No one could accuse JVC of being over-cautious in its transition to hard-drive-based camcorders. The innovative predecessor to the Everio GZ-MG505 was the GZ-MC500. This was an early entry into the hard-disk-based scene and it remains an extremely impressive camcorder, even by today's standards. Though the MG505 adds a larger hard disk and improved optics, the chassis is substantially bigger, so the MC500 still reigns as the smallest 3CCD camcorder we've ever tested.
We've not been overwhelmed by the quality of video captured by hard-disk camcorders. The compression algorithms they use are still a little fresh and a tape-based camcorder will trump most hard-disk models. The traditional DV (Digital Video) codec used for storing data on tape is a mature format and its natural partner, the FireWire port, is an international standard. So, you should be aware that, when you pick a hard-disk-based camcorder, you're abandoning these tried-and-tested technologies, and inviting a whole host of potential compatibility issues.
Nevertheless, there is an undeniable appeal to tape-free recording, and only a fool would claim it's not the future of camcorder design. During this difficult transition between formats, we'd recommend that anyone with a professional interest in editing their footage opt for a regular MiniDV camcorder. But if you're the more adventurous type, looking to adopt this cutting-edge hard-disk format, can the MG505 cut it as a viable alternative to the traditional DV camcorder?
The MG505 may be bulkier than its forerunner, but there is an argument that the original MC500 series was too small and some users had problems gripping the unit when shooting. The MG505, like the MC500, has excellent image stabilisation, so despite its small size you don't get a wobbly hand translated directly into wobbly camera motion. In fact, at times footage has a slight Steadicam look to it.
The MG505 is comfortable to hold -- we'd recommend keeping the strap tight and resisting the temptation to wrap your whole hand around the unit. Keeping the strap tight means your thumb will easily find the 'record' button on the rear of the unit, whereas wrapping your hand around the chassis makes it slightly uncomfortable to arch your thumb back on itself to reach this control.
You'd be forgiven for thinking there's a mechanical focal ring on the MG505's lens. In fact the knurled ring on the front of the chassis barrel is purely cosmetic and does not rotate. Zooming and focusing is done using cruder controls on the top of the camcorder. These are neatly positioned under the forefinger and are easy to operate.
Unlike the MC500, the MG505 has a traditional fold-out LCD screen that acts as a viewfinder. This 112,000-pixel, 69mm (2.7-inch) widescreen LCD monitor lets you preview footage on a screen that's wider than the camera body itself. The MC500 was restricted to an LCD built into the rear of the unit, so the MG505 is a significant technical improvement over this.
There's a small joystick control to the left of the screen for menu navigation. The battery level gauge illustrates remaining battery time -- apparently to within a minute, but this seems optimistic to us.
Output options include an S-video port which lets you view footage on your television using an S-video cable. Modes can be changed between camcorder and camera using the slider toggle on the side of the chassis, and there's an SD card slot on the base of the unit.
The MG505 is a 3CCD camcorder. Basic camcorder theory dictates that 3CCDs are better than one. With 3CCDs the camcorder splits light in a prism and directs it onto independent red, green and blue receptors. This improves the clarity of the image as well as enhancing low light performance. In a moment we'll take a look at whether this offers any practical advantage given the bottlenecks elsewhere in the MG505's design.
The 30GB internal hard disk records from 7 to 37 hours of continuous footage depending on what video quality you specify. Captured video is true widescreen.
A 10x optical zoom and 300x digital zoom provides all the close up potential we can imagine anyone wanting in a consumer camcorder. Be warned that using anything beyond the 10x optical zoom will result in degradation of the image as the camcorder enlarges pixels.
You can record in automatic mode, or switch to manual mode for increased control over the camcorder's behaviour. Instead of letting it react to light and focus changes on the fly, you can select specific settings, and the joystick on the fold-out LCD allows manual focus. It's difficult, to gauge the results on a small screen, though. This is a problem that bedevils all camcorders -- it's hard to tell with the naked eye whether the small LCD picture is sharp. You might be better off letting the camera automatically focus, and then locking that focus for the duration of the shot -- assuming you want a fixed focus distance.
You'll be forced to read the manual to adjust other options. These include spot exposure, backlight compensation, white balance, aperture, shutter speed and a variety of special effects, such as strobe, sepia and monotone. Camera options are controlled via on-screen menus. You can adjust the strength of the flash, and even bracket shots to ensure the correct exposure.
There's a built-in flash for still photography (the MG505 takes 5-megapixel still photographs), a stereo microphone and a 3.5mm jack for microphone-in. This makes the camcorder more versatile, because it gives you the option to improve the audio quality by using an external microphone. AV out and USB ports provide basic connectivity and there's a cold (unpowered) shoe on the top of the chassis. The shoe can be used to mount a gun mic or a light, although they'll need to be powered independently.
With a three second pause between being switched on and being ready to shoot, the MG505 trounces most tape- and DVD-based models for start-up time. You'll have that UFO in frame while most of your fellow tourists will be fiddling about with tapes and cursing their ancient tech.
Recording in 'Auto' mode yields decent results. The camera is easy to operate and sits comfortably in the hand. Zooming is smooth, with little of the stuttering that some camcorders are prone to.
The second thing to note is that the MG505's video is relatively free of noise and artefacting. Disappointingly though, colours lacked a certain degree of vibrancy -- unexpected behaviour from a 3CCD model. Despite this, we feel it's unlikely that you'll be a stickler for accurate colour when you're capturing family events, and for the most part the MG505 performs well.
One final caveat -- the MG505 records to a proprietary video format that is not easily edited in iMovie, Final Cut Pro or Premier. Professional users will definitely want to look elsewhere because the technical complication of converting the codec to a mainstream format is time consuming and yields mediocre results.
Though MiniDV camcorders are still our first choice for professional users, the convenience of hard-disk camcorders is getting harder to deny. For the moment, the appeal of the MG505 is limited to a certain breed of user, but things are moving fast towards tapeless production.
Edited by Mary Lojkine
Additional editing by Kate Macefield