For some time now, industry watchers have been predicting the end of the cassette as the chosen medium for storing video footage. However, despite the considerable rise in alternatives, the humble mini DV tape appears to be digging in its heels and hanging on to the number one spot.
Although as a way of watching movies DVD's growth was unprecedented, as a way of shooting them, it still has some way to go. The format struggles to match mini DV's portability and few models appear to be able to provide the necessary picture quality, either. Which leaves the hard-disk drive as the main challenger to the cassette's crown.
Leading the charge for the 'tapeless camcorder' has to be JVC, whose Everio range has been providing a genuinely worthwhile alternative to the mini DV format. The most obvious boost that a tapeless cam has over one that requires a cassette is that you're never going to need to carry spare tapes around with you when you go out shooting for the day.
With its 30GB hard drive, the GZ- MG36 can store a maximum of seven hours of footage (at top quality), or up to 37 hours in the lowest quality. The footage takes the form of MPEG2.
Because there's no cassette mechanism hidden away in the camcorder's guts, the chassis is more compact - making it more portable and there's no mechanism to make whirring noises that might be picked up by the built-in microphone - something that JVC's DV cams have suffered from in the distant past.
Finally, the vast majority of DV camcorders are bottom loaders - the tape is loaded from the underside of the cam. If you're shooting on a tripod (as every enthusiast should), there's nothing more annoying than having to remove the cam to change tapes - if the cam has no tape to change, the problem no longer exists.
As we've already mentioned, one of the key advantages of the Everio range is the portability that the cam offers, making it easy to slip into a jacket pocket or handbag so that it can be pulled out at a moment's notice.
However, portability comes at a price - ease of use. All too often manufacturers concentrate so hard on making their camcorders small that they forget that not everyone has hands the size of a child's, or fingers as dexterous as a master of origami. Fortunately, JVC manages to sidestep this potential tripwire by centring the vast majority of controls around the admittedly small, yet tactile joystick positioned on the surround of the LCD screen.
This is not only used for navigating through the numerous pages of the onscreen menu, but also for making manual adjustments to the camcorder's main settings. Otherwise the remaining controls consist of a small but responsive zoom slider on top of the cam and a record button positioned where the viewfinder would be if the MG36 had one. There is a small selection of buttons behind the LCD screen, but as they're used for controlling features like Light, Auto and Menu, they aren't likely to be required that much.
The onscreen menu is pretty intuitive and shouldn't prove too challenging even for those that don't consider themselves to be particularly au fait with fancy technology. We handed the GZ-MG36 to a friend who had no experience of using a camcorder and they were up and running in a matter of minutes.
Design-wise, the GZ-MG36 certainly isn't the chicest of JVC's Everio offerings, lacking the finesse of some of the Japanese manufacturer's black models. But having said that, it certainly isn't a dog and though far from original when it comes to colouring, should prove stylish enough to be whipped out in sophisticated social circles without too much cause for embarrassment.
Weighing in at 400, the GZ-MG36 is perfectly balanced for handheld shooting - neither too heavy for longer shots, or too light to hold steady when a tripod can't be used. Our only real concern is that by using the joystick to make manual adjustment while filming, the operator will find it hard not to jerk the camcorder at the same time, but more on that later.
Like all good camcorders, the GZ-MG36 can be operated fully automatically or the user can take more responsibility thanks to the manual controls. In this case, the manual options are really rather impressive, considering the asking price. As well as the usual focus and white balance options, exposure can be adjusted in increments of 1 between -6 and 6 and there are 1 shutter speed options.
Alternatively, there is a Spot Exposure control and choice of four Program AE modes. Backlight compensation can be used to brighten a subject that is under exposed, the Nightscope mode slows down exposure to a snail's pace for shooting in complete darkness and there's the option of using the built-in light.
Footage can be shot at four settings: Ultra Fine (720 x 576 pixels), Fine (720 x 576 pixels), Normal (720 x 576 pixels) and Economy (352 x 288 pixels) and between 430 and 2,250 stillshots can be saved to the hard drive, depending on the image quality selected.
We found the GZ-MG36 provided something of a schizophrenic performance, displaying wonderful precision and flexibility in good natural light, while capturing truly terrible- looking shots in lower-light conditions. Starting off with the good stuff, we were really impressed by the fine levels of detail that the lens was able to capture.
Dewdrops on the grass, cobwebs and insects were all displayed in quite fantastic detail, belying that £380 price tag. Next to impress was the accurate reproduction of those wonderful natural tones that this time of year seems to throw up. Much of the credit for this must go to the excellent automatic exposure and white balance systems, which are matched for precision and alacrity to change by the focus.
However, stepping inside into a less well-lit room, things take a considerable turn for the worse. Suddenly, the levels of grain jump to frightening heights, digital artefacting in the form of blocking becomes apparent whenever the cam is moved and any discernible detail disappears completely.
Colours become muted and murky, it's incredibly difficult to pick out the foreground from the background and at quieter moments, a whirring can be heard on the soundtrack. In short the performance here is quite awful. On the plus side, the focus doesn't suffer from hunting, but that is about the only good thing that can be said in the cam's favour.
Just how suitable the GZ-MG36 is for you very much depends on how you intend to use it. If you're going to be doing the majority of your shooting outside, you'll be more than happy. If, however, you want it for nights out in the pub, we'd advise you to look elsewhere.