- JVC GR-AXM25 VHS-C Camcorder
- DataVideo Technologies SE-300 Digital Video Illustrator
- Mitsubishi HS-U780 S-VHS Editing VCR
- Data Translation Broadway 2.5 MPEG-1 Video Digitizer
- FutureVideo Media Commander 100 Batch Digitizer
by Joe McCleskey
An LCD from JVC
GR-AXM25 VHS-C Camcorder
41 Slater Drive
Elmwood Park, NJ 07407
One of JVC’s latest camcorders, the GR-AXM25, taps into the company’s long tradition of simple VHS-C camcorders designed for the beginner. With the exception of a handful of top-end models, the typical JVC consumer camcorder of the past few years has been a compact point-and-shoot model with few manual controls and a selection of features designed to make videography easier on novices.
To this tradition, the GR-AXM25 adds a feature that has only recently been included in the JVC camcorder lineup: a built-in swiveling LCD monitor, which greatly enhances the camcorder’s ease-of-use factor by liberating your eye from the tyranny of the typical viewfinder’s rubber eyepiece.
With these points in mind, it should come as no surprise that the GR-AXM25 is a good camcorder for beginners, and probably not the best choice for serious hobbyists or prosumers. Which leads us to the point of all this digression about traditions and such: each camcorder we review in Benchmarks should be judged on its own merits and within its own milieu, so we don’t commit the serious mistake of comparing apples with oranges. In the case of the GR-AXM25, we’ll look at the camcorder from the perspective of the casual shooter, who might just want to shoot the occasional birthday or travel video.
A first look at the GR-AXM25 reveals a camcorder that’s a bit bulky by modern standards of compactness. While certainly smaller than full-size VHS camcorders, the GR-AXM25 is larger than most so-called “compact” models. It will not fit easily into a pocket or handbag, unlike many other camcorders in its category.
Why is the camcorder so bulky? For the most part, the inefficient design of the swivel-mounted LCD monitor is the culprit. Flipping it open reveals a 3-inch color LCD, a tiny monaural speaker and about 10 square inches of wasted space surrounding the screen. Most VHS-C camcorders are slightly bulkier than their 8mm and DV brethren to begin with; the inclusion of a fat LCD mount only makes matters worse.
Still, as they say, size isn’t everything, so let’s take a look at the unit in operation. Located on the right-hand side of the GR-AXM25, just under the user’s thumb when the camera is held properly, is the toggle switch that rotates to select Play, Camera or Off mode. This switch is easy to access with the thumb, so it gets high marks in the ease-of-use category. Unfortunately, it is also made of low-grade plastic and feels as though it might disintegrate if you used it often enough.
Viewing the image through the LCD monitor while controlling the camera’s functions with the right hand is fairly simple. The GR-AXM25’s electronic image stabilization switch is within easy reach of the index finger, as is the 4-speed power zoom toggle. With the default setting of autofocus, the point-and-shooter can capture some pretty decent images, with the autofocus system only occasionally becoming confused and losing its focus.
Using manual focus on the GR-AXM25, on the other hand, is rather difficult. Instead of twisting a manual focus ring or even rotating a small focus wheel on the side of the camera body, the videographer must push the “far” or “near” side of a circular pad located on the top of the unit to move the lens elements closer together or farther apart. This can make focusing not only tedious, but also very difficult to achieve without introducing a large amount of camera shake into the shot.
Located on the left-hand rear side of the camcorder is a small wheel that controls many of the camera’s functions, including manual shutter-speed settings, special effects and programmed autoexposure modes. The presence of these functions on a simple wheel makes it very easy to select these functions–so long as the LCD monitor is not in its flipped-out position.
Two of the effects included on this wheel are quite innovative and therefore worth mentioning. The ND (neutral density) and FG (fog) settings use digital circuitry to simulate the effects of having a neutral density or fog filter attached to the camcorder’s lens. While these features do have some use, and can be used creatively to enhance your images, they aren’t a serious substitute for the real thing (i.e. specially treated pieces of glass attached to the front of your camera’s lens).
It may sound very much as though the GR-AXM25 isn’t much of a camcorder; indeed, most of the comments listed above are in the negative category. Even so, there is much to like about the GR-AXM25. If you forgive it the poor implementation of a manual focus system, it operates very well as a point-and-shoot model for beginners and home videographers. It even includes a couple of items that will help novices later on when and if they decide to become more serious about the craft of video. First of these is JLIP machine control, which allows you to use the JVC JLIP player pack to control edits from a computer. Second is Random Assemble Edit, a built-in system that helps you to automate the copying of selected scenes from the camcorder to a VCR (if you have the right kind of JVC VCR). However, the lack of any kind of iris control, the lack of a headphone or microphone jack, the poor-sounding monaural audio and, finally, the relatively steep price tag combine to make the GR-AXM25 difficult to recommend.
