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JVC GR-HD1 review: JVC GR-HD1


Ben Wolf
7 min read
JVC broke new ground with the aptly named GR-HD1, the first consumer-oriented high-definition (HD) camcorder. If you're a well-heeled video hobbyist or an entry-level pro looking for a camcorder with the resolution to fill a 16:9 HD television screen, this is one of the very few options on the market. Unfortunately, unless you own or plan on acquiring an HDTV, you won't appreciate the advantages of this camera. While it can record standard-definition (SD) video and shoot megapixel stills, its unremarkable performance at those tasks definitely doesn't merit this camera's prosumer price tag. But even if you're not enough of an early adopter to pay a premium for its HD capabilities, take note: This camcorder is a harbinger of things to come, proving that HD image-acquisition technology has already trickled down to a price competitive with that of standard-definition gear. With a sleek, solid design, the HD1 aims to please high-end consumers, who expect a refined product in return for a slice of their substantial disposable incomes. Its dark-gray, aluminum body has a well-constructed feel, and the camera weighs about 3.3 pounds with battery and cassette loaded. The HD1's layout follows the classic handicam model: the battery set below a small viewfinder in the back, the tape compartment under a hand strap and a zoom-rocker switch on the right, a fold-out LCD on the left, and a barrel-shaped lens with zoom and focus rings as well as a rectangular lens hood jutting out of the front.
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Just flip this switch on the left side of the lens to shoot in any of the four available modes: Memory (for stills), HD (16:9, 720P), SD (16:9, 480P), and DV (4:3, 480i).
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You can adjust the automatic exposure or change focus modes with these left-hand dials.
The HD1 adds a couple of smart ergonomic innovations to the mix. First, there's a removable top-mounted, aluminum die-cast handle that makes the camera easy to carry when attached and nicely compact when removed. Second is a clever rotating handgrip. The tape compartment, where the user's right hand grasps the camera, is connected to the camera body with a pivot. This design allows you to tilt the body as much as 90 degrees upward, facilitating low-angle shots. Unfortunately, you can't tilt the body downward, which would have been helpful for situations where you're holding the camera overhead.
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These little controls on the left-rear corner give you access to exposure and white-balance settings, speaker or headphone volume, and the LCD menu.
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You'll find playback and output controls behind the LCD.
You'll find the usual assortment of inputs and outputs on the HD1--RCA jacks for composite video and stereo audio, FireWire and USB ports, headphone and external microphone jacks--as well as something special: a D terminal for connecting to the component inputs on high-end TVs and HDTVs. The requisite cables come with the camera, too. The HD1's most notable feature is, of course, its ability to record high-definition video on MiniDV cassettes. To compress the HD into the space normally occupied by SD, JVC employs MPEG-2 compression. Unlike the DV footage that's usually recorded on MiniDV cassettes, MPEG-2 uses interframe compression to save space. In essence, this means that only the part of an image that changes from frame to frame is stored, rather than the entirety of every frame. MPEG-2 also uses a lossy compression scheme, which means that you'll lose a small amount of data each time you transfer or manipulate the video file.
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The HD1 can store an hour of HD material on a standard 60-minute MiniDV tape--no easy task, as 720P HD footage contains three times as much information as SD video.
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Under the lens, you'll find an SD/MMC slot for storing stills.
HD isn't the only format this camcorder can record. It offers four distinct modes:
Format Aspect ratio Resolution Frame rate Encoding format
High definition, progressive 16:9 720 lines 30fps MPEG-2
Standard definition, progressive 16:9 480 lines 60fps MPEG-2
Standard definition, interlaced 4:3 480 lines 29.97fps DV
Still photo, progressive 4:3 640x480
n/a JPEG (two compression levels available; stored on SD/MMC)

