Is That a Video Camera in Your Pocket
Or is Your Camera Bag Just Full?
This is a mini-review of the JVC-MC500, a 3-CCD camcorder that weighs just 400gms (under 1lb), and which fits in the palm of one hand. While there are other tiny camcorders on the market, what makes this model unique is that instead of recording to Mini DV tape, it records to a Compact Flash card, a provided 4GB Microdrive. It records in MPEG-2, which is the format used for DVD video disks, HDV video, and satellite broadcast television.
In addition to being tapeless, what appeals about this mini-marvel is that it is a 3 CCD design. Digital still photographers know that with the exception of Foveon, all digital still cameras use what is known as a Bayer Matrix method for deriving colour from imaging sensors, since sensors are monochrome devices. The same applies to single chip digital video cameras. But there are also 3 chip cameras, and these use a separate Red, Blue and Green sensitive chip for each of the three primary colours. (The chips aren't actually colour sensitive, they are just filtered for that part of the spectrum). This leads to increased colour fidelity, and surprisingly, somewhat higher resolution, since the green chip is either mechanically or electronically shifted a half pixel.
But (you knew there was a but, right?) the need for a beam splitting prism means that less light gets to each chip, and so sensitivity can be lower than single-chip designs. And single chip cameras, which used to use a CMY colour matrix, now have switched to RGB, and like similar digital still camera designs are capable of producing very high image quality. Still, there is a cache as well as some technological advantages to a 3 CDD design.
With the dog that can talk, the amazing thing is not what she has to say, but that she can talk at all. This, for me, is the case with the JVC MC500. That it is as small as it is (it will fit in a pants pocket), has 3 CCDs, and can record an hour of very good quality video on a (provided) 4 Gigabyte Microdrive, is amazing.
Is the image quality as high as that of Mini-DV? I can't say for sure, but on my 17" Powerbook screen, a 32" LCD TV, and a 45" Plasma Display, it was very hard to see any serious differences – certainly none that the hobbyists or casual user need be concerned about.
Miniaturization of consumer electronic devices has now reached the point where the size of the human hand is a limiting factor. Some products can be too small, and the MC500 may well be one of these.
For example, the sliding power on / off switch is combined with record /play, and it's all too easy when the camera is being turned on to shoot something to accidentally set it to Play rather than Record. The recoding mode dial doesn't have a lock mechanism, and so easily gets knocked into the wrong position. The tiny joystick which controls so many of the units multiple functions works surprisingly well, but is given so many tasks, in so many different modes, that remembering which motion does what in which mode is a chore, and ultimately slows down shooting. The menu button which calls up most functions on the units LCD screen is recessed to avoid accidentally actuation, but this makes it hard sometimes to turn it on when needed, and impossible to do with gloves on. The zoom lever is actuated by the right hand's forefinger while the thumb starts and stops recording, but each works on an opposite axis, making the camera hard to hold steady when zooming or starting and stopping recording.
In know this is a bit of a rant, and not a very clever exposition of the camera's handling, but the point needs to be made that ultra-small size has its curse as well as blessing.
A reasonable selection of shooting controls are available, including exposure compensation of up to +3 / -3 stops in third stop increments, and multiple white balance settings, including custom white balance. There are the usual gimmicky shooting effects, such as sepia, classic film, strobe, etc, but since all of these can be done, and better, in editing, there's little point. Ignore them.
One control that I did like was manual focusing. A small button disengages autofocus when depressed, both making manual focus possible and also preventing the camera for missing the correct point of focus, which such cameras do a lot, especially in low light levels.
Most digital video cameras are able to take still photographs. The JCV ups the ante by taking 5MP stills. These are not bad, though they appear to be seriously oversharpened. No substitute for a decent pocket digicam, but handy if it's all you have with you.
Maybe I'm missing something profound here, but maybe not. The MC500 numbers its video files in Hexadecimal. Not 072, 073, 074, the way one would expect, but rather 03E, 03F, 030.
What is this about? It's perverse!!
Worse than that, because computer file systems don't understand Hex, when you load files into an editing program, instead of being ordered in the sequence in which they were shot they come in jumbled.
Note to JVC: Fire the programmer that snuck that one in.
The only sound that you can record is from the unit's built-in stereo mics. It's surprisingly good sound, but not having any facility to plug in an external mike is a serious limitation, especially considering that the camera records 48kHz 1,536 kbps, 16 bit Dolby Digital stereo, and has a stand-alone audio recording mode (384 kbps).
The built in stereo mikes are "OK", and the good news is that because there is no tape mechanism the camera itself is acoustically quiet. There is also a Wind Cut setting for reducing wind noise in video filming mode as well as the separate audio recoding mode. It works quite well at its intended task.
