Looking for a high-quality HD camcorder? If you’re serious about home videos, JVC’s GZ-HM860 delivers smooth, high-res video right about on par with its lofty price tag, but falls short when doubling as a still cam.
Features and Design
Cameras by the ton take HD videos, even Full HD 1080p at 30fps. And yet, and yet…those that do it really well are few and far between. For simply taking high-def movies, nothing tops a camcorder. Why? In this Swiss Army Knife world of CE, that’s what they’re meant to do — not make calls, send email, browse the Web or play Angry Birds. Enter the new $749 JVC GZ-HM860 HD Memory camcorder designed to capture movies.
The HM860 is one sophisticated-looking device. Peer at it from the side and it looks like the back of smartphone (see photos). This piano-black casing is actually part of the 3.5-inch touchscreen LCD. Check out the other side, and rather than a virtual keyboard, you’ll find the rest of the camcorder, which is extremely compact considering it has a 10x optical zoom. It measures 2.2 x 2.5 x 4.7 (W x H x D, in inches) and weighs 12.5 ounces including the battery. Overall, the GZ-HM860 has style, is small and easy to carry.
Given smartphones are as important to many as breathing, JVC has paid a bit of homage to the trend by adding Bluetooth to the HM860. This lets you send movies and stills from the camcorder to your smartphone at reduced resolution so you can post them quickly to friends. Your phone can even act as a remote. Naturally all this good stuff depends on compatibility with your specific phone. Our Droid paired fairly easily.
The front is dominated by the 10x optical zoom with its auto lens cover. The JVC GT lens is part of one of our favorite camcorder trends—it starts off at fairly wide angle for great group shots and landscapes. Typical camcorders are around 42mm. In this case the f/1.2 glass has a range of 29.5mm to 295mm in video mode, 29.7mm to 297mm for 4:3 stills. This extra width really expands your creative options. Beyond artistic considerations, you’ll also find a small LED light, a flash and stereo speakers as you look head-on.
On the right side are the adjustable Velcro strap and two compartments. One is for DC-in while the other has A/V and component outs. As an aside: Why is any company putting A/V outs — even component — on camcorders with mini HDMI connections? Worse yet, manufacturers still include A/V cables in their kits. Who in 2011, especially someone buying a $749 Full HD camcorder, would use this? It’s a total waste of resources.
The top of this very clean-lined camcorder has a zoom toggle switch, a shutter button for snapping stills and an AF key. This one gives access to touch priority Auto Exposure/Auto Focus options such as face tracking or choosing a specific focus spot. The same key is used for 2D-3D conversion on the more expensive $949 HM960 (its LCD is also auto stereoscopic for viewing 3D without glasses).
Flip open the LCD on the left side of the HM860 and you’ll see a beautiful 3.5-inch touchscreen with no buttons at all on the bezel; you’ll make almost all of your adjustments tapping the screen. It’s rated a very fine 920K pixels and works well under almost all light conditions, including direct sunshine. Yet like any touchscreen, keep a lens cloth nearby to remove smudgy fingerprints.
On the body itself are just a few buttons: i.Auto/manual shooting, power/info which shows remaining battery life, movie/still and user. This last one lets you pick parameters to adjust and these options change depending on the mode you’re in. You also find a speaker, as well as USB and mini HDMI outs.
The back of the made-in-Malaysia HM860 has a slot for the supplied lithium-ion battery, which fits neatly in position rather than sticking out. The record button is here as well. On the bottom, you’ll find a metal tripod mount and a slot for SDHC/SDXC cards; it accepts up to 64GB SDXC media. You really don’t need any when starting out, since the camcorder has 16GB of internal memory. This is good for 80 minutes of UXP 1080/60p video or 2,200 top-resolution stills. Definitely use at least Class 6 cards if you need extra storage.
What’s in the box
The GZ-HM860 comes with an AC adaptor, remote as well as USB, A/V and mini HDMI cables. You also get a an Easy Start Guide and a Basic User Guide (40 pages in English). The supplied battery only lasts for 40 minutes per CIPA, which means less time in the real world as you zoom and take flash photos. A spare definitely makes sense, as this camcorder charges the battery in-camera, effectively putting you out of action. The kit also comes with a CD-ROM with Everio MediaBrowser 3BE for handling files and burning discs.