Not Just a Titler
SE-300 Digital Video Illustrator
In the November issue, we reviewed an integrated editing center from a company that has its roots in Taipei, Taiwan–DataVideo Technologies, whose earlier products have previously sold in the U.S. under the Ambico label. This month’s review focuses on the company’s SE-300 Digital Video Illustrator, which has been popular in Europe and South America for several years.
The SE-300 looks very much like a titler at first glance, but don’t let its looks fool you; it is much more than just a character generator. It’s a stand-alone video effects tool that allows you to capture and paint still images, similar to many paint programs found on home PCs. Though it doesn’t come close to matching the power and functionality of most computer-based graphics tools available, it does embody an interesting and fresh approach to the hobbyist-level video graphics market.
Like most computer-based graphics tools, you operate the SE-300 with a keyboard and a mouse. You can draw lines, type text, change colors, perform paint-bucket color fills, etc. You can even perform simple graphic animations, if your patience will allow it. Unlike most computer-based graphics tools, you don’t need a computer to operate it. It’s a completely self-contained device that you plug in between the play and record VCRs in your editing system, or perhaps just between your camcorder and your VCR. The optimum configuration for the SE-300 requires the use of two monitors or a monitor with two switchable inputs. This is because most of the activities you’ll perform with the SE-300 take place on the Preview monitor, which has a separate composite output on the unit’s back panel. Once all of your equipment is hooked up–and you throw in the included mouse for good measure–you’ll be dealing with plenty of cable spaghetti behind your edit bay, so consider yourself forewarned.
Turn it On
Once everything is cabled up and functioning properly, the Preview monitor shows you a point-and-click toolbar that’s not unlike those found on many popular computer-based paint programs. Buttons for text entry, image cut, image paste, image mask, clone, paint bucket, zoom, freehand draw and line draw are just a few examples. If you’re interested only in putting text on the screen, no problem: click the text entry button, enter your text, choose your font and color with the appropriate keys on the keyboard, then type away. Transitions between pages, scrolls, etc. are fairly easy to apply; for added variety, tools exist to add shape shifts, tilts, rotations, backgrounds and other effects to your text.
Aside from a handful of box-drawing tools, most titlers would stop at this point, offering no other image-manipulation capabilities. The SE-300, however, offers more–which is why we say its more than just another titler. With the little camcorder-shaped button in the upper-lefthand corner of the toolbar, you can use your camcorder as a black-and-white image capture device, and easily import graphics directly from your camcorder. Once you have imported a suitable black-and-white image, you can then use the SE-300’s painting tools to create your own digital artworks. Color choices are somewhat limited, and the images you capture can’t be too complex. Nonetheless, the unit does present some very interesting possibilities for the videographer who wants paintbox-style controls and image-capture capabilities without entering the world of home computers.
Saving your production for future use is fairly simple. For storage, the SE-300 utilizes two small 512K flash RAM memory modules, each of which will hold a single project of several pages (the number of pages varies depending on the complexity of the graphics), even after you’ve removed them from the unit. These memory modules plug into a small bay on the top of the SE-300, along with two system software modules that are necessary for operation. When you prepare to save your production, beware–opening this door wipes out your current project completely (rather annoying when you’ve worked on a picture for hours at a time).
The SE-300 is almost as annoying as it is wonderful. The lack of an “undo” feature is the chief cause of annoyance; it’s disheartening to spend time on a graphical creation only to ruin it with a single poorly placed paintbucket fill. Also, the operations of our test unit were sometimes buggy (a problem that was easily fixed by saving the project and re-booting from scratch).
Still, the SE-300 offers more than the current industry leader in its price range, the Titlemaker 3000. It has fewer text fonts and styles than the Videonics unit, but those it does offer are sufficient for most serious video applications. Also, it takes the notion of a consumer-level titler one step further into the realm of the stand-alone video paint box. Applications for the SE-300 might include any location where a computer is not needed or wanted, but video graphics capabilities (including simple still-image capture) are desired.
Bottom line? Watch out, Videonics; there’s a new kid on the block.
The Family Room and The Edit Bay
HS-U780 S-VHS VCR
6100 Atlantic Boulevard
Norcross, GA 30071-1305
There’s a real need in today’s home videography market for an inexpensive, full-featured VCR that has some good editing features and also works well with the audio-video system you keep in the family room. Mitsubishi has filled this niche well for the past couple of years with the HS-U770, an S-VHS deck with a jog/shuttle controller, synchro-edit capabilities and hi-fi stereo sound.
