JVC Everio GZ-MG555
At a Glance
A very well designed 30GB hard-drive camcorder, the Everio GZ-MG555 ($900 as of April 24, 2007) feels solid and comfortably accommodates one-handed operation. A sturdy dial provides access to manual settings and scene modes for various lighting conditions--settings that tend to be buried in nested on-screen menus on many camcorders. The dial is reminiscent of similar features on old-school, heavy-duty 35mm cameras. In addition to the aperture and shutter speed adjustments, the GZ-MG555 has a useful setting for automatic gain control.
The mode switch makes toggling between video mode and still-photography mode easy, but there's a complication: Whereas nudging the switch upward changes modes, pushing it downward turns off the camcorder. A telemacro function lets you zoom in on nearby objects without losing focus; and a Nightalive setting supports shooting in very dim light, albeit with jerky results from the slower shutter speed.
The camera boots up in about 5 seconds, and it shuts down immediately. A built-in flash improves visibility of still images shot in low light. Ports include USB and composite-video outputs, and a microphone input.
A rudimentary playlist function lets you perform basic editing on your files without transferring them to a PC. A basic file-management application that supports Windows XP (but not Vista) lets you manage files and transfer them to a PC (the same software is also included with the less-expensive GZ-MG155). However, I found it just as easy to transfer files to a PC using Windows Explorer.
The GZ-MG555 earned a mediocre rating of Fair for its video quality in our lab tests, in part because details looked less sharp than in the output from competing models, and because colors seemed less accurate. This model earned a below-average score for audio quality, too, and its low-light video looked excessively dark, earning a score of just 52 versus an average mark of 82.
The GZ-MG555 lets you select from among four quality modes: the "economy" setting uses the smallest amount of disc space and correspondingly generates the lowest-quality video; but in informal tests, output was acceptable even at this setting. The GZ-MG555 was one of only two models to earn a score of Superior for still images in our lab tests.
The included remote control is convenient, and the docking station/charger adds USB, composite, FireWire, and S-Video ports, so you can, for example, pull video directly from the camcorder into Adobe Premiere Elements 3. The bundled software suite of CyberLink's PowerCinema, PowerDirector, and PowerProducer (all of which support Windows XP, but not Vista) provides multiple options for playing and editing video; programs for managing still photos and DVD and hard-drive backups complete the package.
The GZ-MG555 sports an excellent design with easy access to manual controls, but its video quality could stand some improvement.