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Size matters, and both big and small camcorders have their own places in the world. A huge expensive camcorder like the Panasonic AG-HVX200 will produce amazing footage, but it's just not the best choice for every occasion. If you're shooting home movies and family gatherings, you might not want to fiddle around with a giant, professional video camera and its stacks of MiniDV tapes. You probably want something compact and convenient, like the JVC Everio GZ-MG255 hard drive camcorder.
Like all JVC Everio camcorders, the MG255 cuts a very small profile. It measures less than three inches thick and wide, and weighs less than a pound with its battery. This relatively lightweight, readily palmable design makes the camcorder easy to carry around. It's too big to comfortably slip into most jacket pockets, but it should fit into almost any bag. This small size comes at a price, though; like every JVC Everio except the high-definition GZ-HD7, the MG255 lacks a viewfinder, forcing you to use the 2.7-inch LCD.
A tiny joystick mounted on the flip-out LCD screen lets you navigate the MG255's various menus. A function button sits conveniently just below the joystick, offering access to the most commonly used settings. For more complicated controls, you have to reach over to the camcorder's body to hit the Menu button. Four additional controls sit next to the Menu button, including playback, automatic/manual mode toggle, and Direct DVD and Direct Backup buttons. Direct DVD and Direct Backup let you burn your movies to a DVD recorder or back them up to a computer's hard drive. Like all Everio camcorders, the MG255 is compatible with JVC's Share Station external DVD burners.
With a 30GB hard drive, the MG255 can shoot up to 37.5 hours of MPEG-2 video. Of course, you'll only get those 37-plus hours if you shoot at the camcorder's lowest setting. If you shoot at the higher-quality Fine or Ultra-fine modes, you can expect to fit between 7-10 hours of footage on the camcorder. Given recent trends in hard-drive-based camcorders, we would've expected to see a more efficient, high-quality MPEG-4 video format, such as H.264. MPEG-4 video codecs tend to fit more video into a smaller amount of data, and likely would have extended the MG255's video life. However, MPEG-2 is simple enough to work with, and still offers plenty of recording time. Besides the hard drive, the MG255 can accept SDHC memory cards. However, you can only record still photos to the cards, and since you can do that with the hard drive as well, the SD card slot isn't very useful.
A 2-megapixel sensor drives the MG255, capturing both 720x480 wide-screen video and 1600x1200 still images. While its relatively low resolution doesn't provide the highest quality video or largest still photos, it strikes a good middle ground between the cheaper, lower-resolution Everio GZ-MG155 and GZ-MG130, and the much more expensive, higher-end GZ-MG555. The MG255's 2-megapixel still photos certainly won't replace larger, sharper pictures from a dedicated digital camera, but they can make passable 4x6 prints.
Since it records to a hard drive, you can easily access your footage in several ways. The camcorder itself has standard USB 2.0 and AV video jacks, and the included camcorder dock adds IEEE 1394 (Firewire for you Mac users) and S-Video jacks to the mix. This selection of both computer and video connections offers a nice variety of choice for PC users, Mac users, and home theater fans. Because the MG255 only records standard definition video, JVC left out more advanced connectors like component video and HDMI. HDMI would have been nearly useless on this camcorder, but a component video connection could have given TV playback a slight boost in quality.
For a standard-definition, single-chip camcorder, the MG255 produced good-looking video. Movies appear crisp and clear, and colors look accurate when recording under both natural sunlight and incandescent lighting. I took some test footage in a nearby park, and foliage such as trees and grass popped out nicely without ruining the grays and browns of the sidewalks. Some close-up subjects, such as nearby birds, confounded the MG255's autofocus, but generally the camcorder is quick to adapt to different subjects at different distances. If you have problems with the autofocus, the camcorder's manual focus mode can be easily accessed through the function menu. Once you activate manual focus, you can adjust the focus simply by tilting the control stick left or right.
While it does well in brightly lit environments, the MG255 fares horribly in low light. The camcorder doesn't have a video light, and your only real low-light shooting choices are its gain-up function and night mode. Gain-up only slightly brightens dark video, though it keeps video quality relatively intact. Night mode, on the other hand, greatly increases the visibility of dark environments, but it also drastically slows down the shutter speed to create a painful, choppy blur of dim light.
Despite its relatively steep price tag, the JVC Everio GZ-MG255 is a good choice for a home-movie camcorder. Its small size and good video quality make it well-equipped to handle birthday parties, family gatherings, or vacations with ease, as long as your vacations are well-lit.