In this review, we’ll take a close look at Mitsubishi’s latest upgrade in the HS-U series, the HS-U780. Like its predecessor, the HS-U780 is a decent choice for those who wish to put together a simple cuts-only editing setup with the resolution of S-VHS. In designing the newer model, however, Mitsubishi decided to lean more in the family-room direction. Though they included support for Digital Broadcast Satellite systems they left off one very important item: audio/video dub. Without this essential feature, home videographers will find it difficult to perform some of the most basic audio editing procedures, such as adding music or sound effects to a production.
First looks at the HS-U780 reveal a handsome black case with a few controls sprinkled around a central LCD display. The lower lefthand side of the VCR’s face flips down to reveal a secondary set of S-video, composite video and stereo audio inputs. This configuration makes it easier to plug your camcorder into the VCR for editing, copying or simply playing back your videos.
The HS-U780’s jog/shuttle controller is very responsive and easy to use. The jog dial allows precise frame-by-frame movement, and the shuttle ring zips you smoothly back and forth at four speeds: slow, normal, search and high-speed search. This is worthy of note because many jog/shuttle controllers on consumer VCRs are really nothing more than fancy fast-forward and rewind controls, offering the same functionality you’d get from the more ordinary transport buttons.
Looking around the back of the unit, we find two sets of input and output connectors to match those found on the deck’s front panel, a typical RF input/output for cable or antenna input and an input for cable/satellite box control. Also present are two items of potential interest to home videographers: an RCA jack labeled Edit, and a pair of jacks labeled Active A/V Network. The Edit jack provides a way to link the pause buttons of two Mitsubishi VCRs, making two-finger “crash” editing a little bit simpler by reducing the number of fingers required to one. When you cable two VCRs together via this jack, you can achieve editing accuracy somewhere in the range of 5-10 frames–not bad for a synchro-edit system, but not good enough for serious professional work.
Finally, the Active A/V Network system provides a way to turn on your Mitsubishi television, Mitsubishi VCR and possibly even a Mitsubishi audio receiver with the press of a single button on the remote. It’s not what you’d call a serious editing feature, but it does make control a little more convenient.
Another feature that’s worthy of note is the PerfecTape system, which, with the push of a single button, analyzes the tape you’re recording on, then adjusts its internal circuitry to make the best possible recording on the tape you’ve chosen. After the tape has been tested, the VCR displays a rating of the quality of your tape on the screen; this could be handy in comparing different brands of tape stock, or in evaluating whether or not an old tape is still usable.
Now that inexpensive computer-based products like Pinnacle’s Video Director Studio 200 and Videonics’ Video ToolKit 3.0 offer simple and inexpensive ways to get into video editing, there’s a real need for a good record deck that does double-duty as the home VCR. These products advertise that you can simply hook it up to a camcorder and your existing home deck and edit away. When you buy such a system and hook it up to an ordinary home VCR, however, you’ll soon learn the limitations of most living-room decks, and begin to crave a more serious VCR. If this describes you, then the HS-U780 might be just what you’re looking for. It’s a serious shame that Mitsubishi decided to remove the audio dub feature, but even without it, the deck still holds its own as a good cuts-only record VCR.
Broadway 2.5 MPEG-1 Video Digitizer
100 Locke Drive
Marlboro, MA 01752
Way back in December of 1996, we took a look at version 1.0 of Data Translation’s Broadway video digitizer and MPEG-maker, and found it to be an excellent tool for creating MPEG-1 videos for CD-ROM or Internet distribution. Now, with version 2.5, the folks at Data Translation have added a few important features to the Broadway board. These new features include real-time MPEG-1 encoding on the fly, which greatly simplifies the MPEG creation process, and a video output jack, which makes it potentially suitable for nonlinear editors who want to copy their final output to videotape. It still retains the same quarter-screen resolution (352×240 pixels) of earlier versions, so those who are looking for high-quality video output from a nonlinear system might be disappointed. Even so, the quality of the MPEGs it produces is superb; what’s more, it’s one of the most user-friendly PCI digitizers available today.
Installing PCI-based video hardware into a Windows-based computer can be a very frustrating experience. The Broadway board, however, went into our Benchmarks test computer (133MHz Pentium, 32MB RAM, Matrox Mystique 220 graphics card) without a single hitch. Five minutes after opening the box, we were ready to capture our first video clips with the Broadway.
