The JVC GR-X5's manual states, "Commercial use without proper permission is prohibited." I'm not sure how JVC plans to enforce this rule, but the thrust of it is significant: while three-chip cameras have historically been expensive professional and prosumer units, the GR-X5 represents an affordable three-chip option geared to general consumers.
In theory, three chips offer better image quality than one, as well as the potential for still images that are more competitive with those of dedicated digital still cameras. My own theory is that single-chip DV cameras have evolved to the point of diminishing returns. They are not likely to get much smaller or to offer much better quality, so the manufacturers have had to move to three chips to make significant improvements.
JVC bills the GR-X5 as a "cutting-edge digital media camera," a sort of Swiss Army Knife that is supposed to satisfy all a consumer's imaging needs, both video and still. With a $1,300 list price, this would be an expensive camcorder or still camera, but if it truly satisfies both needs, it's not such a bad deal.
As is typical of JVC, it made the GR-X5 a distinctive camera--a hybrid that borrows features and design elements from both video and still cameras. While it isn't the best video- or still-capture device, it may be a perfect fit for those looking for a jack-of-all-trades. At a bit more than a pound, the JVC GR-X5 is a solid little dark-gray cube. It truly looks like the offspring of a camcorder and a still camera, bearing some resemblance to both parents but unlikely to be mistaken for either.
The camera's front is dominated by a 10X zoom lens, which sits behind a tiny removable lens hood. On top of the camera, just behind the lens are a stereo mic and a standard shoe for mounting accessories. No doubt due to the GR-X5's limited surface real estate, some controls and connections are strangely located on the camera's front: namely, an awkwardly placed zoom control and ports for power, an A/V connection, headphones, and an external microphone. These ports are fine when not in use, but cables sprouting out the front of a camera will likely find their way into an occasional shot.
A 2.5-inch flip-up LCD monitor covers the GR-X5's back--a placement more reminiscent of a still camera than a camcorder. The LCD serves as the sole viewfinder. Flipping it up exposes a four-way controller pad and a few buttons for common functions, including menu activation, white balance, fades and wipes, and LCD backlight. Also on the back are FireWire and USB ports for downloading video and stills, respectively.
Under the hand strap, the MiniDV tape hatch occupies the right side of the camera. Set into the door are a speaker and an SD/MMC memory-card slot. Another unusual aspect of the GR-X5's design is that the door opens toward the front of the camera.
Manual controls are located on the left side of the camera; they include a dial and buttons for adjusting exposure, selecting an autoexposure mode, and switching between automatic and manual focus. The battery snaps into a well on the left side and charges on-camera. Charging while shooting is possible only with an optional accessory charger.
When it comes to usability, JVC did its homework with this camera. While some compact three-chip competitors are controlled mainly via complex and confusing menu navigation systems, the GR-X5 provides a balance of external controls and switches for the most commonly used functions and a straightforward menu system for more esoteric settings. That said, the four-way controller pad on the back of the camera was a bit small and difficult to manipulate for this reviewer's big fingers.
Finally, JVC should be congratulated for including a full set of connections, most notably a standard hotshoe and jacks for headphones and an external mic. Thank you! The JVC GR-X5 uses three 1/4.5-inch, 1.33-megapixel CCDs to capture DV video and JPEG stills, interpolating its photo output up to 5 megapixels. In general, the GR-X5 offers a well-thought-out set of features for casual videographers who want to use manual controls occasionally, without too many unnecessary gimmicks. The 10X optical zoom range of the lens is fine but unremarkable.
If you just want to point and shoot, you can flip the power/mode switch to Automatic and get to work. Via a simple external control, more sophisticated users can easily shuttle through six programmed autoexposure modes: Twilight, Portrait, Sports, Snow, Aperture Priority, and Shutter Priority. While you can control manually iris, shutter speed, white balance, and focus, sophisticated users may be frustrated by the lack of direct control over gain. However, this camera is clearly not aimed at the pro.
This JVC offers the usual assortment of cheesy digital effects: Classic Film, Strobe, Sepia, Black and White, a 300X digital zoom, and a mesmerizing assortment of fades and wipes. But these are all confined to the menus, where they should be.
Among the more useful included features is a digital image stabilizer to reduce camera shake; there are also two types of wide-screen recording. One is intended for playback on wide-screen TVs; the other is letterboxed for display on 4:3 screens. Perhaps the only really significant feature not included is a progressive video mode.
The GR-X5 also provides its share of more esoteric features. Among them are a streaky night mode called Night Alive, which just slows down the shutter--no infrared capability here. The 5-Second Recording mode does just what it says, in order to keep home movies from becoming boring. You can use Animation Frame Recording for stop-motion animation; Tele-Macro enables extreme close-ups from a couple feet away.
With regard to sound, this camera's most significant feature is its external mic jack, through which you can record good sound in the field or dub it in later. An external mic-level meter display is available, though there is no provision to control the levels in-camera.
The GR-X5 offers a good basic assortment of still-camera features, including two quality modes, five resolution options (peaking at an interpolated 2,560x1,920), and three ISO settings. It also has several flash and burst-shooting modes as well as red-eye reduction, a self-timer, interval shooting, and a a histogram exposure aid. The camera can record stills either to an SD/MMC card or, at the lowest resolution, to tape. It can also record low-res stills to a memory card while you're shooting video. Finally, the GR-X5 can connect with PictBridge-capable printers for direct output.
JVC offers its Data Battery technology in this camera, enabling it to display remaining battery life in minutes. Oddly, this feature works only while the camera is not recording. If power is running short, you can turn the LCD backlight off to save some juice.
The GR-X5 comes with software for both Windows and Mac systems: CyberLink DVD Solution for DVD authoring, PowerDirector 3.0 for video editing, and Digital Photo Navigator 1.0 for manipulation of digital stills. The JVC GR-X5 responds quickly and precisely to inputs from its external controls. Unfortunately, its automatic focus and exposure are a bit sluggish. These functions work accurately but more slowly than the automatic functions of some of the competition. We also found achieving a smooth zoom somewhat difficult, mainly because of the awkward placement of the zoom toggle. The digital image stabilizer performed well, however, without significantly degrading the image.
The flip-out LCD also performs well, though not exceptionally. Some of the competition's viewfinders are bigger and brighter, but this one was generally adequate, even in direct daylight. Keep in mind that the flip-out LCD is particularly critical, as there's no secondary viewfinder.
The built-in stereo microphone performed as well as such mics typically do; it's fine for picking up ambient sound, but it's not at all directional. Fortunately, unlike many compact camcorders, the GR-X5 offers an external microphone jack--a critical feature for improving sound quality. In good light, the JVC GR-X5 fulfills its promise as a video camera and produces decent stills. While it is not the best in either category, it generally produced sharp, vibrant, and accurate images.
Because of the high pixel count of its three CCDs, the GR-X5's video is equally good in 4:3 and 16:9 wide-screen aspect ratios. This will be an increasingly significant asset as 16:9 televisions continue to proliferate. Unfortunately, to fit so many pixels on such small chips, the pixels must be very small. Small pixels don't handle low-light conditions very well, producing high noise levels that make images look grainy. While not bad, the GR-X5's low-light performance is far from state-of-the-art. Furthermore, this camera lacks an infrared night mode. All things considered, this would not be our camera of choice for night shooting.