VIDEO CAMERA 1998

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CHEERFUL CHEAPIE

 

STANDFIRST

A brand spanking new JVC camcorder for less than £400, has the world gone mad? Judge for yourselves as we take a close look at the GR-AX280 VHS-C econocam

 

COPY

JVC is not a name we expected to see on an ultra-budget camcorder, selling for less than £400. But there it is, slap-bang in the middle of this chubby little VHS-C machine. Clearly they’ve only managed to get the cost down by stripping out vital functions? Wrong! A couple of years ago the feature list for the GR-AX280 would not have looked out of place on a mid-market machine costing several hundred pounds more. There’s nothing basic about this camcorder, except for the price. 

 

It’s not much to look at though; it probably didn’t hang around the styling department very long, in fact the case and a fair chunk of the innards look as though they’ve been borrowed from its predecessor, the GR-AX270. The lens is new though; zoom power is now 22x, which is remarkable when you consider the next cheapest camcorder to have such a powerful optical zoom costs £600. Not so long ago multi-mode auto-exposure and digital effects were regarded as semi-luxury features. Not any more, the AX280 has twilight and sports modes, two pre-set shutter speeds, ultra low-light recording mode, fog, neutral density and sepia effects. There’s more to come, how about a two-speed power zoom, manual exposure override, a title generator, self and animation timers? The latter can be used to delay record start by 15 seconds or make recordings at intervals of 30 seconds, 1 minute and 5 minutes.  Each recording can be set to last for 0.25, 0.5, 1 or 5 seconds.

 

Manual white balance isn’t something we see very often these days. The AX280 has a WB lock setting, where you aim the lens a white card to adjust colour balance, and there are three presets, optimised for sunny and cloudy days, and halogen light.

 

Control layout is satisfactory; we like the large multi-function knob on the side, which makes selecting AE modes and effects, engaging the fader, titler and ‘cinema’ bars a breeze. We don’t like the four-way selector pad in the middle, which requires far too much pressure to make it do anything.  There’s another one on the top, this time its a four-way joypad, for controlling the replay functions, this one isn’t too bad. Just about everything else relies on an on-screen menu display. JVC have borrowed a trick from Sony and fitted a switched thumbwheel selector knob on the back panel. It’s incredibly simple to use, just spin the wheel until the function you’re after is highlighted, then press the wheel to make it happen. All clever stuff, unfortunately they’ve loaded rather a lot of functions on this one control. It also handles manual exposure override and manual focus. Needless to say you cannot do both things at once, and switching between the two is a chore, too slow in fact for you to be able to make adjustments on the fly.

 

There’s a JLIP (Joint Level Interface Protocol) socket on the back. JVC still don’t make much of this facility on their entry-level and mid-range models. It can be used to control the camcorder’s transport functions, using a PC, which strikes us as being quite useful. There’s scant mention of it in the instructions, nor are they very clear on whether or not it can be used with the optional RM-V700 remote handset, for random assemble editing, and enable functions like audio dub and insert edit.

 

A standard 6-volt nicad battery pack clips on the back. The instructions optimistically suggest it will give up to 75 minutes continuous recording time. Back in the real world, where you use the stop/start button, power zoom and effects options we managed to get around 50 minutes between charges, which is actually quite good for a nicad battery. They are also relatively cheap – compared with Lithium ion batteries -- so you can always carry a spare or two. By the way, the charger has a refresh function, to keep the dreaded memory effect at bay. 

 

Handling is not a problem, though with an all-up weight of around 1kg you begin to notice it on the wrist after a while. The position of the tilting viewfinder module means the stop/start button is quite low down; it’s not quite where your thumb thinks it should be, especially if you have large hands, but its something you quickly get used to.

 

PERFORMANCE

Whatever else JVC might have done to save costs we considered it highly unlikely they would have compromised picture quality. We were right, our sample, hot off the line, turned in a very commendable resolution figure of just over 240 lines (using HG tape). There was some picture noise, but it was well within acceptable limits. Colour rendition was fine, saturated reds looked a bit strong but otherwise colour balance was good in natural light. The manual white balance system usually managed to reduce colour castes in tube light. Picture stability is good but the deck didn’t like being tapped whilst recording or playing as this would result in slight picture shake.