The earlier version of the Broadway board was different from most video capture cards because it split the jobs of video digitization and compression into two separate procedures. In other words, in order to make an MPEG video with version 1.0 of Broadway, you’d have to capture the video first as an .avi file, then (perhaps after editing) compress it into an MPEG-1 file. Since that time, MPEG-1 hardware has become smarter, and the Broadway has grown up. Version 2.5 is now capable of real-time video capture and MPEG-1 compression, which means the process of creating an MPEG-compressed digital video can be reduced to a one-step operation.
One of the problems with MPEGs, however, is the fact that you can’t edit them very well, if at all. If you’d prefer to edit your video with a nonlinear system, Broadway 2.5 still allows you to capture the video first as an .avi file, then edit with the software of your choice (Ulead’s MediaStudio 2.5 VE comes bundled with the board) before converting the file with the MPEG-1 codec. When capturing the file as an .avi, the Broadway board compresses the video with a proprietary, editable version of the MPEG-1 codec (compression/decompression scheme).
For those who are new to the world of digital video, Broadway’s online mini-tutorials provide a good way to get started immediately. Topics of instruction include connecting audio and video cables, capturing video, performing MPEG compression on .avi files, and more. Instruction in the online mini-tutorials is a little bit sparse, however, and could do with a few diagrams or illustrations to visually explain some of the concepts. The printed manual also suffers from a lack of illustrations, but the textual information it provides is excellent and wide-ranging; the portions that deal with planning your projects based on the final distribution medium (CD-ROM, Internet, videotape, etc.) is particularly useful.
Take a Look
Just as we found with the earlier version of the Broadway board, our tests revealed a superb MPEG-making device. MPEG-1 videos produced on the Broadway 2.5 are of a quality that’s difficult to match; audio synchronization is always excellent, and the color and detail of the images are superb. The ability to make fully compressed MPEG-1 videos on the fly is a good enhancement, especially for those who must make their MPEGs on a strict schedule of deadlines–webmasters, for example, or those who are in the CD-ROM multimedia industry.
If your final delivery method is videotape, however, you’ll find that other, less-expensive video capture options are capable of producing much better results. The 352×240 capture resolution isn’t quite sufficient for serious video production; image-quality problems manifest themselves in the form of straight lines turned jaggy and highly detailed areas turned to mush.
Even without the video output capability, however, the Broadway is still a good option for anyone who will use MPEG-1 digital video files as the final mode of delivery for their product. If you’re a multimedia content producer for Web sites, CD-ROMs or Video CDs, you’ll find a lot to like in version 2.5 of the Broadway board.
Batch by Batch
Media Commander 100 Batch Digitizer
FutureVideo Products, Inc.
28 Argonaut, Suite 150
Aliso Viejo, CA 92656
People who use nonlinear editing systems revel in the convenience that digital video gives them: no shuttling back and forth to find specific locations, no fumbling with VCR controls, no switching tapes–well, most of the time, anyway. Two points in the nonlinear editing process still require that you mess with the controls of an ordinary tape-based VCR or camcorder: the beginning, when you digitize your clips, and the end, when you print your finished production to tape.
Luckily, there are ways to automate these processes from your computer screen. Similar to the way in which a computer-based edit controller takes control of your decks for linear editing, a batch digitizer will take a series of in and out points, locate them on a tape, execute a pre-roll and engage the computer’s video capture program to digitize each clip precisely and conveniently.
FutureVideo’s Media Commander 100 is just such a device. Designed to operate either independently or from within the Adobe Premiere 4.2 interface, the Media Commander 100 will control decks with Control-L (LANC), Panasonic 5-pin, RS-232 or RS-422. Consisting of a black box, two disks’ worth of software and a selection of cables, the Media Commander 100 is an easy-to-use, efficient way of adding batch capture capabilities to your nonlinear editing system.
Many people who use Adobe Premiere 4.2 with consumer-level video equipment are not even aware that the program comes with built-in batch capture and device control features. This is because the types of editing protocols supported by Premiere–RS-422, V-LAN, etc.–are either nonexistent or obsolete in today’s consumer video market. FutureVideo’s Media Commander 100 is designed to rectify that situation, offering a way to easily upgrade Premiere’s batch capture functions to include equipment that uses the more common consumer-level protocols for machine control.
Following the directions in the somewhat slim instruction manual, we set up the Media Commander 100 with a minimum of fuss. Installing the software was as simple as dragging and dropping a file from the 3.5-inch floppy drive to Premiere’s Plug-ins folder on the hard drive. From that point, setup was a simple matter of plugging in a few cables and opening Premiere to adjust a handful of options in the Device Control sub-menu.
