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Camcorder Buying Guide
 

Camcorder Buying Guide

Table of contents


What is a Camcorder and what does it do for me?

Capturing and preserving those special moments - birthday parties, graduation ceremonies, baby steps and weddings - has never been so easy. The camcorder, an elegant combination of camera and recorder, archives important meetings and presentations, and even allows you to make your own films (documentaries or some creative video). Camcorders today offer innovative technologies and features to meet your video recording needs.

How Digital Camcorders Work

There are two breeds of camcorder: analog and digital. Digital camcorders have developed into mainstream products, while analog camcorders have nearly been phased out.

In digital camcorders, light travels through the lens and onto the image sensor, which captures and converts light into electronic signals. The next step separates digital and analog camcorders: analog camcorders record electronic signals (waves and pulses) to tape, while digital camcorders translate the same electronic waves and pulses into digital (computer) signals, and then record it to tape (or another type of recording medium).

Where Digital Camcorders Excel

A digital camcorder generally offers better image/audio quality and no quality loss when making copies or transfers, which is not usually the case with analog camcorders. Editing and/or processing video (e.g. cut, merge and special effects) also become far easier as the digital data inside a camcorder's storage is easily processed by a computer. With that many advantages, digital camcorders are extremely competitive solutions for today's savvy user.


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What types of Camcorders can I choose from?

There are many different ways of classifying camcorders, but the most common way is to differentiate by storage/recording medium (e.g. VHS-C, memory card/flash memory, MiniDV, Digital8, DVD and internal hard disk). VHS-C tapes are used by analog camcorders exclusively, but that is not what we recommend (unless there are special requirements/reasons; e.g. you have a VCR and an adapter you need to use). The other types of recording medium are used by digital camcorders, and cover a variety of different requirements for the many different types of users.

MiniDV

The majority of digital camcorders use MiniDV cassettes that record DV-format video. This type of camcorder produces much higher quality pictures than videos recorded by consumer analog camcorders. Depending on the model, MiniDV camcorders can deliver resolutions of more than 500 horizontal lines. In addition, some of the latest consumer/semipro camcorders support the high-quality HDV-format, which is capable of delivering up to 720 or 1080 lines of horizontal resolution. These camcorders record HDV-format video on MiniDV cassettes as well.

Depending on the type of cassette and recording settings, a cassette can offer from less than 60 minutes to 120 minutes or more recording time.

A MiniDV Camcorder  A MiniDV Cassette


With a variety of products on offer, the MiniDV camcorder is suitable for almost all kinds of users, from budget to semipro, and everyone in between. The dominance of the MiniDV camcorders makes it the industry standard now and in the foreseeable future.

MICROMV

The MICROMV camcorder is a Sony-exclusive product. The cassette is smaller than the MiniDV and the camcorders record video in MPEG-2 format, which is not compatible with a large number of video editing software. This type of camcorder is designed for high mobility and image quality, but has already been phased out.

Digital8
Another Sony-exclusive product, the Digital8 camcorder records DV-format video on analog 8mm and Hi8 cassettes as well as dedicated Digital8 cassettes. With high-quality DV-format support, Digital8 models can deliver more than 500 lines of horizontal resolution as well. Digital8 camcorders and their cassettes are larger in size and more affordable than their MiniDV counterparts, making them perfect for budget users.

DVD

3-inch DVD-R/RW and DVD+RW discs are sometimes used as recording media in Mini DVD camcorders (DVD-R/RW or DVD+RW). DVD-RAM discs are also utilized by a number of camcorders, but DVD-RAM discs can only be accessed via DVD-RAM compatible drives, while DVD-R/RW and DVD+RW are supported by most DVD drives. You can typically expect to record 30 minutes worth of video on a Mini DVD disc.

DVD camcorders record high-quality MPEG-2 video directly to DVD disc, and are capable of delivering more than 500 lines of horizontal resolution. DVD-R discs are write-once discs and can be played with most home DVD players, while DVD+/-RW discs will allow you to record again and again on the same disc. DVD-R/RW and DVD+RW discs are easily accessed by PC DVD drives and are also supported by most of the newer home DVD players.