Performance and use
It seems like Backside Illuminated CMOS chips are everywhere these days, including Cracker Jack boxes. Not really, of course, but this sensor has made huge inroads in 2011 in digicams and camcorders. We recently reviewed the Nikon P500 featuring a 12-megapixel version. Here it’s 10.2-megapixels, so not only do you get high-resolution video but stills as well. But just as we said about the P500, imaging devices are a lot more than chips, so let’s have at it.
After charging the battery and popping in an 8GB Class 10 SDXC card, it was time to start shooting. One of the cool things about camcorders with built-in flash memory is the fact you can choose where you want your content saved. We had video go to flash, stills to the card. As usual, we started in i.Auto and then switched to manual in movie and still modes. Once done, we watched our efforts on a 50-inch plasma via HDMI, made prints and did some pixel peeping on the monitor.
Before getting into the results we’ll state the GZ-HM860 is simple to operate as a point-and-shoot — or as complex as most users of this level of camcorder would dare go. The camcorder starts up relatively quickly (about four seconds) and you’re good to go. Importantly, the zoom travels very smoothly throughout the entire focal range; we never engage the digital zoom as quality drops once you go beyond physical limitations (10x here). The 29.5mm opening is lots of fun, especially when shooting indoors, since you don’t have back through a wall in order to capture a family gathering. Your landscapes also take on a completely different feel with the enhanced wide angle.
Let’s deal with the touchscreen, since this is how you’ll interact with your camcorder most of the time — beyond zooming and pressing record. Although it’s not as elegant as an iPad, JVC should be commended for a job well done. Icons were quite understandable for the most part, and a quick tap or check of the Basic User Guide deciphered unusual ones such as the “S” in the top left of the screen. This stood for your Smile shutter options. Unlike an iPad, the HM860 primarily uses taps to move through menu pages rather than swipes. This worked well, but the next gen should definitely be more tablet-like — especially for playback. Even Microsoft is embracing swipes and touch controls with Windows 8, so JVC should also make the transition. This is more of a suggestion rather than a serious knock.
The videos deliver the quality you’d expect from a $749 camcorder with a 10-megapixel CMOS chip: They were excellent. We took the HM860 to the mountains to escape the heat wave, recording lots of trees, foliage, flowers, friends and so on. You’ll be quite happy with the results. The UXP clips on a 50-inch screen were very good with spot-on colors and little digital noise. We also shot footage indoors in low light and the results were more than acceptable. The lens has a wide f/1.2 aperture, one of the reasons for the solid results. We recorded a lit candle in a dark room, a tough test. Here, the built-in light kicked in and the results were poor; the LED made the candle and nearby flower arrangement look absolutely ghoulish. The moment we saw this, we disabled the light and the results were far better. In other words, turn off the light. Period. We have another problem this camcorder. For the price it does not have optical image stabilization (OIS). Although it took care of most of the shakes, OIS delivers smoother results.
As for the stills, sad to say we’ve yet to review a recent camcorder that takes top-tier photographs. Most of the fault lies with the fact the HM860 does not have an AF Assist lamp. Shooting in dim light without a strong contrasty edge with i.Auto is a disappointment. Yet with enough light, your results will be much better. For those who are comfortable with manual controls, opt for manual focus.You can perform loads of other adjustments in manual mode as well. Overall color was accurate, but there was a lot of digital noise even at lower ISOs. Were they all worthy of the delete pile? No, but don’t expect the performance of a quality point-and-shoot that has an AF Assist lamp.
As we mentioned way back in the beginning, if you’re serious about taking high-quality videos, check out the JVC HD Everio GZ-HM860. No question it’s expensive, but the results under the right conditions on a big, flat panel screen are quite good. Unfortunately the stills are not in the same league. Outside with plenty of sunshine you’ll be OK, but a $250 Canon ELPH takes far better photos. Given the hefty price and other issues detailed, it’s hard to give the HM860 an unreserved recommendation.
Full HD video (1080/60p)
10.6-megapixel BSI CMOS chip
3.5-inch touch screen LCD
Takes 11-megapixel photos
No optical image stabilization
No AF Assist lamp
LED light is useless