JVC GC-PX100 Camcorder Review
From out of left field comes JVC's strangest camcorder yet, but is it more than just a sales pitch?
Direct your web browser to JVC's snazzy landing page for the GC-PX100 (MSRP $999.99), and you'll be in for some marketing gold. There's a dude running down a track... and a man winding up to pitch a baseball... then a whole group of guys playing soccer. Amidst all the advertising callouts ("Dynamic Vision!") and HTML5 animation, it's not hard to interpret JVC's message: This camcorder is for sports!
The use case JVC is hawking here goes something like this: By taking advantage of the PX100's ability to shoot high-speed footage at up to 600 frames per second, coaches (and parents) can capture their athletes' movements in extreme detail. During training, that footage can be played back, in order to analyze the mechanics of the player's technique in slow motion.
Sure, there are probably hundreds of other uses for high-speed videography, but we'll play along. We brought our PX100 down to the local softball diamond to test out its athletic coaching chops. And despite the sports orientation, this is still a high-end consumer camcorder with a bright f/1.2 lens, unique design, and strong image quality.
Design & Usability
Well, it's... different.
The PX100 looks less like a traditional camcorder and more like something you might find on Mega Man's arm cannon. This model is JVC's consumer flagship, but it's strange to refer to the camcorder as such, since its design is so experimental. Clearly the PX100 is meant to succeed the PX10, an interesting but terribly overpriced "hybrid camera" from last year. But while the PX10's hybrid design was rather on-the-nose (it seemed like JVC literally attached a camcorder to a point-and-shoot camera), the PX100's chassis looks much more serious.
There are professionally oriented features all around this camcorder's unusual body. A large manual focus ring surrounds the f/1.2 lens opening, adjacent to stereo microphones and one of the PX100's dual shoe mounts. One of those mounts is for common accessories like larger microphones, but the other is meant for an optional EVF that's sold separately.
Like a motorcycle sidecar, a short arm protrudes from the left side of the lens barrel; here you'll find buttons and a dedicated wheel for controlling those all-important high-speed shooting modes, as well as exposure compensation. "Time control," as JVC calls it, cannot be adjusted smoothly while a recording is in progress, so it's not as if you can create cool time warp effects while rolling. This is really just a secondary menu dedicated to frame rate and exposure. You'll have to use your left hand for those controls, because your right will be resting underneath the high-quality hand strap, within easy reach of the zoom rocker and snapshot button.
The design is compact, yet comfortable and steady too. In general, our only gripe about the body itself is the LCD monitor, which we wish JVC had taken a step further. This is a tilting panel, with the battery and media slots concealed behind it, however we wished for full articulation. Given the PX100's sports-minded target audience, we think an athlete practicing by themselves could've benefited from the ability to frame shots accurately from the front of the camcorder.
The PX100 does ship with a handy sunshade that clamps onto the LCD, and this simple inclusion makes outdoor use much easier (and makes the camcorder look more professional too). Finally, we do realize the camcorder market is always looking for places to cut costs, but we still feel silly using a resistive touch panel on a $1,000 piece of electronics.
JVC's menu system continues to disappoint. Important settings are divided among multiple sub-menus, and it's hard for new users predict where the option they need is going to be. It's also impossible to predict whether the menu will stay open after a selection is made, or the whole interface will return to the main screen—a big time waster if you've got multiple settings to change.
More speed than you need
Although the PX100's promotional materials might have you believing otherwise, there are some limitations to the camcorder's high-speed shooting mode. It's important to be aware that each high-speed frame rate comes with a resolution penalty, some of which are quite severe.
As it happens, my younger sister is a pretty legit softball pitcher. So it made sense to bring her and the PX100 down to the local diamond, and use the camcorder for it's intended purpose: sports motion capture. Notice how image quality degrades as we increase the frame rate.
We'll start with standard footage at 1080/60p in AVCHD...
Swapping over to H.264, here's 120 fps...
At 420 fps, resolution drops down to only 320x176...
And finally, 600 fps...
By now you might be thinking, "wait... aren't there other camcorders capable of shooting high frame rates?" Sure there are, and plenty of still cameras too. The Nikon 1 series immediately jumps to mind, and many Canon Powershots are capable of 120 or 240 fps, albeit with a resolution penalty. So the PX100's "big deal" isn't that it can capture 600 fps footage in perfect clarity (because it can't), only that the PX100 reduces that resolution penalty compared to the competition. Plus, 600 fps is pretty darn good at any quality level, and remember, the PX100 can shoot high speed footage until the SD card runs out, there's no memory buffer.
