JVC's GR-D90 is a basic MiniDV camcorder that'll work just fine for birthday parties and vacations. It has a 16X zoom lens, an SD/MMC slot for still storage, and the modestly higher-end touch of a 3.5-inch LCD. Although the D90 performs well, its handling is a bit clumsy, and its low-light capabilities are limited. If you're shopping for a reasonably priced consumer camcorder, this model is worth a look, but make sure you can live with its drawbacks.
When it comes to design, the D90 is pretty average. Horizontally oriented, rectangular, and 1.5 pounds with a battery and a MiniDV tape loaded, the camera is slightly bulky for its class. Its fit and finish are likewise a bit subpar, and we could never quite get a solid, comfortable grip on the body. Our chief ergonomic complaint is with the placement of the record and zoom controls; reaching them makes you stretch your thumb and forefinger a little too far.
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Most of the hardware controls are to the right of the adjustable viewfinder. The menu-based options are accessible via the menu/volume wheel.
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You can manually adjust exposure and other image parameters or set the camcorder to fully automatic operation. The straightforward mode dial lets you choose your approach.
You access nearly all of the D90's features through the menu system, which you navigate with a wheel mounted near the zoom toggle. While the menus are reasonably logical and easy to understand, the wheel feels mushy, and we found using it imprecise and mildly frustrating. The bottom-loading tapes, which you can't change handily when the camera is on a tripod, will also annoy some folks.
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Behind the flip-out LCD are controls for playing back material, enabling the Night or Backlight mode, and switching between video and still capture. The USB and FireWire ports are nearby.
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The MiniDV cassette hatch is bottom-loading--not the best design for heavy tripod use.
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You can save photos on SD/MMC media.
The D90 shares the feature set of most consumer digital camcorders a step or two above entry-level, although it throws in a few odd twists. The CCD's effective video resolution is the typical 340,000 pixels. The 16X zoom lens covers the 35mm-film equivalent of a 39mm-to-620mm range to give you slightly greater flexibility than the more common 10X offering. Electronic image stabilization helps make extreme telephoto focal lengths usable and does a decent though not exceptional job of counteracting camera shake.
Better than average exposure control is one of this JVC's surprises. Along with general-purpose autoexposure, you get the scene-specific Sports, Snow, Spotlight, and Twilight modes. You can use exposure shift, set the gain to increase automatically as light levels drop, and fix the shutter speed at 1/60 or 1/100 of a second (the camera will vary the lens aperture to keep the right exposure). Best of all, the iris-lock function maintains your chosen exposure, enabling more-advanced shooters to avoid the brightness fluctuations that often mar automatically exposed video. However, a likely disappointment for experienced photographers is the absence of both an accessory shoe for video lights and a jack for external microphones.