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JVC GR-AX880 & GR-AXM500

 

STANDFIRST

Analogue and digital technology imaging meet head on with these two new VHS-C camcorders from JVC, the first to have built-in digital still cameras

 

COPY

JVC have dubbed the GR-AX880 and GR-AXM500 'Dual Cams', which goes some way to explaining their somewhat unusual nature. They're two new VHS-C camcorders -- fairly well specified ones at that -- but the extra special ingredient is a built-in digital still camera. This is not to be confused with the many and various camcorders -- both analogue and digital -- that have snapshot or still recording modes, these machines incorporate pukka digi-cams, that store up to 44 images on a 1 megabyte flash memory. Both machines come with a serial communications cable plus PC and Mac software, so images can be downloaded direct to a PC, for illustrating web pages, or importing into documents.

 

The key difference between the two machines is price, the GR-AX880 sells for around £600, whilst its stablemate, the GR-AXM500, has a £700 price tag. The extra £100 basically buys a 3-inch fold-out LCD viewing screen, with an on-board speaker; otherwise they're virtually identical. Be warned they're no pocket featherweights, a chunky, well-upholstered body goes with the VHS-C territory, but don't let that put you off, the design and layout are both very good indeed. They feel comfortable and familiar with all of the controls precisely where they should be. They're the sort of camcorders you can pick up and use right away, without bothering with the instruction book.

 

Both machines are fitted with 22X optical zoom lenses that can be digitally extended up to 44X. The digital still camera shares optics and image sensor components with the camcorder so that counts as a big bonus. How many other digital still cameras can you name with a 22X zoom lens, and you won't find too many DSCs image stabilisers either! It gets better. The two camcorders have a useful assortment of auto-exposure and digital effects functions, all of which are available to the DSC. For the record they are:

·         low-light/twilight mode

·         ND (neutral density) effect for shooting in bright conditions

·         sepia mode for a recreating old-time Hollywood movies

·         sports mode for capturing fast action

·         single-speed shutter (1/2000th sec) for shooting really fast movement

·         neg/pos for reversing brightness and colour

·         electronic fog

·         normal/mosaic fader

·         shutter/slide wipe to a black screen

 

Low-light sensitivity is just 0.4 lux, but just in case you really do need to record a black cat in a coalhole, both machines have on-board video lights as well. Video recordings can have titles added, there are nine of them, or you can compose your own. There's plenty of editing options. Both outfits include remote control handsets with 8-scene edit controllers. The credit-card sized handsets connect to the camcorders via a cable and control the record/pause function on the destination VCR using pre-programmed infra-red commands; around 20 different makes are covered. For good measure the camcorders also have JLIP (joint level interface protocol) editing terminals, which allows them to be controlled via a PC, with optional software. Rounding off there's audio dub, time-lapse, animation and self-timer modes, plus insert edit, whereby new scenes shot by the camcorder, or stills from the DSC, can be dropped into the middle of recordings.  

 

Although the DSCs are a separate entity they have been seamlessly integrated into the camcorder's operating systems. A switch on the side puts the camcorders into DSC mode. The stop/start button acts as a shutter and on the AXM500 you get a shutter sound effect. There are two resolution settings, standard gives up to 44 shots whilst fine allows 22 exposures. The difference is in the amount of JPEG compression applied to the data and you can take it as read that the standard mode is quite coarse. In both instances the recorded image is 320 x 240 pixels, which isn't terribly exciting by today's standards, but keep an open mind. DSC images can be played back singly or six at a time on the black and white viewfinder (or colour LCD viewing screen, in the case of the AXM500, or on a TV screen, using the supplied video lead.

 

Everything you need to download images on to a PC is supplied with the outfit. The CD-ROM contains Windows PC and Mac capture software called Picture Navigator. PC owners get a slight better deal as the CD-ROM also includes MGI PhotoSuite for Windows (the 'lite' version). The blurb says Picture Navigator and PhotoSuite will run on a 486, and it will though it goes without saying that things happen a lot quicker on a moderately speedy Pentium. As image capture software goes Picture Navigator isn't particularly clever, it simply displays thumbnails, which the user can elect to download and archive, or export to another application, nevertheless, it does the job.

