Whatever happened to good old Bluetooth, eh? At one point, Bluetooth was the future. Everything was going to be Bluetooth-compatible. We were all going to live in Bluetooth houses with Bluetooth cars and Bluetooth cats and dogs. But then, presumably, someone realised Bluetooth was unreliable, insecure and painfully slow, and relegated it to the bottom of your mobile phone's settings menu.
Okay, so perhaps that was a little uncalled for. But it was with an undeniable twinge of nostalgia that we greeted the JVC Everio GZ-HM550, a £550 high-definition home-movie camcorder that proudly displays the Bluetooth logo on its lens housing. Bluetooth is back -- and this time, it's heading for Hollywood. Or, at least, YouTube.
Bite into Bluetooth
We have to hand it to JVC. Rather than just churn out another samey mid-range model with only a fractional difference in zoom length to distinguish it from the latest equivalent, the company has dared to include some features that genuinely set the GZ-HM550 apart from the crowd. And that includes its implementation of Bluetooth technology.
It's possible to set up your Bluetooth smart phone to be used as a wireless remote control handset with the camcorder, which is great, except for the fact that not all smart phones are compatible with this feature (see here.) Plus, JVC already includes a perfectly decent remote control handset in the box.
More interesting, perhaps, is the ability to pair the camcorder with a Bluetooth-enabled GPS device in order to geotag your videos and photos. It's also possible to use a Bluetooth headset to monitor audio and narrate clips. Again, however, these functions only work with compatible devices and, sadly, we weren't able to test them with the Bluetooth equipment we had here.
Bluetooth isn't the only unusual feature on offer, either. The GZ-HM550 also provides some clever ways to film and share your results. There's a time-lapse function, as well as an ultra-high-speed (500 frames per second) video mode. The device even offers a way to shoot short bursts of continuous high-resolution photos at up to 25fps, while 'auto rec' mode automatically sets the camcorder to record when a person enters the frame.
When it comes to showing off your movie masterpieces, you can, of course, simply plug the camera into your telly via HDMI (cable not included). But it's also possible to upload your video directly to YouTube, export it to iTunes or burn it straight to disc, bypassing your PC altogether using JVC's standalone Share Station drive (around £100 online).
There's one more innovation that we ought to mention, and that's the GZ-HM550's laser touch control system. It's intended as a sort of hybrid between traditional button-based menu navigation and fully fledged touch-sensitive screens. You'll find a small vertical strip running down the left-hand side of the camcorder's 69mm (2.7-inch) fold-out screen. You can't miss it, since it flashes a bright blue light at you whenever you switch the unit on.
The strip is touch-sensitive and the idea is that you swipe it up or down to navigate menus, using the buttons underneath the screen to make your selections. It sounds straightforward enough, but we'll admit, the system almost had us tearing our hair out in frustration. It's unnecessarily complicated. Scrolling will almost always cause you to overshoot the menu entry you were actually after. In all honesty, we'd have been happier with an old-fashioned rocker.
Thankfully, all this cutting-edge stuff doesn't come at the expense of core features or performance. The small, chubby-looking GZ-HM550 has a healthy 32GB of internal storage plus an SD card slot for more memory. It records 1080i high-definition at bitrates of up to 24Mbps, which is about as high as AVCHD camcorders currently get. The Konica Minolta lens offers 10x magnification (up to 16x in 'dynamic' mode) and image stabilisation is available.
In practice, picture quality is very strong -- colours are accurate and edges are sharp, though not unnaturally so. Detail is good, although we noticed the autofocus struggling a little on occasion. Panning slightly too fast can inject a lot of artefacts into the image. The GZ-HM550 has only a single CMOS sensor, but its 'Super LoLux' back-illuminated technology made for some very decent results in our indoor tests. A video lamp is provided for low-light situations.
Photo resolutions of up to 9 megapixels are available. It's possible to take widescreen snapshots while filming and standard (4:3) photos can be taken in the camera's still mode. In our tests, the GZ-HM550 took some good snaps, although some of the shots we took at the full (10x) zoom length looked a little blurry, even in good light. We also found the automatic white balance to be very unreliable.
When we researched the typical cost of the GZ-HM550, we found some wildly oscillating figures online. Amazon alone lists the same unit at prices ranging from £480 to £670. All we can say is, even if you find it for sale at the lower end of this scale, we'd still question the product's value for money.
The JVC Everio GZ-HM550 is a pretty good camcorder with some highly unusual tricks up its sleeve, though some of these -- such as Bluetooth connectivity -- can be complicated to set up and use. If you're not going to take full advantage of the Everio's innovations, you'll almost certainly end up paying over the odds for features you rarely -- or never -- use. In addition, the laser touch control system may appeal to some, but it managed to drive us well and truly up the wall during the short time we spent with our test unit. As such, you may find JVC's device puts too much unnecessary strain on both your finances and your temper.
Edited by Emma Bayly