Review: JVC GZ-HM400

Our score: 4/5
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January 11, 2010 5:39 PM
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Published: January 10, 2010 11:00 PM
By Edouard Maire
The GZ-HM400 is the new camcorder at the top of JVC's range.  With 32 GB of internal memory and an SD card reader, it offers the chance to shoot video in HD and take 9 Megapixel photos for under £800.

Handling

As soon as you pick it up, the amount of care that has been taken in producing the camcorder becomes immediately obvious.  The HM400 sits inside a matte black case that looks like it has been transplanted from a professional camcorder.  You switch it on by folding out the screen, and turn it off again by closing it--or by using the power button.  It might seem like a very common feature these days, but we're still amazed by how remarkably intuitive it is, especially for somebody who's never used a camcorder before.  And because there's no viewfinder, you need to turn to the screen to keep an eye on what you're filming--but the screen goes much further than that.  Just like on the latest camcorders from Sony and Canon, it's the very heart of the machine.  Part of the display is touch-sensitive and it takes a little getting used to: you navigate using a laser touch bar that is a bit slow to respond. 

Elsewhere, the interface is pretty simple.  A Play/Rec button toggles between the two main modes, one for flming and the other for playing back your video; a second button launches photo mode.  The screen shows the amount of space remaining on the internal memory.  The 32 GB allows you to record up to 2 hours 56 minutes in the highest quality mode, UXP.  That's half as much as on the Canon HF S11 or the Sony HDR-CX520, both of which offer 64 GB.  The battery life, meanwhile, is shown with an indicator made up of a few bars, like on a mobile phone.  The BN-VF815U that's supplied can film for 2 hours 25 minutes without a break, and takes 2 hours 40 minutes to recharge, which is rare.  The charger is also a single unit (no separate cable) and doesn't take up much space, which is great for travelling.

Boutons de réglages Molette
Three buttons give direct control over the shutter and the diaphragm (left) and a dial controls manual focus.

For the HM4000, JVC has emphasised the customisability of the settings with three prominent buttons.  The 'A' (for aperture) gives priority to the stutter, the 'S' (for speed) gives priority to the shutter speed, from 1/2-1/4000 seconds and the 'U' (for user) can be tied to any function you choose like white balancing or focus assistance.  This last feature draws a coloured outline around objects when they are in focus  It helps make up for the lack of a viewfinder (or great eyesight).  Finally, there's a dial at the front which allows you to focus manually, or adjust the diaphragm.

The zoom controls aren't particularly sensitive, but the are progressive.  The image stabilisation relies on the same system as the GZ-X900, with two prisms in front of the lens.  Together, they deaden horizontal and vertical movements at every zoom length, and they work very well, but can't quite compete with the Sony HDR-CX520 or Canon HF S11 which are both models in this area.
 
Image Quality

As a worthy AVCHD camcorder, the HM400 records video in Full HD, or a resolution of 1920 x 1080 pixels in other words.  What stands out though is its bitrate of 24 Mbps, beating competitors like Panasonic and Sony to produce a sharper image.  The results are particularly detailed, especially when outside--but that's because the HM400 needs plenty of light to succeed.  Its sensitivity is pretty average and grain appears quickly in darker conditions.  That's the same problem as the Canon HF S11.  That leaves the Sony HDR-CX250 as the one to beat for sensitivity, but the JVC regains some ground with its bright, attractive colours.

Its real weakness is the focal length: in wide-angle mode, you only get 48.5 mm as a 24 x 36 equivalent, which is a very narrow field for shooting landscapes or getting several people in the frame together.
Menu JVC GZ-HM400 Ecran JVC GZ-HM400
You access the menu using the partly touch-sensitive display (left) but while you're filming it shows the most essential information.

We should also mention the High Speed recording mode, which films very fast subjects in slow motion, as long as the camcorder's position remains fixed.  You can set it to 100, 250 or 500 frames per second.  Incredible, isn't it?  Well, not really, because to get such a high framerate, you need to reduce the resolution of each frame and shorten the length of the recording to make up for the high bitrate HD video.  At 500 fps, the HM400 is left recording at 640 x 172 pixels for just 2.8 seconds.  This is a feature that's also found on some digital cameras and mobiles.  Take a look at this video to get an idea of how it works.

For cabling, the HM400 has everything you need.  There's a microphone input for interviews with an external mic (with a sound level displayed onscreen automatically), a headphone jack and a mini HDMI output to enjoy the best possible quality video on your HD TV.  For once, the inputs and outputs aren't protected by little plastic tips that wear out after two days, but solid covers.
4/5 JVC GZ-HM400 DigitalVersus 2010-01-11 00:00:00

Pros

  • Great build quality
  • Good battery life
  • Sharp video with good colours
  • Microphone input

Cons

  • Average sensitivity
  • Touchscreen interface can lag
  • Very narrow lens

Conclusion

The GZ-HM400 is fun to use, and produces excellent quality video while outside. Its main advantage against its competitors from Sony and Canon is its attractive price.

OUR SCORE 4/5
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