When all is set up and ready to run, Premiere’s Movie Capture window gains a new set of controls. Instead of just the Record button on top of the video preview window, Premiere gains a set of transport controls (fast-forward, rewind, etc.) as well as a jog-shuttle slider for locating scenes rapidly. Using this interface to mark in and out points is a simple operation; all you have to do is shuttle to the appropriate portion of the tape and press the in button, then do the same for the out button. Each set of in and out points can then be exported to a Batch window. When you have logged all of your in and out points, you can proceed with the batch capture and instruct Premiere to capture all of your clips onto the hard drive. Simple though this system is, it does have a few drawbacks. Unlike other products that provide batch capture (such as the Videonics Video ToolKit 3.0), the clips stored in the Media Commander 100’s Batch window do not have any picons associated with them for easy identification at a glance. On the plus side, the Media Commander 100 works from within Premiere, which makes the procedure a little bit more convenient by eliminating the need to launch another program.
Wrap it Up
When you’re finished editing in Premiere, the Media Commander 100 offers one more tidbit of convenience. When you select the Print to Video option, you can click the box labeled “Activate recording deck,” which puts your record VCR immediately into record mode; when your video is finished recording, it shuts off the record VCR automatically.
The Media Commander 100’s advantages include rugged construction, time-code support (RCTC, VITC and LTC), easy setup and simple operation from within Premiere. Its disadvantages are few; the only one that matters much is the lack of picons in the EDL.
18:1 optical zoom, 36:1 digital zoom, 3.8-68.4mm focal length, 4-speed power zoom, f/1.6, inner focus, telemacro, 46mm filter diameter
1/4-inch CCD, 270,000 pixels
3-inch LCD monitor; 0.5-inch black-and-white CRT also included
Auto, inner manual
Maximum shutter speed
1/2000th of a second
Auto, program AE (sports, twilight), switchable gain-up compensation
Simulated ND (neutral density) and FG (fog) filters
Composite video, mono audio
Random assemble edit, electronic image stabilization, retake (insert edit), built-in lens cover
4.5 (width) by 4.5 (height) by 9.25 (depth) inches
Weight (sans tape and battery)
Video Performance (approx.)
Horizontal resolution (camera)
Horizontal resolution (playback)
Pause to Record
Power-up to Record
Fast-forward/Rewind (30 min. tape)
1 minute 50 seconds
- Random Assemble Edit
- LCD monitor
- Poor audio quality
- Focus controls difficult to operate
- No inputs of any kind
The editing features are nice, but key features are lacking
Still-image capture, paint box, titler, animation
Composite video, S-video, stereo audio, GPI
Composite video, S-video, stereo audio, preview out
Freehand draw, line, rectangle, mirror image, size change, paint area, tile, clip art
15 (length) by 10 (width) by 3.1 (height) inches
- Image capture without a computer
- Animation controls
- Not enough fonts or colors
- Some controls non-intuitive and difficult to use
A good choice for those who want to capture and use their own artwork without the aid of a computer
Video inputs and outputs
S-Video (x3), Composite (x3), RF
Audio inputs and outputs
Stereo RCA-style (x3), RF
PerfecTape tape analysis and copying, flying erase head, jog/shuttle control, Active A/V Network, audio peak meters, front-mounted audio/video inputs
17 (width) by 12 (depth) by 4.25 (height) inches
- PerfecTape system ensures quality video and audio copies
- Jog/shuttle very precise and responsive
- No audio/video dub
They took off the audio/video dub button! How could they?
Ulead MediaStudio 2.5, VDONet’s VDOLive Server (trial version)
Composite (RCA), S-video
Composite (RCA), S-video
Minimum System Requirements
256 colors (8-bit)
Enhanced IDE (500MB+)
16.8 million colors (24-bit)
DSP-based, Windows compatible
- Very easy installation
- Output for videotape-based projects
- Captures and compresses MPEG-1 on the fly
- Limited resolution (352×480)
One of the best solutions for home-based CD-ROM or Web MPEG production
Automatic batch capture and device control for nonlinear editing systems
Edit control protocols
Control-L, Panasonic 5-pin, RS-422, RS-232
Maximum number of devices controlled
16 (requires one Media Commander 100 per device)
Minimum system requirements
Windows 3.1, 95 or NT
Video capture card
Adobe Premiere 4.2
- Easy to set up
- Seamless operation from within Adobe Premiere 4.2
- Rugged construction
- Requires Adobe Premiere 4.2 for full functionality
An excellent way to expand the capabilities of an existing Adobe Premiere-based nonlinear editing system.