder's Live Slow option, which lets you record slow-motion video while capturing real-time audio, but its implementation makes no sense; it records or plays back only 1.5 seconds of footage.
In Memory mode, the GR-DF550 snaps 2-megapixel still images and MPEG-4 video clips at 160x120--pretty useless for anything except e-mail. Perhaps that's why video-clip recording must be engaged via the E-mail button--JVC knows you'll be disappointed if you try to do anything else with such low-resolution clips.
On the plus side, the camcorder's composite and S-Video connectors support both input and output, meaning you can capture analog videos--from, say, a VCR or an older camcorder--and convert them to digital. We also like the dedicated microphone input, which, when used with the camcorder's shoe, lets you connect and mount an external microphone.
We do have one gripe with video playback on the JVC GR-DF550: while fast-forwarding or rewinding a tape, the screen doesn't display a date/time counter, so it's impossible to find a specific spot. At least you get a large, nicely designed wireless remote, so you don't have to hover over the camera while shuttling your video. We also wish JVC had supplied a stand-alone battery charger instead of forcing you to plug the AC adapter into the camera. There's no moss growing on the JVC GR-DF550. It starts up almost instantaneously; focuses quickly; and handles sudden exposure changes, such as when you're moving from indoors to outdoors, with minimal delay. Only low-light environments tripped it up, which isn't uncommon among camcorders in this class. Actually, the GR-DF550 did quite well in Auto mode, but when we activated its LED lights to better illuminate the surroundings, the autofocus seemed to have difficulty locking in, and previously smooth pans became jerky.
The GR-DF550's electronic image stabilization will delight some moviemakers and frustrate others. That's because it delivers rock-solid results--up to a point. Even at full zoom, it keeps the image completely steady, as long as you don't move. Shift even slightly, however, and the EIS moves sharply to catch up to your new position. The overall effect is kind of cool, not unlike the shaky-documentary look of some TV shows and movies, and even with the sudden jumps, it's better than the EIS that we've seen on some other camcorders.
JVC's stereo microphone did an excellent job recording sound both in front of and behind the camera, but you have to take the term stereo with a grain of salt: the two microphones are so close together--a necessity of the camcorder's compact design--that they capture more or less the same audio. We found audio quality to be quite good overall, and even though we could hear a distinct hum coming from the GR-DF550 when it was powered on, the microphones somehow filtered it out. We like the camcorder's sharp 2.5-inch LCD but find its electronic viewfinder a bit on the grainy side. The JVC GR-DF550 delivers decent-looking video, on a par with what we'd expect from a camcorder in its price range. We found moving images to be sharp and colorful, though perhaps a bit drab on the skin tones. Outside shots looked particularly dazzling, though the camcorder fared well indoors, too. That's because there's little of the distracting video noise that hampers lower-end cameras. JVC honors its promise to keep noise levels to a minimum, though we wouldn't say the GR-DF550 abolishes noise altogether. Video shot in extremely low-light areas did exhibit some grain.
The NightAlive mode did indeed make nighttime come alive--as long as both the camera and the subject remained absolutely still. Any movement whatsoever results in blurred, unwatchable video. Thus, you can put the camcorder on a tripod and use it to shoot, say, the woods at night, but if a Blair witch walks through the frame, the shot is ruined--or extraspooky, if that's what you're after.
Although the JVC GR-DF550 can capture 1.9-megapixel images, our test photos came out noticeably grainy-looking and with muted colors, even when our subjects were well lit. That's not surprising, given the sensor's native 1.3-megapixel resolution.