If your budget is really tight, you can forgo the remote control and the extra battery that are included with this model and spend about $50 less to buy the JVC GR-D270. To shave off another $20, opt for the JVC GR-D250, which lacks a built-in light and a media slot for still-image capture along with a few of the more esoteric features you get with the pricier models.
The JVC GR-D295 has a traditional horizontal MiniDV camcorder form factor, with a gray-and-silver plastic case that's solid but pedestrian in design. Weighing in at 1.1 pounds with a battery and a tape loaded, it's reasonably easy to carry along in a jacket pocket.
The JVC GR-D295 takes a minimalist approach to controls, with just six buttons as well as snapshot and video start/stop triggers, a mode slider, and a zoom rocker. Most of the buttons do triple duty, depending on the mode the camera is in, but you'll still need to dive into the menus for settings such as exposure control.
The menus are well designed, with text accompanied by the icons that you see on the LCD while shooting to indicate various settings. Menu navigation uses a somewhat unintuitive scheme that definitely takes some getting used to, however. Instead of the typical four-direction navigation pads or up/down rockers found on other cameras, the JVC GR-D295 uses the fast-forward and rewind buttons to move through the menu, and the Menu button to select or move down a menu level.
Though the JVC GR-D295 includes a 25X optical zoom, impressive for a camera in its price class, the lens sits in front of a small 680,000-pixel CCD. Still, the GR-D295 does include a number of features more typical of higher-priced cameras.
In addition to automatic exposure and exposure-shift adjustments, there's a spot-exposure feature. You can also manually set the shutter speed or choose Sports, Snow, Spotlight, or Twilight scene modes. For more stylized shooting, you'll find sepia, black-and-white, classic film, strobe, and mirror effects. The camera also includes nine built-in fader effects and a pair of wide-screen modes: Cinema, which letterboxes the image; and Squeeze, which uses the full CCD and compresses the image to match a 16:9 aspect ratio.
Other features include manual and automatic white-balance control and focus, as well as backlight compensation. The Night Alive feature lets you shoot in dark settings while maintaining color, with the significant compromise of slow shutter speed. A pair of LED lights helps illuminate dark subjects that are very close to the camera. The Live Slow feature snaps a 1.5-second segment in slow motion while maintaining real-time audio--an odd, if interesting, effect. And for the short-attention-span generation, the 5S mode automatically stops recording 5 seconds after you press the record button, guaranteeing your viewers will never be bored by a scene dragging out for, say, a full 10 seconds.
There's a built-in stereo microphone on the front of the camera but no jack for an external microphone or a pair of headphones. There's also no accessory shoe, but JVC does offer wide-angle and telephoto lens attachments, as well as a step-up ring for attaching 37mm lenses to the GR-D295's 27mm-lens mount. The GR-D295 includes analog video outputs but no inputs, so you can't use it convert old analog tapes to digital format.
The JVC GR-D295 is, for the most part, a good performer. It's very responsive and quick to adjust focus, white balance, and exposure when panning to a new subject. There were times when the autofocus took a couple of seconds to lock onto the subject in the center of the screen, and in dim conditions, the camera sometimes had trouble finding focus when the lens was zoomed in.
When we used manual modes, the camera performed similarly well, though navigating through the menus to change exposure and other settings was a time-consuming process. The digital image stabilization worked well in the first half of the zoom range, but once you zoom past about 15X, you'll want a tripod to stabilize your image. The zoom control is responsive and easy to use for both quick and extended magnification changes.
The viewfinder provides a clear image, though it's not sharp enough to use for precise manual focus. The 2.5-inch LCD is better for this purpose. It offers decent detail and is visible even in direct sunlight.
The GR-D295's built-in microphone performed well for its type. Its front placement helps prevent the videographer's voice from being dramatically louder than that of the subject.
Though the JVC GR-D295's feature set might seem appropriate for a more expensive camera, the video quality is decidedly low-end. Footage shot with the 680,000-pixel CCD showed stair-step jagged artifacts around some sharp color demarcations, for instance, though it's not as bad as what you see from some DVD and hard disk-based cameras, which compress their video with MPEG-2. Outdoors, colors were vibrant yet accurate, and exposure and white balance were on target, but the video just lacked the sharpness and detail that you get from cameras that use larger CCDs. Still, outdoor footage was acceptable if not impressive.
In both tungsten- and daylight-lit indoor settings, footage looked extremely grainy. Color was relatively accurate, though the automatic white balance sometimes ended up choosing a bluish tinge. Shooting in the Night Alive mode brought out color in dark situations and eliminated some of the visual noise, but the jerky slow-shutter effect and blurry motion and panning gave the footage a surreal effect. The video light helped a bit in both standard and Night Alive modes, but it's relatively weak, so it worked only for subjects within a few feet of the lens. The illumination diameter was small enough that even nearby subjects ended up looking as if they were lit by flashlights.
The JVC GR-D295's CCD's resolution is actually slightly lower than the 1,024x768 maximum still-image resolution, so pictures are interpolated to the larger size. Photo quality is extremely poor, with shots lacking detail and with noise and artifacts evident in indoor and outdoor photos alike. These shots might be suitable for e-mail, but don't plan on using the still-camera function for prints or important memories.