We've previously taken a look at this camcorder's more advanced relatives, the GZ-MC500 and GZ-MC200. Like these camcorders, the MG20 is hard disk-based. However, unlike the MC range, the MG models have fixed hard disks that cannot be removed from the chassis (well, certainly not without a great deal of warranty-violating tinkering).
Casual users will find the MG20's nine-hour footage capacity is more than enough for general use, but compulsive videographers will be better off opting for a removable hard-disk camera, or sticking with miniDV tape for now.
The MG-20 uses a single CCD (Charge Coupled Device) to record video images. Unlike a 3CCD camcorder, the MG20 uses just one CCD to sense red, green and blue light. This makes for a more affordable device, but does compromise image quality, especially in difficult lighting conditions. Because a single CCD system records all three colours with a single sensor, the picture recorded to the MG20's internal microdrive can't quite match that of the 3CCD MC500.
The overwhelming reasons to opt for the MG20 are its size and impressive record times (25 hours in low quality). Not much bigger than a can of Pepsi, this camcorder will fit in a jacket pocket -- albeit with a noticeable bulge. As a family video camera, the MG20 is hard to beat. It's light years ahead of tape-based miniDV camcorders in terms of usability and convenience. Picture quality isn't bad either -- it approximates DVD. However, aspiring filmmakers will find their tools elsewhere. The obfuscated editing process and absence of FireWire won't impress those who use Premier or Final Cut Pro.
The MG20's chassis is utilitarian and relatively compact. The body is finished in a low-key, muted metallic silver, making the camcorder slightly less attractive to opportunist thieves. There's a sturdy grip on the right-hand side of the camcorder -- if there's one thing JVC has got nailed, it's ensuring that these camcorders don't accidentally drop out of your hand. The shooting position is comfortable. As with all hard-disk camcorders, the small chassis means that you naturally find a good grip.
You'll notice that you develop strange new shooting methods when you're clutching the MG20's small body. This camcorder's small size lends itself to more adaptive grip techniques and you may end up not using the official hand strap at all -- instead your hand roams free.
Unlike the camcorder bodies in the MC range, the lens and grip parts of the MG20 do not swivel on a pivot. Instead, the approach is more conventional. Still, the flip-out LCD viewfinder itself will pivot, letting you shoot high over the heads of a crowd, or low down, while twisting the viewfinder to match your line of sight.
The LCD display on the MG20 is crisp and sharp in almost all lighting conditions. It's a good job too, because this is the only way to monitor your footage while you're shooting it -- the MG20 doesn't have a traditional viewfinder. The internal hard drive is not easily removed from the chassis -- we didn't even attempt to, as this will invalidate the warranty. If you're looking for a more expandable camcorder consider the MC400 or 500. If you're interested, the internal 20GB drive sits in the right-hand side of the chassis, under the hand grip, hidden away from prying fingers.
The MG20's battery clips onto the rear of the camcorder. Once you've attached it, you probably won't need to remove it again. There is no external charger bundled with the MG20 and the power adaptor plugs directly into the camcorder to charge the Lithium-ion cell.
The MG20 uses one 1/6-inch 340,000 pixel CCD to capture your video. This senses 4:3 (full-frame) video at 720x576 pixels, but doesn't capture 16:9 (widescreen) video. This is strong performance from a small device, but those with widescreen televisions may rue the absence of widescreen capture from the MG20. If this is important to you, the MC500 is worth considering as an alternative.
Basic details about your shot are shown on the MG20's screen. This informations includes time, date and battery life remaining. Graphics on the MG20's flip-out LCD display are tiny, but nonetheless readable. Shooting preferences are configured using on-screen menus, and there are very few controls actually on the side of the camcorder.
The 20GB drive inside the MG20 will hold around nine hours of digital video in Ultra Fine mode, or 25 hours in Economy mode, which could be more accurately described as 'welcome to grainy-picture city' mode. If you dock the GZ-MG20 with a computer and transfer your footage, the capacity of the camcorder is effectively infinite. You're only really restricted by the size of your computer's hard drive.
JVC bundles a USB cable with the MG50, but if you're transferring a lot of footage, you'll miss FireWire. USB 2.0 is no tortoise, but it still can't match FireWire for convenience or sustained throughput. Professional video-editing packages use a process called log and capture to import footage via FireWire, but this is not appropriate for USB. This is not the only encumbrance to editing footage, though -- the MG20 compounds inconvenience by saving footage in a file format that is not easily accessible. More on that later.
Once you've shot footage on the MG20, your clips are listed in a thumbnailed index that lets you play back video, scene by scene. The bundled AV cable will display your video on a home TV so that you can watch your creations with an audience.
In a world riddled with badly designed electronic interfaces, the MG20 is a joy to use. If you've shot video with a camcorder before, you'll be ready to use the MG20 within a few minutes of unpacking it. Few settings, if any, demand much scavenging around in the manual to enable -- JVC have kept the on-screen menu design simple and clean. As with the MC400 and 500, the only real annoyance is a slight delay when you initially switch the MG20 on. The lag only costs a few seconds of lost time, but it's a long enough pause to mean that you might well have missed Nessy -- she's ducked back under those murky depths.
As with the MC range, the MG20 has solid image stabilisation. You can move the camera fast across a panorama and the tracking is impressively fluid. It's not comparable to expensive Steadycam equipment, but there is something lavish about the unjittery picture. Shots where the camera moves laterally across a plane are smoothed out, but intense zooms are still wobbly unless you set up a tripod.
Despite JVC's impressive quality control throughout its hard-disk camcorder range, all the MC and MG hard-disk camcorders to date have had one disappointing quirk: all the video you capture to the internal drive is stored in MPEG-2-PS format. This format is not used by any mainstream editing tools. Even editing software as popular as iMovie is not supported by the MG20. Although JVC bundles basic editing software with the MG20, it's not up to scratch. On the PC side it's intensely infuriating (CyberLink), on the Mac side, effectively useless (Capty MPEG Edit EX).
If you want to import footage from the MG20 into Premier or Final Cut Pro, you'll need to hunt down some codec conversion software to translate the MPEG-2 format into something usable. This is a fairly complex procedure that involves getting hold of some third-party open source software to decode and then re-encode the video. These steps reduce the quality of your video footage and are a poor compromise. Ideally, JVC should offer some kind of translation software for mainstream editing packages, instead of relying on the poor-quality editing tools bundled with the MG20.
Daylight footage on the MG20 is clear and well-balanced with strong colours and good contrast. The single CCD is fine for brightly lit scenes, but will occasionally blow out particularly bright areas. Often you can correct this problem by adjusting the on-screen controls -- this behaviour is common in all camcorders. In a bright environment, the MG20's single CCD captures colour detail accurately, but low-light recording suffers from a level of noise above what you'll see from a 3CCD model. This is a common problem with single CCD camcorders, but compared to other mono-CCD models like the Sony DCR-PC55, the MG20 stands up well.
Though the MG20 can't match the colour balance and low-light performance of a 3CCD camcorder, footage has an impressive appearance when shot in good light. For casual use on family holidays, birthdays or school plays, the MG20's portability and usability will, for many users, eclipse the camcorder's shortcomings when it comes to editing footage.
Edited by Mary Lojkine
Additional editing by Kate Macefield