A DVD Camcorder  A DVD+RW Disc


DVD camcorders are home/business user friendly and are especially useful for users who enjoy or need to play their recordings direct to their home/office DVD players.

Flash Memory/Memory Card and Hard Disk

Some of the latest camcorders use internal hard disk drives and record in high-quality MPEG-2 format. With a capacity in the tens of Gigabytes, these camcorders can record extended video clips.

Flash Memory Camcorder Hard Disk Camcorder



There are, in addition, a few ultra-compact camcorders that utilize flash memory/memory cards (such as CF/Microdrive and SD/MMC) as their primary recording media. These camcorders usually record video in MPEG-4 format. The length of the recordings is tied directly to the capacity of the memory card. These camcorders are usually very small in size and not very expensive at all, hence they are excellent choices for budget users and those who require the highest compactness in their recording gear.


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What Are the Key Features to Look For?

With tens (if not hundreds) of camcorder products available at any one time, its normal to feel confused – just how are these camcorders different from one another? That's where the specifications come into play, as they are key features of a camcorder product and will allow you to gain a deeper understanding of the product you are viewing and/or contemplating purchasing.

Image Sensor

CCD or CMOS?

Image sensors in camcorders are very similar to those found in digital cameras. There are two types of image sensor: CCD and CMOS. CCDs are more widely used in camcorders now, although CMOS tend to cost less than CCDs. Although early CMOS sensors lagged behind CCDs in terms of image quality, improved technologies have allowed high-end products to utilize CMOS sensors to great effect. Excellent image quality is now as much a CMOS capability as it is a CCD's.

Note: The following information on CCD sensors applies to CMOS sensors as well.

What is the difference between 1/3" and 1/6" CCDs?

As the eye of the camcorder, the CCD converts visible light into electronic signals. Generally speaking, the bigger the CCD the better the image quality it can offer. That is to say that a 1/3-inch CCD should produce a better image in comparison to a 1/6-inch CCD. Larger CCDs (the CCD size specification is the diagonal measurement of a CCD) capture more light, resulting in brighter pictures and lower noise. Therefore CCD size is especially important when shooting in low light situations.

Does pixel count matter?

With digital cameras the CCD pixel count is a crucial factor in determining the sharpness of the captured image (due to the detail level). However, this is not always the case with camcorders, since a standard-definition video frame contains less than 400,000 pixels, with any number of pixels exceeding that number having very little effect on picture sharpness. Of course, that is only as far as standard definition video recordings are concerned as high-def video recordings require a higher pixel count (more pixels=higher definition; 1080i/p video requires a 2 Megapixel sensor; 1 Megapixel = 1 million pixels).

If you plan to capture still images with your camcorder, we recommend a higher pixel count as well as a greater number of pixels will allow images to be printed to larger sizes without a noticeable reduction in quality.

What is 3-CCD camcorder?

Last but not least is the difference between one and three CCDs. Professional camcorders always have three CCDs, one for each primary color (red, green and blue), which results in much brighter and vivid images and more accurate color reproduction. Luckily for us, three-CCD camcorders have made their way into the consumer market, and there are many models costing under $1000.

Zoom

The optical lens of a camcorder is similar to that of a camera, but is usually capable of a wider zoom range. Although there are other important factors such as aperture and shutter speed when evaluating the lens, for most consumer camcorders, the zoom specification is a more practical index to look at (although that is not the case with professional/semi-pro camcorders).



Optical zoom ranges typically ranging between 10x and 20x are currently very popular. Digital zoom specifications, on the other hand, can reach an amazing 800x or even higher. Like digital cameras, what really matters is the optical zoom index because digital zoom can cause significant reductions in image quality. Digital zoom is actually enlargement by software process rather than true optical magnification.

LCD and Viewfinder

Most camcorders carry both tilt-up viewfinders and LCD screens of relatively large size. The LCD and viewfinder offer instant playback, but the greatest benefit of the LCD and/or viewfinder is the ability to capture exactly what you see onscreen.

