Review: JVC GZ-HM340 compact HD camcorder

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Short version: An excellent camcorder with few faults except one big, fat, glaring one: it only records in 1080i. What year is this again?

Features:

  • Extremely light and compact
  • 20x optical zoom and two levels of image stabilization
  • 16GB of built-in storage
  • Touch-sensitive controls (not touchscreen)
  • MSRP: $499

Pros:

  • It really is very light and compact
  • Image still sharp at 20x zoom, stabilization works great
  • Focuses extremely close

Cons:

  • 1080i is your only video option (several quality levels)
  • Touch controls feel inexact

Full review:

1080i is a technology that is, at this point, several years past its pull date. TVs universally support 720p and 1080p, consumer editing software is designed around working in the format you distribute in, and web video (by far the most popular distribution method) is 100% progressive, usually at 30FPS. So it didn’t even occur to me that this JVC camcorder might shoot interlaced video. It doesn’t say “1080i” anywhere in the product announcement — only “Full HD,” — so they can’t be proud of it. And in fact, I didn’t even notice until I shot some sample video for the review and pulled it up to edit. The following picture should not be viewed as representative of the overall quality of the video from this camera, but rather a simple indictment of interlaced video:


(click for the full version, where the interlacing is very clear)

Believe me, if you care at all about your video quality, that’s all you’ll notice even if you shoot with the best 1080i camcorders out there, of which undoubtedly this JVC is one. But, as the saying goes: that’s like being the thinnest kid at fat camp.

But let’s leave that topic for a minute (I’ll address interlacing in a separate post soon) and look at the camera itself. Now, I’d like to be very clear here that apart from the interlacing and some clumsiness in the menu, I found this camera absolutely delightful.

Here’s an idea of its size:


As you can see, it’s quite a cute little bugger. It’s just big enough that you can grip it normally (like a cold beer, in fact) and it’s just heavy enough that you know it’s there. They say it’s the smallest and lightest traditional-style HD camcorder out there, and I believe it, but the whole class of pocket cams pretty much beats it, though their lenses are garbage one and all. My hand rested on the zoom rocker naturally and the record/stop button is well-placed as well. I tended naturally to support it with the other hand, since the shake of your hands will definitely show on such a lightweight device.

Speaking of shaky hands, let’s take a look at a sample video.

http://vimeo.com/moogaloop.swf?clip_id=10017569&server=vimeo.com&show_title=0&show_byline=1&show_portrait=0&color=ff9933&fullscreen=1

You may have noticed that this video review is not in 1080i. It’s in progressive HD at 30FPS on Vimeo, and it would be similar (though slightly lower quality, I find) on YouTube, Blip, DailyMotion, or any number of sites out there. Not to mention that H.264 (not AVCHD) is being adopted as part of the HTML5 web standard, and soon you may not need to upload to a web video sharing site at all — that is, after you re-encode your 1080i, a step you could skip if you were shooting H.264 to begin with on one of the many pocket cameras out there.

There are four modes: UXP, XP, SP, and EP. They all record the same quality audio, but recording 15 seconds of video yielded file sizes of 45, 32, 26, and 11 megabytes of data, so you can extrapolate that out however you like. It’s difficult to show the difference between the formats without looking at the raw video files, so I’ll just say that quality was significantly effected in SP and EP, but XP looked almost as good as UXP with a significantly reduced file size and bitrate. So you can cound on about 130MB/minute, or a gig every seven minutes. That’s a bit large, but not unheard-of. The GZ-HM340 has 16 gigs of space inside, and the GZ-HM320 has 8GB. Plenty for most situations, and of course there’s an SD slot.

As for quality, well, it’s interlaced, so it looks nice when things are still and terrible when there’s action or movement. Low light was pretty damn muddy, so like most small camcorders you’ll want to stick to the brights. Skew (the wobbly look of consumer-level video resulting from slow sensor pull-down) is really pronounced when you’re zoomed in, as you can see when I was focusing on the plant in the bottle in the video above. But that’s to be expected.

The zoom and image stabilization worked great. The zooming is pretty loud, though; if you’re in a quiet environment the mic will definitely pick it up. There are two levels of stabilization, one which crops the video a bit and realigns it digitally. I found them to be plenty effective and have no real trade-off unless they drain the battery a bit more.

Here are some 100% center crops of the recording modes; as you can see, there is some difference but mainly in the details, like type and the cartridge illustration. Then there are grabs from a high-light and low-light situation you can inspect for noise. Click for the full-size version.



Not exactly amazing, but it’s decent. You can also record “for upload to YouTube,” which results in a similarly sized file to XP mode. I couldn’t spot any difference, really. The paper and virtual manuals aren’t very enlightening on this point. You can also trim stuff and re-encode for YouTube in-camera, but the interface doesn’t really lend itself to that at all.

Note that there are no other modes of recording; it is 1080i at 60FPS or nothing. There are few, precious few ways of viewing interlaced content these days; everything is progressive and nothing uses 60FPS. The camera claims to “upscale” its 1080i to 1080p for HDMI out, which seems specious. If it could create 1080p video, why wouldn’t that be an option to record? I’m guessing it just deinterlaces on the fly.

It does have many outputs: HDMI, component, and plain video out. These outputs are easily accessible on the panel behind the LCD, and for charging and PC connection there is USB and power underneath a little hood above the battery. There are no issues at all with these, all functioned well and are conveniently placed.

The LCD itself uses what they call “laser touch” for navigation, which is… well, it works for the most part, but four buttons on the side would have been just as functional, and rather less prone to mistaken touches and clumsy movement. You can use any part of the touch panel as a button, or slide your finger up and down it. It’s rather small, though, so you might accidentally pull up the zoom menu instead of changing the stabilization level. The little touch buttons on the bottom are responsive, though. It’s not a big issue, but if you have large hands it could be troublesome.

It also includes a time-lapse mode and a auto-record mode that records upon detecting changes in contrast. Handy if you like that, but these things are also available on some point-and-shoots.

Conclusion:

You may think I’m being a little harsh on this camera. Well, yes, I am – and I’ll be just as harsh on any camera as long as they continue using 1080i. JVC, Sony, Canon, and others still recording to interlaced AVCHD are just running down the clock, trying to sell as many of these outdated cameras before people catch on to the idea that interlacing is something we should have left behind a decade ago.

The camera itself is great, and if you truly don’t care that you’ll be recording interlaced video, then you’ll love it. But if I were you, I’d wait for JVC and the rest to get with the program and buy the 1080p version that will probably be coming out next year.

Product page: JVC GZ-HM340

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