Eventually we settled on 240 fps as the happiest medium between speed and quality. Resolution is locked to 640x360 at this frame rate—only 25% behind 480p DVD quality—and compression isn't too distracting either. 240 fps also works particularly well for YouTube, it's the perfect resolution for a standard sized video. Here are two more bonus clips to illustrate the point. First 240 fps...
And now 600 fps...
Man, she crushed that last one.
60 FPS Performance
Seeing in the dark
Although JVC's marketing emphasis is the PX100’s high-speed functionality, we wouldn’t be very good at our jobs if we didn’t explain this camcorder’s performance at standard frame rates.
What’s most impressive about the PX100 are its capabilities under low light. The camcorder’s lens is bright, at f/1.2, and with that much light, it’s easy for the sensor to produce a usable image in almost any situation.
Since so much light is available, image noise is kept to a minimum. The PX100 hangs in with tough competition like the Canon G20 in this test, and surpasses Panasonic’s X920. The PX100's sensor also retains its color accuracy under low light better than all competing flagships.
Performance isn't quite so rosy under bright light. Rendering of motion has been improved dramatically since the PX10, but sharpness is slightly worse than we were hoping for, especially when panning horizontally. Also, the PX100’s color accuracy actually scored worse under bright light than dim, a strange result that we rarely see. But this is more of a nitpick than something that will impact real-world use. Less than adequate saturation seems partly responsible for the odd result.
For an in-depth discussion of the PX100's performance, visit the Science Page.
One of the more sensible in-body WiFi ideas we've seen
Another important element of the PX100's value proposition is the ability to play back all this high speed content instantly, so that your athlete in training can recognize and correct technique errors in the middle of practice. To support this, the PX100 has every kind of WiFi connectivity option you could want.
The camcorder can generate its own WiFi signal, for connecting directly to a nearby tablet (no phones, but iOS and Android are supported). This tablet must be running JVC's free CAM Coach app, which, aside from now-commonplace features like remote control zoom and start/stop control, also includes sports-oriented features like tagging the best clips, or self-checking your own technique.
Even if your tablet isn't immediately at hand, the same features can be used remotely by connecting the PX100 to an existing WiFi network. For truly remote access, you can even e-mail your footage directly from the camcorder's menu system.
This process works—direct monitoring via the tablet app is particularly painless—but it doesn't quite deliver on the promise of instantly reviewing footage. The PX100's WiFi module takes a long time to turn on the first time, and causes a couple seconds of delay thereafter. In practice, we found ourselves simply turning to the rear monitor to review footage. The simple sunshade makes playback easy, even in bright sunlight. Sometimes the oldest technology is the best.
This camcorder offers way more than slow-mo.
It seems like the JVC GC-PX100 is about $900-worth of camcorder. If we line up all our test results from this model, compare them directly with other manufacturers' flagships, and do a little math, we find the PX100 earns a similar score to the average $900 camcorder, bought new.
Since the PX100 retails for a cool $1,000, one might logically assume that this camcorder's unique high speed features account for the leftover $100. Our math probably isn't perfectly fair. There's sure to be some internal overlap, and it's not as if $100-worth of features can simply be added to electronics as easily as a tablespoon of baking soda can be added to a recipe.
Still, we think it's important to break this down, since JVC's promotion for this camcorder might have you believing it's a specialized device. If you really are JVC's ideal customer, and you really are interested in this camcorder solely for the ability to capture sports in slow-mo, understand that the vast majority of your purchase price is going towards buying a sweet camcorder, not sports equipment.
If, on the other hand, you're in the market purely for that sweet camcorder, there are better options available. Canon's G20 can be found for $999.99 and is better than the PX100 in most ways. Panasonic's X920 is also $999.99, and earned scores almost as strong as the G20.
So the ideal PX100 customer will be looking for a little bit of both: A person who's interested in improving their technique or someone else's, but also maybe shooting some game footage from the bleachers too. We do think this represents a large portion of coaches and parents, and if you're one of them, don't be afraid to buy this unique camcorder.
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