The more pixels that are packed onto the LCD or viewfinder, the better the clarity and detail; i.e. an LCD or viewfinder with 200K (200,000) pixels should provide more detail and viewing pleasure than a unit with only 113K (113,000) pixels. Sizes are measured using the screen diagonal - a 3.5-inch LCD screen looks better than a 2.5-inch one. Almost all camcorders carry an LCD screen, but that may not always the case with the viewfinder. In addition, some camcorders provide black and white viewfinders only.

Connectors
Camcorders typically provide one or two types of connector. Firewire (aka IEEE1394, or Sony's i.LINK) and USB are used to transfer data between the camcorder and computer, while the other types include AV (Audio Video) and S-Video, which are used to connect playback/recording devices such as the TV or VCR.

Most MiniDV camcorders feature a single FireWire connection for up to 400Mbps transfer speeds to allow you to copy video data effortlessly to the computer. The requirement is, of course, that your computer has at least one FireWire port (look here for more details). There are other camcorders, mostly DVD or memory card models that provide only a USB connection, which is very convenient as most new computers are built with multiple USB ports. A USB connection supports up to 480Mbps transfer speed when both the camcorder and computer are USB2.0 compatible.

Memory Card

Memory cards are used for the storage of still images or MPEG-1/MPEG-4 video clips (as mentioned above, certain camcorders use memory cards as recording media). Like digital cameras, the size of the memory card you choose should depend on the number AND size of the pictures/movies you plan on storing. Unlike digital cameras, memory card types on camcorders are limited, with the usual suspects being the Memory Stick Duo (Pro), Memory Stick (Pro) and SD/MMC cards.


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Which Camcorder Makes the Most Sense for Me?

A wide variety of camcorder designs have arisen to meet your specific needs. Choose the camcorder that most closely meets your needs and the situations, events and people you will be shooting..

Home/Vacation Video Maker

The home camcorder user wants to capture those special moments in life - birthday parties, graduation ceremonies, baby steps and the wedding; or even vacation and travel. Ease of use is the key here to allow you to perform basic editing and special effects without too much fuss. These camcorders typically cost from less than $400 to around $1500.

For superior image quality you can't go wrong with a 3-CCDs camcorder, which no longer cost an arm and a leg. Also note that the "Minimum Illumination" value is critical for indoors shooting (or shooting in other low light conditions) - the value measured in lux units show the minimum light requirements for the camcorder to deliver acceptable image quality levels.

Business Videographer

Archiving important meetings and presentations and public events/trade shows are what the business Videographer does. Camcorders at this level typically cost between $1000 and $3000. The "Minimum Illumination" value is very important as well as business videographers may perform a lot of indoor shooting.

On a Budget

A camcorder costing under $500 is the price to aim for. There aren't a lot of fascinating features in camcorders in this price segment, however. An entry-level MiniDV camcorder or a slightly bulky Digital8 are still excellent choices that offer relatively high image quality. Memory card camcorders usually cost even less (under $200), but the image quality is the trade-off.

Independent Filmmaker/High End Applications

If you are planning to create serious documentaries, creative videos or independent films, a camcorder that is capable of delivering excellent image quality with a variety of advanced controls is what you are looking for. Compatibility with various lens, sound and lighting accessories is also very important. High-end camcorders are very expensive, however, and range from $1500 to $5000 or even more.

Shooting Still Images

Dramatic increases in camcorder pixel counts have caused many to wonder about the possibility of using the camcorder to shoot great still images in the absence of or as a complete substitute for a digital camera. Nobody wants to carry two devices to perform the same task if one is good enough. Unfortunately, digital camcorder still image quality still has a long way to go to catch up to purpose-built digital cameras, unless you plan on viewing the pictures exclusively on your television set.

That said, camcorders with still image capabilities can still be pretty handy, but not as a complete replacement for a digital camera. For acceptable still images, you will need a 2 Megapixel camcorder (or higher) with flash memory card support.






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