Camcorders Buyer’s Guide
Camcorders are portable recording devices used to capture video and audio. The footage can be replayed through televisions; videocassette recorders (VCRs), PCs or disc players (DVD, Blu-Ray etc) depending on the camcorder media type.
In this expert guide the different types of camcorders are explained and discussed. We will also be taking a look at which features you can expect from camcorders in different price ranges. This buyer’s guide is mainly intended towards not so experienced camcorder buyers, but should serve as a good ground for any interested in buying a new camcorder.
Available types of camcorders
Historically all camcorders used an analog medium such as VHS tape, however since the advent of digital recording technology, the analogue scene is losing ground fast.
There are currently 6 main digital camcorder media types:
- Flash Memory
Flash memory cards are small digital storage devices such as Compact Flash (CF) or Secure Digital (SD). The camcorders that rely solely on flash memory are often cheaper and simpler camcorders. On more advanced camcorders, the flash storage is often used as a secondary storage option. A good thing with the flash camcorders is that the memory cards are rewritable which makes it very simple to transfer the video files to computers. The memory cards are also small in physical size, which makes them easy to handle. On the negative hand the memory size could become a problem since video files usually are very big.
The MiniDV format is definitely one of the most popular formats. It has been around for quite some time now and the tapes are cheap and you can record long time on each tape. The MiniDV format is compatible with most editing programs and videos are easy to transfer to PCs via a firewire port.
Like MiniDV, these camcorders use tapes for capture and storage, however MicroMV tapes are smaller and the compression technology is more advanced. These compact and light camcorders are renowned for having excellent video quality, as well as full digital editing capability. The MicroDV has basically taken over MiniDV’s roll as the leading video tape format.
Camcorders that use DVD recording technology capture the video onto the DVD disk using DVD-RAM or DVD-R technology. DVD-RAM allows the disk to be reused to add more files or to record over the original files. DVD-R is read only technology which prohibits re-recording or adding more files to the DVD disk. This category of camcorders have seen a growth during the last couple of years because they make it possible to record large amounts of data onto the discs, this comes in handy when recording in higher resolution formats like 1080p HD.
These expensive camcorders offer a superior picture and sound quality to miniDV camcorders as they use high definition digital tape technology. Many include Dolby surround sound which is nearly as good as broadcast quality.
Camcorders utilizing this technology record videos directly onto the built-in hard drive. They generally offer a high quality setting where a little more memory is allocated for the video files. Video can be easily transferred to PCs for editing. These cameras have been very successful during the last two years and we see an increasing demand for HDD camcorders in all camcorder segments. The biggest advantage being the speed and big memory size that hard drives offers.
Important features and specifications
The following features and specifications are important to consider when buying a camcorder.
- Recording Media
We have discussed the available media types above. Our recommendation is to go with a modern media with either a hard drive or flash drive (or both). These are the formats of the future. If you buy a flash card only camcorder you should know that the quality of the recordings may not be so good because of the high video compression algorithms used. DVDs also use a high compression rate which can degrade the picture quality. The advantage of using DVDs is that it is easy to access different files on the disks which is useful during playback.
- Optical and Digital Zoom
Digital camcorders offer optical and digital zoom lenses. The optical zoom is the magnification of an image through moving the lens in relation to the sensor using all the available pixels to record the image. Digital zooms is a further enlargement of the image. The software within the camcorder enhances the actual zoom (optical) by interpolating pixels based on the color values of the surrounding pixels. The greater the digital zoom, the poorer the picture sharpness. Therefore, when reviewing camcorders it is best to check for the greater optical zoom rather than the digital zoom capabilities.
- CCD Sensors
The Charged-Coupled Device (CCD) sensors contain 100,000’s of light sensitive diodes which translate the light captured through the camcorder lens into electrons to create the digital image. A high number of CCD pixels will produce better quality images.
- Image Stabilization
When holding a camcorder the video will often appear shaky when zooming in. Most camcorders offer image stabilization either as optical or digital. Optical image stabilization works best. If you intend to use your camcorder for shooting sports events where the object appears far from you, the image stabilization becomes of great importance.
- Ease of Use
For the amateur camcorder user, ease of use is important. Things to look for are the number of automatic camera mode settings, the weight and size of the camcorder, if the controls are within easy reach and the ability to view playback on the LCD screen especially in bright daylight. Also make sure it’s easy to connect the camera and transfer files to a computer if you intend to do some editing of the video files.
Entry level budget
There are few truly budget camcorders on the market. For under $150 it is possible to get a basic camcorder. These camcorders can be used for posting videos at Youtube or similar sites but they do not offer a video quality good enough for recording important life events.
Most camcorders in this segment uses flash memory as the sole video storage option, but there are also some miniDV camcorders available. It is important to note that a lot of budget camcorders, $150 or less, rely predominantly on digital zoom and many do not have the optical zoom option.
The Creative Vado is a flash only camcorder that offers good value for money and it’s also is very small and practical to use, just push a button and it starts recording. It offers a 640 x 480 VGA resolution, has a USB connector and can record up to two hours of video on the built in 2GB memory. At just under $100, this budget camcorder has received an average rating of 68% from expert reviews.
If you are looking for a cheap camcorder that offers better video quality than the flash card only camcorders, you should take a look at the entry level Canon DC210. It uses DVD as recording format and is very popular among the cheaper camcorder models. It has received an average expert rating of 61% at Testseek
Most people looking to buy a camcorder will sooner or later end up in the medium budget category, since this is where you will find the camcorders with the best value for money value. We consider o medium prices camcorder to be with the $150 and $350 interval. The types of camcorder media available in this range include miniDV; DVD and HDD. Unfortunately you will not find many High Definition camcorders in this segment yet, but the prices are dropping regularly so it’s just a matter of time.
We recommend you to take a look at the Sony DCR-DVD610 DVD camcorder is compact and enables the capturing of video directly onto DVD or onto a removable Sony flash memory stick. As the CCD sensor contains 800,000 pixels, the video quality is excellent. The audio can be recorded in stereo and a zoom microphone is available to match audible zoom to the visual zoom. It has a 40x optical zoom; image stabilization and even has an option for night shooting. This camcorder is good value for money and costs around $280.
Many consumers are looking for HD-camcorders to go with their newly purchased LCD or Plasma TVs. One camcorder that actually provides HD recording in this segment is the Samsung SC-HMX19.
There are many other interesting camcorders to take a look at in this segment so take your time and set the recommended price interval and find out which camcorder have received the highest ratings from expert reviews. Currently the top position is held by the Samsung SC-MX10 with and expert rating of 80% and several best product awards.
Serious hobbyists and professionals looking for superior quality video and audio can expect to pay in excess of $500. Many of these options offer high definition video and Dolby Digital audio.
We will not give and specific product recommendation in this segment because it all depends on how you intend to use your camcorder. But in any case you shouldn’t settle with standard definition in this segment, HD should be on your list of required features. We also recommend to go with a hybrid storage option like HDD/flash cards.
For most amateur or hobbyist camcorder users the budget is what decides which camcorder you will end up with. When shopping around, start by deciding a price interval and use Testseek.com to see which products you should look closer at.
Disclaimer: This guide was written in late 2008 and the specific product recommendations may be outdated. However the basic discussions in this buyer's guide may still be of great value.
Written by; TestSeek staff