JVC GR-PD1 test and review

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The world's first prosumer camcorder aimed at High-Resolution widescreen holds two surprises - it's single chip and it's from JVC. Oh, and it records to MiniDV tape!

Professional wisdom has it that, when it comes to camcorders, three CCDs are always better than one. So, it's curious that the first prosumer-oriented High-Resolution camcorder uses just a single CCD. It's perhaps a little less surprising when it becomes clear that this camcorder, the GR-PD1, is from JVC - a maverick among leading Japanese camcorder manufacturers in that it didn't have a prosumer range at all until this new model. JVC's alternative taste continues with the PD1 - not only is it single-chip and High-Resolution, but it can also record in MPEG-2 to DV tape.

Clearly, a lot of thought has gone into the PD1. Apart from a bulbous 2800mAh battery pack thrusting out from the back, it's a real beauty. The body is black with silver trim, and feels reassuringly solid in construction. Handheld comfort is greatly enhanced by a rotating grip, making it easy to use at almost any angle.

The grip also houses the tape mechanism, camera/VCR mode control, record button, and zoom rocker. This keeps all these important functions within easy reach whatever the angle of the shot. With a clear, 3.5in LCD panel offering 200,000 pixel resolution, handheld shooting possibilities are endless, and there's a 0.44in, 113,000 pixel colour viewfinder to call upon as well. Even when using the viewfinder, the protruding battery pack doesn't get in the way. JVC has clearly thought long and hard about usability - and it shows.
The headline feature of the PD1 is, of course, the much-vaunted High-Resolution mode. In this setting, the PD1 captures video at a resolution of 1,280 x 659 pixels, with 25 progressively scanned frames per second. This is recorded to DV tape in MPEG-2 format at somewhere between 18 and 20Mbit/sec - a lot higher than DVD. Two more progressive modes are available on top of this. There are options for 50 frames per second in either 16:9 or 4:3 aspect - widescreen being recorded at 941 x 485 pixels, and standard being 839 x 576. These are both recorded in MPEG-2 format to DV tape. And, for those feeling perverse, there's even a regular DV mode at 50 frames per second, but the resolution is still 839 x 576 pixels.

Each mode is selected with a large multi-way button conveniently located just behind the lens. Anamorphic 16:9 widescreen can also be recorded in regular 50 frames per second DV format, but this must be selected using the menu wheel. All these larger frame sizes are in-camera only - as we'll see later when we discuss editing - and the effective editable frame size is more conventional. But first, a look at how the PD1 shapes up in terms of regular camcorder features.

The PD1 is a curious device, and a very bold move from JVC. Anyone not intending to shoot in widescreen will find budget three-CCD models, such as Sony's TRV950, much better value for money. However, the High-Resolution footage is of considerably higher resolution than DV shot in 16:9 - its 1,280 x 659 frames offer twice the pixel count. We found this resulted in much clearer colour definition in the JVC's Hi-Res mode than when using regular DV 16:9. Progressive scanning also helps with overall sharpness. For authoring straight to DVD, which is one of the initial intended uses, the JVC is certainly a major leap forward.

The real shame is that you can't actually capture and edit the whole 1,280 x 659 - although you'll still get the benefit of operating in progressive mode. Budget filmmakers are also likely to wish the PD1 had a 24P (24 frames per second progressive) option like Panasonic's AG-DVX100, as this would make shooting on video and bumping over to film relatively painless. Instead, one frame in every 25 will have to be dropped. There's no film-look gamma correction, either, as there is with the Panasonic, although you can add this later during editing.
So, the JVC is as odd under scrutiny as it appears at first glance. Used as a DV camcorder, it can hold its own against the best three-CCD models, but there are cheaper options. As a result, it will be of most interest to those who wish to shoot a significant amount in widescreen - and that's a very exciting possibility for any serious videomaker. The major drawback is that, to take best advantage, the JVC-supplied software has to be used. We're confident wider support will come from other editing software makers, but until then, the PD1 remains more limited than it could be. Still, it's a tremendous piece of engineering, with all the potential to kick-start a videomaking revolution toward higher resolutions and wider aspect ratios. For that, we give it a hearty thumbs up.

James Morris

Read the full review in March 2004's Computer Video magazine.


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