 

The mono linear soundtrack was no worse, (or better), than usual. Background hiss is always there and treble response tails off quite early but unless you’re planning to record a lot of symphonic musical performances it’s unlikely to matter all that much. Forward sensitivity is okay, the mike picks up some motor whine but only when there’s little or no ambient sound. 

 

VERDICT

We sometimes get a bit sniffy about really cheap camcorders, and for good reason. Quite often a low price equates to poor performance or limited facilities or both. There are an awful lot of people out there who wished they’d spent a bit more on their first camcorder.

 

That shouldn’t happen with the AX280. It may be cheap but there’s almost everything a family snapshooter or budding movie-maker could wish for, with no sacrifices in the picture department. True, if we’d had out way it would have a microphone socket, a bit more leeway on the exposure override and a little more control flexibility. But now we’re getting picky, and loosing sight of the fact that this machine costs less than four hundred quid.  And that’s a bargain! 

 

RIVALS

JVC have just re-written the rules on budget camcorders. In terms of price the main opposition for the AX280 comes from the Samsung VP-K70 and VP-A12, and quite good they are too, but neither can match the zoom lens, broad range of features and JVC kudos. Even if your budget extends to another £50 there’s still not much competition, though the Panasonic NV-RX9 and Sony TR401 are both worth a look. 

 

SPECIFICATIONS

Make/model                               JVC GR-AX280

Recording format               VHS-C

Guide price                                £400

 

OPTICS

Lens                             f/1.6, 3.8-83.6mm

Zoom                            22x optical

Filter diameter            46mm  

Pick-up device            0.25in CCD

Min illum                       0.6 lux (low-light mode)

 

VIDEO DECK

Long play (LP)                        yes/no             

Max rec time                        90 mins (LP mode)

IR remote control                        no

Edit terminal                        yes (JLIP)

 

MAIN FACILITIES               

Auto focus                                yes                                          

Manual focus                 yes      

Auto exposure               yes                              

Programmed AE                          yes (4-mode)  

Fader                                        yes      

Manual white balance yes (3-mode)  

Auto white balance             yes                                          

Manual zoom                             no        

Power zoom                              yes                                                                              

Insert edit                                  no        

Audio dub                                  no

Character generator                       yes                  

Digital superimposer                 no        

Image stabiliser                         no                                           

Video light                                 no        

Battery refresh               yes                                      

Accessory shoe             no        

 

 

ADDITIONAL FEATURES

time/date recording, high-speed shutter (see text), record review, retake, tally lamp, built-in lens cover, digital effects (fog, ND filter, sepia), cinema mode, super low-lux (gain-up), time-lapse/animation/self record timers, JLIP control interface

 

VIEWFINDER

Viewfinder                       0.5in monochrome

Viewfinder info               deck mode and status, low battery, tape count, AE mode, fader, focus mode, tape end, time/date, title

 

AUDIO

Stereo                                       no        

Wind noise filter                         no                   

Mic socket                                no                    

Headphone socket              no        

Mic                                           unidirectional electret

 

GENERAL

Sockets                                    AV out (phono), JLIP (minijack)

Dimensions                               113 x 117 x 242 mm                      

Weight                          1.0 kg (inc tape and battery)

 

STANDARD ACCESSORIES

Batteries (nicad and lithium), straps, AC charger/power supply,

AV lead             yes      

video light                      no                    

remote control            no        

cassette adaptor yes                  

RF Converter             no        

Scart adaptor                 yes                  

 

PERFORMANCE

Resolution                                 >240-lines

Colour fidelity                           good

Picture stability                         average

Colour bleed                              negligible

White balance                            good

Exposure                                   average

Auto focus                                  average

Audio performance                   average

Insert edit                                  n/a

Playback thru adaptor              good

 

VC RATINGS

Value for money            8

Ease of use                   9

Performance                  9 

Features                       8

 

---end---

R Maybury 1998 1302

 

 

 


 

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