With the exception of some special effects, the camera behaves almost identically in all video modes. However, due to the different dimensions of the CCD regions that are employed in the various modes, the camera can achieve a wider angle of view in the 16:9 modes than in DV mode.
It's of particular relevance today, when HDTVs are not very standardized or widespread, that this camera can down-convert video recorded in any mode to standard NTSC and can also up-convert either of the progressive formats to the relatively common 1080i HD format via the component outputs. The HD1 can also output properly scaled video for screens with either a 4:3 or 16:9 aspect ratio.
Unfortunately, editing footage shot with the HD1 isn't quite as convenient. Material recorded in DV format can be edited with any standard application, but at the present time, video shot in the proprietary progressive modes can be edited only with JVC's included Windows-based MPEG Edit Studio Pro 1.0 LE. Similarly, the sole compatible DVD-authoring application is the bundled ImageMixer DVD. These programs offer merely rudimentary postproduction tools. JVC claims that several popular editing applications will soon support its new format--let's hope so.
The HD1's lens offers a relatively limited 10X optical zoom, and its 5.2mm-to-52mm range means it doesn't go very wide. On the plus side, the glass has a nice optical image stabilizer and rates a fast 1.8 f-stop at every focal length. Its 52mm filter diameter lends it versatility, too; many filters and lens adapters are available in this size.
When it comes to image-control features, the HD1 has more in common with a $1,500 consumer camcorder than with the prosumer models that inhabit its much higher price range. It does offer fully manual exposure controls. However, you can only toggle gain between automatic and off instead of setting it manually, and you won't find any advanced audio controls. We don't think the intended user--an HD enthusiast with a healthy bank account--will mind, but this camera's limitations will hamper serious videographers.
We do think that any user would benefit from the inclusion of zebra-stripe indicators and a built-in neutral density filter, especially given this camcorder's propensity to blow out highlights. They're both nearly essential for the manual control of exposure, and they can help neophytes tweak the automatic settings too. On a brighter note, JVC will likely please consumers with the HD1's variety of special effects, Webcam functionality, and megapixel photo mode. In most regards, the HD1 proves a responsive camera to operate, with fast and accurate automatic focus and exposure. And although some of the manual controls are small, the camera reacts quickly and accurately to all inputs. As is typical in the HD1's price range, it uses servo-driven focus and zoom rings on the lens, even though they appear mechanical at first glance. While not as responsive as mechanical controls, the rings worked adequately in our tests. The optical stabilizer does a good job of steadying handheld work without degrading the image.
Relatively large at 3.5 inches, the fold-out LCD provides a much better view than the tiny, low-resolution viewfinder. Unfortunately, the weaknesses inherent in most camcorder viewfinders are compounded here; it is very difficult to precisely focus an HD image when the viewfinder has only about a tenth as many pixels as the actual image being recorded. The HD1's viewfinder barely suffices for manually focusing standard-definition video and is really not up to the task of handling HD.
The built-in, virtually omnidirectional mike captures home-movie-quality sound adequately, although we think this camera deserves better. It does let you connect an external microphone via a 1/8-inch minijack, and you can mount it in a shoe on the camcorder body or the detachable handle.
Battery life is mediocre. Depending on recording mode, you can expect one to two hours of life from the included cell. Fortunately, longer-lasting batteries are available. In the end, high-definition imagery is the GR-HD1's raison d'être, and in our tests, it delivered mixed results. When viewed on the appropriate HD screen, the resolution of HD-mode video clearly outdoes that of standard-definition images, with no obvious artifacts, even in detailed, motion-intensive scenes. Individual leaves can be seen fluttering on trees; individual faces can be seen in crowds.
Unfortunately, the color subtlety and latitude--the ability to handle a range of brightness without blowing out highlights or losing shadow detail--aren't nearly as impressive as the resolution. In fact, they're inferior to what's available from similarly priced standard-definition cameras. Why? Any competing SD camera will likely have a three-chip imaging system, which handles the nuances of color and brightness substantially better than the JVC's single chip. Another weakness: The HD1 delivers a fairly marginal performance in low light. It's important to realize that, when it comes to image quality, resolution isn't the whole picture.
In HD mode, the JVC shoots at 30 frames per second, which gives a pleasant, filmic motion quality. However, it's not quite as filmic as the much-hyped 24P, which is the ideal HD variant for transfer to film--and which, unfortunately, this camera does not offer.
The photo mode is a nice extra, but its 1-megapixel resolution is a match for only the least sophisticated digital still cameras.


Score Breakdown

Design 8Features 7Performance 7Image quality 7