JVC Everio GZ-VX815 Review
A big sensor upgrade in the VX815 does little to fix the VX700's biggest failings.
Last summer we reviewed JVC's Everio VX700, which brought WiFi capability and a bunch of interesting niche shooting modes to the $500 price bracket. Unfortunately, it also had one of the single worst touchscreen interfaces we'd ever used. At this year's CES trade show, the company trotted out the inevitable followup, the JVC Everio GZ-VX815 (MSRP $499.95).
The new model doesn't deviate too much from its predecessor, but there are a couple of high-profile changes. Key among these are a new 12.8-megapixel sensor and a redesigned menu system. Given how much we hated the VX700's menus, we were hopeful of a big improvement with the new camera.
Design & Usability
The VX815 brings little new to the table, design-wise.
Externally, the VX815 is virtually identical to the VX700. It's similarly small and light (just 227 grams loaded with battery and memory card), but the construction quality hasn't improved one bit. We're still very concerned about the VX815's long-term durability, given its all-plastic construction.
While the menu has been rearranged, actual improvements in usability are minimal. The main menu presents you with six large icons for the primary shooting and setup options. You can also press a green "S" icon to access the Shortcut Menu, where more fluffy features like face decorations, animation effects, and so on live.
If this sounds confusing, it is. There are simply too many menus and too many ways to get at them, and the menus don't have a unified design aesthetic. Touch sensitivity hasn't really been improved, but the camcorder's reaction time has. Where we had to wait several seconds for touches to register when using the VX700—particularly when accessing the menus during recording—the VX815 responds relatively quickly. Of course, it's only quick in comparison to its predecessor; compared to the competition, your smartphone, or virtually any other touchscreen device, it's still horribly slow.
The new, larger sensor produces gains in most situations, but it's not as sensitive or color-accurate in low light.
With its new, stills camera–sized sensor, we expected the VX815 to perform a little better than its predecessor, and for the most part it did. Color accuracy showed a big improvement, and image noise was slightly lower as well. Low-light noise was substantially lower, most likely thanks to the backside-illuminated sensor design. Videos were also sharper. Since the lens is the same construction from the VX700, we suspect the resolution jump is due to downsampling.
On the other hand, low-light sensitivity dropped a little bit. Where the VX700 could achieve 50 IRE at just 13 lux, the new model needed 20 lux to do the same. In practical terms, this means you'll need more light to achieve the same results with the VX815 than you needed with the VX700. Low-light color also suffered quite badly—while the sensor still produces plenty of saturation, colors become wildly inaccurate.
The VX815's AVCHD files look awful when played on a computer.
The VX815 records in AVCHD format using the H.264 codec. The good thing about AVCHD is that it's highly compressed on-camera and therefore you can fit a lot more video on your memory card. The downside is that it's pretty difficult to edit once you get it off the camera. The VX815 introduces another wrinkle: playing video anywhere but on the camera (or possibly from a Blu-ray disc) makes it look terrible.
We tried playing the .MTS files we got from the VX815 on several computers, and each produced images with ugly interlacing (since the camcorder records 60i and upconverts to 60p in-camera) and terrible tearing effects on objects in motion. Artifacting was pretty out of control, and the interlacing made moving patterns look extra messy. On the other hand, if you play the same video directly from the VX815 to your TV or monitor (via HDMI), it looks great—crisp, clear, and free of any artifacting or tearing. Caveat emptor.
(Note that you can download third-party software with advanced deinterlacing options to improve playback quality of the VX815's .MTS files on your PC or Mac. We recommend VLC.)
It's all about the WiFi.
WiFi is all the rage in the camcorder market, and the VX-815 goes all-in with wireless features. All of these either run through HTTP, letting you view the video in a web browser, or through your smart device. Phones and tablets running iOS or Android can download JVC's Everio sync.2 app, which lets you use your device as a viewfinder over a local wireless network.
In addition to basic viewfinder functionality, you can also control recording and zoom. There are a few other interesting features, like a scorekeeping subroutine: When shooting your kid's basketball game, you can name the teams, choose their colors, and update the score via your phone's touchscreen anytime someone makes a basket. The score is superimposed on the video itself, in a rough approximation of the way a TV sports network would do it. Slightly goofy, sure, but also lots of fun.
Setting up the WiFi features is a bit tedious thanks to the T9-style (but not predictive) touchscreen keyboard, but we didn't experience any annoying pairing errors or anything. The JVC app isn't going to win any design awards, but it's actually pretty well put-together compared to most camera companies' efforts.
Beyond WiFi, the VX815 doesn't have much in the way of flashy features. There's a decent amount of manual control, but the lack of physical dials and buttons makes it pretty clunky to manage. On the other end of the scale, wacky facial overlays and animation effects will appeal to younger users (both in body and spirit, one assumes). There's also a unique smile-detection mode that tells you exactly how much a person is smiling, as a percentage. We're not sure what the platonic ideal of a smile is, but according to the VX815 we were never able to achieve it. (Also, it's easily fooled by beards.)
The VX815 improves on the VX700, but it's still far from best-in-class.
While it suffers from cheap construction and a needlessly complicated interface crippled by a poor-quality touchscreen, the JVC GZ-VX815 actually produces pretty good video. It's just a shame that you can't really see it at its best without playing it directly from the camcorder. Sharpness is an area of improvement from the previous model, as are noise control and color accuracy. Low-light performance suffers with the large 12.8-megapixel sensor (with the exception of low-light noise), which is a little surprising.
Bottom line: Unless you really love JVC's WiFi features or its cutesy, half-baked overlays, you can do better. The field of midrange camcorders is shrinking as high-end models get cheaper, but there are still a few good competitors at the same price point. The Panasonic HC-V720 is currently in our labs for testing, but unless it's a significant step back from last year's V700 it should smoke the VX815 where it counts. Also keep an eye out for Canon's now-discontinued HF M50 and HF M52.
If JVC stepped up its construction quality and particularly its user interface it might really have something with this mid-range Everio line, but as things stand the VX815 is a hard camcorder to recommend.
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