JVC's hard-disk-based GZ-MG77 has sacrificed some of its features for affordability -- it only has a single CCD, as opposed to its more expensive 3CCD sibling, the MG505, and the zoom comes nowhere near tape-based models. If you're a casual user, however, who wants to record straight to hard disk, it might just suffice
We've previously reviewed this camcorder's more expensive superior, the GZ-MG505. The MG77, reviewed here, is a step down from the MG505, but offers a more affordable entry into the brave new world of hard-disk-based camcorders. The MG77 stores video on an internal 30GB hard disk. This can pack as much as 7 hours of video at the highest quality or a slightly bewildering 37 hours of footage at low quality.
The principle difference between the MG505 and the MG77 is that while the MG505 has three CCDs (charge coupled devices), the MG77 has just one. A three CCD system uses entirely separate sensors reacting independently to red, green and blue light. Because of this colour separation, the image is generally better quality -- especially in low light. This is not to say that a single-CCD camcorder is inherently flawed. The MG77 may struggle to match the performance of the MG505, but many single CCD camcorders have impressed us in the past.
So, is the money saved in choosing the MG77 over the MG505 enough to consider this slightly lesser-specced model, or would you be better off sticking with a tape-based system?
As with the MG505, you'll find yourself using inventive new shooting positions when holding the MG77's small body. It's small, so its easy to shoot footage surreptitiously. This is ideal if you want to video an interview subject without intimidating them with a full-sized camcorder. There's a problem here for professional users though. Because the MG77 does not have a microphone-in jack, it can't be used for any serious broadcast work.
The LCD display on the MG77 is bright and clear despite the small chassis. Clarity here is important because using the LCD is the only way of framing your shot -- this camcorder has no standard viewfinder. The LCD folds out to provide a widescreen display comparable to those on some much larger camcorders.
The MG77's hand-grip is comfortable, even during extended shooting. It's possible you'll choose to abandon the hand grip completely and hold the camcorder as you would any small object -- it's very light. As with the MG505, the MG77's battery clips onto the rear of the camcorder and, unless you buy a dedicated charger, is charged in situ using the bundled power lead. Unlike the MG505, the MG77 has no mounting shoe, so you can't attach external accessories such as a gun mic or light.
Video can be output using the AV or S-video connectors, there's also a USB connection for transferring footage to a computer. FireWire fans are out of luck, there's no FireWire output. Not that this would be a huge boon anyway -- these JVC hard disk camcorders use a video codec (MPEG-2 format, similar to DVD camcorders), which is not directly compatible with major editing suites like iMovie, Adobe Premier or Final Cut Pro.
The 10x optical zoom looks miserly alongside the 32x range of cheaper tape-based models, but then you're compromising somewhat for the novelty value of hard disk recording. The MG77's small 2-megapixel CCD is not the top of its class, but it is technically capable of good video capture.
In low light conditions, there's an automatic gain control and a NightAlive mode that slows the shutter speed. A fully automatic mode lets you tweak specific settings including exposure, shutter speed, focus and white balance. Because the camcorder has just four preset modes, more advanced users will find the fully manual setting invaluable in some situations.
When clips are written to the hard disk, you can label these individual video segments as types of events, like Party or Wedding. This tagging method makes it easier to find relevant footage when you transfer it to your computer for editing later.
Finished footage can be transferred to your computer using a regular USB 2 cable. This works as a drag-and-drop system, or you can use the bundled software. Like its hard disk predecessors, the MG77 records in MPEG-2 format. This particular breed of codec is better for encoding a finished product than using as an interim format pre-edit. The major quibble we have is that, as mentioned previously, it's not easy to edit this in third party packages like iMovie.
The box includes PowerDirector Express NE, a very basic video-editing program. You can also use other MPEG-2-compatible software, though you'll find you'll have to rename the file extensions from .mod to .mpg before anything will recognise them. Even then you may have problems. Mac users will find this MPEG Streamclip software useful for converting the video files into an editable format. This is frustrating though, and we wish JVC had implemented a more elegant solution for mainstream editing packages.
Some operations on the MG77 are slightly laggy. We found autofocus and exposure sleepy to respond, though not lacking in accuracy. The biggest offender here is automatic exposure, which takes seconds to adjust itself during transitions from light to dark. Focusing manually is also tricky because the joystick control is sensitive.
The 16:9 widescreen LCD is sharp and accurate, but it is small, and it makes video shot in 4:3 appear even smaller. It also makes it hard to be certain a subject is in focus. Admittedly, this is a problem that plagues most built-in LCDs on smaller camcorders.
Zooming performance is fast -- a little too fast to begin with. But after practice it's very easy to get the motion right for smooth zooms. For such a small camcorder, image stabilisation is essential, the MG77's is competent. At low zoom levels, it reduced the wobble associated with hand movements, and when the stakes were raised, intense camera shake was perceptible though smoothed.
In the absence of a microphone jack, we were left to cope with the average built-in stereo microphone. Sound is captured well, but there's not much sense of a stereo field when playing back recordings. In windy conditions, you can filter out some of the noise by using the wind cut feature. Using tie or boom mics is obviously not possible with this model owing to the lack of a mic-in port.
Given the MG77's 1.5 hour battery life, you'll want to pack additional batteries for extended record times, especially when you consider the internal hard disk's maximum capacity of 37 hours.
The MG77's video quality is disappointing. It's hard to put this entirely down to the MPEG-2 encoding because some DVD camcorders we've tested using the same codec have generated better results. In best quality mode, footage suffered from some problems. Compression artefacts, colour fringing and noise were clearly visible. Anomalies included mottled pixels along areas of contrast and jagged edges on curves. It's early days for the technology, but even bargain basement MiniDV camcorders can achieve a superior image.
The overwhelming reason to consider the MG77 is the sheer usability of a camcorder that will slip into your pocket. For video quality, you're better off looking elsewhere.
Edited by Mary Lojkine
Additional editing by Kate Macefield