Many current SD camcorders have a so-called 16:9 mode. As you know, 16:9 is the format of HD TV. Whereas traditional television has an 4:3 aspect ratio (in other words the frames are 1.33 / 1 width to height, the 16:9 format is 1.77 / 1. This aspect ratio is preferable for movies, which are typically shot with aspect ratios much wider than that of conventional television.
The MC500 has a 16:9 mode. In the glossy brochure that JVC publishes it is described as "Uses 1280 X 720 pixel sensing area to record a native 16:9 aspect ratio."
This is simply untrue. The camera's three chips each record a normal 720X480 pixel image. What the camera does is some sort of anamorphic compression and expansion to simulate a larger image. This is fine, as far as it goes, (and better than the cameras that simply crop the frame top and bottom to achieve this), but JVC should be a lot more up-front about what it is actually doing.
USB not Firewire
Unlike almost every Mini-DV camera on the market, the JCV-MC500 doesn't have a Firewire port. Instead it uses USB2. Nothing wrong with the new faster USB standard, except it isn't what's used in the world of video. Video is built around Firewire because Firewire allows native camera control as well as two way file data transmission. This means that one can't do live video from editing software through the camera to a video monitor.
Slow Turn on
The MC-500 takes about 10 seconds to turn and on and enter shooting mode. This is simply too slow, and you'll lose many shots because of it. I know that I did. Most Mini-DV cameras have start-up times in the 3-5 second range.
The camera gets very hot. Not just warm. HOT. The reason for this is likely because of the dense concentration of circuitry in such a small space along with three CCDs. I really wonder what this means for component longevity.
A lithium ion battery is used, and provides something between 40-50 minutes of use. A second or even a third battery would be a good idea. My complaints is not that the battery charges in-camera (not unusual), but that the outboard accessory charger that is listed in JVC's catalog is not available, and won't be until September. What's that about?
A 10:1 zoom is built-in, offering 3.2-32mm coverage at f/1.8. This is equivalent to about 45-450mm in 35mm terms. As with most video cameras an accessory wide-angle adaptor is a worthwhile accessory.
The camera's screen is very good, though small. It has one of the latest-generation LCD's that look as good in bright light as they do when the light is dim. Very usable.
The Swivel and Viewfinder – Not
The MC-500 has an articulated body. This allows you to hold the camera level while you're able to look up or down at the screen. This works reasonably well, though it isn't as versatile as an articulated fold-out screen would be.
There is no separate eye-level viewfinder. This is something that I find hard to become used to. When working on a tripod it's not an issue, since most videographers use the camera's LCD when shooting this way. But when shooting handheld (which a tiny sub-1Lb camera like this is really designed for), holding the camera away from ones body just feels unnatural, and since ones elbows can't be tucked in, stability is reduced. I like eye-level shooting when hand holding.
The JVC includes image stabilization. It is adequate, though I don't think that it stands up to the optical stabilization that one finds in Sony and Canon's latest offerings.
Windows users are provided with video editing software which I have not evaluated. As a Mac user I was initially disconcerted to find that the MC-500 had no Mac oriented software at all. None. Zero. Zip. Nada. (The even newer G series JVC cameras now come with Mac software. JVC simply dropped the ball with the MC500).
But this turned out not to be a loss. There is a wonderful free OSX program available called MPEG Streamclip which converts the MPEG-2 files produced by the camera and turns them into files that can be loaded and edited by any Mac NLE program, including iMovie or Final Cut. Problem solved.
The interesting side of this is that by using tapeless technology, along with Streamclip, the tedium of tape capture is streamlined. Streamclip allows you to rapidly review your files on disk, set In and Out points, and then do a batch capture. Very efficient workflow indeed.
The MC-500's Achilles heel is that it sells for $1,500. In my opinion this makes it about $500 overpriced. There are quite a number of Mini-DV cameras with very decent features and performance for under $1,000, and for just $500 more than the price of the JVC there's the High definition Sony HC1, which is only a bit larger in size and hugely superior in performance.
The Bottom Line
For all of my niggly complaints, the JVC MC-500 is a very appealing little camera. I see it as being of particular interest to still photographers whose bags are already full of camera gear, but who would like to take a tiny camcorder with them on a trip, whether it's a serious location shoot or a family vacation. You can even use your CF cards interchangeably with those in your DSLR.
As with most equipment decisions, compromises need to be made. Price, features, quality, size – all need to be balanced against each other in an equation that only each person can do for themselves. But though pricey, I find the MC-500 to be a very attractive choice for the photographer looking for a very small, discreet, easy to use camera that produces quite decent image quality along with the convenience of tapeless shooting.