While tape-based music formats died a rapid death in the '90s, tape-based camcorders have managed to delay their inevitable lynching for many years. Because of the enormous amount of data a few seconds of video can generate, it's only recently that there's been any option but DV tape to store video on. The JVC GZ-MC200 uses a tiny 4GB internal hard disk drive to store digital video. In effect, you skip the part of the editing process where you use FireWire to transfer footage to a hard disk for editing.
We've seen small camcorders before, but the MC200 ushers in a whole new generation of handheld camcorders that you can almost enclose in your palm. These suckers are small, really small. If you've been reluctant to take a camcorder on holiday because of the size of the things, you might be swayed by the MC200 -- it's the same size as a rolled-up pair of socks.
Not only is the MC200 small, but it's also been neatly designed. Controls have been kept to a minimum and it's immediately obvious what most of the buttons do. During our initial testing we didn't need to resort to the manual at all.
Using the camcorder in a traditional shooting position feels comfortable enough, but because the MC200 is so small, you'll soon find yourself adopting a whole new range of inventive poses to record video. The lens and grip sections of the camcorder rotate on a central pivot, which lets you shoot from a low position and angle the viewfinder up towards yourself -- ideal if you don't want to draw any attention. Alternatively, you can angle the viewfinder down to shoot footage over the heads of a crowd, or over the top of a fence -- though God knows what you'd be up to in that scenario.
The JVC's LCD is clear and easy to read despite its small size, and the hand-grip didn't fatigue even during extended use. Removing the camcorder's internal microdrive is a simple operation. A single catch releases the drive cover and the drive pops out using a button similar to the one on most laptops' PCMCIA slots.
The camcorder's battery is also removable, although it's unlikely you'd want to remove it. Because there's no external charger included you'll probably recharge the MC200's battery in-situ.
The MC200 uses a 2.1-megapixel CCD to capture your video. Although we were impressed with the performance of the camcorder in bright conditions, low-light recording was slightly dull and grainy. This is a common trait of single CCD camcorders, and the MC200 is not significantly poorer in low light that its contemporaries.
Most information you'd expect is displayed on the JVC's screen: time, date and battery level. Although the icons are tiny -- the screen itself is no giant -- everything is perfectly legible. It's easy to control white balance and there's a range of other settings you can tweak using the MC200's on-screen menus.
Microdrives come in various sizes, but the 4GB drive bundled with the JVC will hold 60 minutes of DV at standard quality. You can adjust the compression ratio the camcorder applies to footage to increase this run time, but your video will look progressively poorer as you increase compression levels. It's advisable to purchase extra microdrives or a single higher capacity drive -- 60 minutes is sometimes less video time than you imagine. If you make regular journeys home between shoots, you could make do with the single 4GB drive and simply upload your latest footage to a home computer.
We used the USB cable provided to transfer video to our computer for editing. If you're transferring a sizable mass of data, it won't be long before you're begging for FireWire. USB is still not up to par with big brother. Although performance isn't dismal, we wish that JVC had provided a FireWire port on the MC200 to save our hair.
Once you've recorded footage on the camcorder, clips are stored in a thumbnail index that allows quick replay of the shots you've taken. The bundled AV cable automatically mirrors this display on a TV and lets you play back scenes with a straightforward click.
Provided you're shooting in decent light, the JVC is a joy to operate. The LCD screen is crisp and clear in most weather conditions. It's easy to navigate the menu options using the small joy-pad on the right of the LCD screen. There's a slight lag between switching the JVC on and the camcorder being in a state where it's ready to record. This won't matter in most cases, but if you're trying to video an errant celebrity darting across a city street, you might find they've disappeared into the crowds before the MC200 has fired up.
The MC200 has excellent image stabilisation -- it's almost steadycam quality. The inherent problem with small camcorders is that their lack of bulk encourages your hand to wobble slightly. The JVC's computer system keeps your subject framed consistently during a scene, we didn't notice any vibration when we replayed our video and everything was gorgeously smooth.
Battery life on the JVC is matched almost exactly by the default hard-drive capacity -- 60 minutes. Our experience shows that you will be able to squeeze slightly more out of the camcorder, but this will depend on how playful you are with the zoom control and whether you do a lot of fast-forwarding and rewinding -- these are big battery drains.
We transferred video from the JVC to a PowerBook for editing, and bar the annoying wait for USB to transfer footage, the bundled editing software was tolerable. Irritatingly, the JVC records video in a MOD format that is not easily imported into a better editing suite like iMovie, Final Cut or Adobe Premiere. You can use third party tools to re-encode the MOD files, and some users report other work-arounds, but it would have been better if JVC had encoded in a more accessible format. Obviously, provided you're using JVC's bundled editing tool, you won't have any problems. More adventurous filmmakers will probably find the hassle of re-encoding the MOD file makes the MC200 hard to justify.
The standard of image we achieved with the JVC was excellent in good light and average in low light. This isn't the ideal camcorder for night-time surveillance, but for holidays and casual use outdoors it's hard to fault. Although there's a difference between playback on the MC200 and a good miniDV camcorder, in good sunlight you'd be hard-pressed to notice it. There were no noticeable compression artefacts, even during fast panning, and video playback seemed crisp and vibrant.
The overwhelming reason to consider the MC200 is the sheer usability of a camcorder that will slip into your pocket. We found ourselves taking the MC200 out and about on a whim -- just on the offchance there might be something worth filming. That's something we would never have done with a tape-based miniDV camcorder.
Edited by Mary Lojkine
Additional editing by Nick Hide