 

PERFORMANCE

We'll begin with the analogue video side of things. Our two samples were as peas in a pod and both managed a creditable 240 -lines of resolution. That's average to good for the VHS-C format and it's worth remembering that most people are perfectly happy with the quality of first generation low-band analogue recordings. In good natural light the picture looks relatively clean, colours are accurate and noise levels are low. The auto exposure systems coped well with most everyday situations, including strong backlight. Recordings shot in poor light look quite good too, though inevitably there is a big increase in noise and grain, especially in typical room lighting. We needn't dwell too long on the two machine's audio recording capabilities. They both have mono linear VHS soundtracks so there's a fair amount of background hiss and treble response is pretty thin, but if you're only recording speech and incidental sound it really doesn't matter that much. Don't forget the audio track is dubbable, which is something the 8mm camp have never managed to do on budget and mid-range equipment (yes, we know dubbable PCM sound was available on a couple of semi pro models from Sony a few years ago).  

 

To be honest we weren't expecting too much from the on-board DSCs, a resolution of 320 x 240 doesn't look so good these days, particularly with so-called 'megapixel' models rapidly becoming the norm, but like we said, keep an open mind. DSC performance is actually remarkably good, thanks in part to the zoom lens, which means you have make far fewer compromises when it comes to framing the shot. On a PC screen captured images (in the fine mode of course…) look lively, sharp and with plenty of fine detail. They're fine for web pages and even printed out -- on photo glossy paper using a good colour inkjet -- they could even pass for photographic stills, at a distance…

 

CONCLUSION

Okay, let's not get carried away, these are not, nor do they purport to be a substitute for top of the line DSCs or even conventional still cameras but this rather unusual marriage of technologies does actually work, at least in the case of the AXM500. The colour viewing screen makes all the difference, digital still operation is a strangely unsatisfying experience on the AX880, and we suspect the novelty might soon wear off. As mid-range family camcorders they both stack up well -- assuming you're happy with analogue quality. Yes they're big, and not especially pretty to look at, but they're fun, easy to use with bucket-loads of creative effects, and if you fancy a dabble at digital still photography, they're a good way to see what all the fuss is about.

 

HOW MUCH?

£600 (AX880)

£700 (AMX500)

 

FEATURES

long play (LP) recording up to 120mins, IR remote control with edit functions, JLIP edit terminal, auto/manual focus, programmed auto exposure, fader, auto/manual white balance, insert edit (still & movie), audio dub, title generator, digital image stabiliser, video light, battery refresh, time/date recording, self-timer,  high-speed shutter (1-speed 1/2000th sec), record review, retake, tally lamp, auto head cleaner, animation effect, special effects (fog, sepia, ND, wide), colour bar generator. built-in lens cover, built-in digital still camera with 44 standard/22 fine resolution (320 x 240 pixels), Picture Navigator & Photosuite SE software supplied

0.5in monochrome viewfinder (AX880) 0.5 in mono & 3-in LCD (AXM500)

 

SPECIFICATION

Dimensions: 113 x 117 x 242mm (AX880),  116 x 117 x 242mm (AMX500); weight, 0.9kg (AX880 inc. tape and battery), 1.2kg (AMX500 inc tape and battery.

Zoom:  22 x optical, 44 x digital

Lens: f/1.6, 3.8-83.6mm)

Pick up device: 0.25in CCD (0.4 lux in gain-up mode)

Filter diameter: 37mm

Sockets: AV out (phono), PC serial connection (mini DIN), JLIP

& microphone  (minijack)

 

TESTS
Lines of horizontal resolution: 240

Colour performance: good

Dynamic range: good

Grain: slight

Dot: slight

 

 

JVC UK, 0181 450 3282

 

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R Maybury 1998 3108

 


 

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