Digital Camcorder Buying Guide

In the last twenty years, video cameras, or camcorders, have become almost as common as cameras. The latest big innovation in video cameras was the introduction of the digital video camera. This has made the world of camcorders very high-tech. To simplify the process of selecting a digital camcorder, Krohnert.net Consulting has written this guide that should help make your search a lot easier.

Media Format

Media format has been a defining characteristic of video cameras, ever since the first camera to use something other than a standard VHS tape was introduced. There are several competing formats, that you must understand and choose between. Most video cameras on the market now use one of the following types of media format to record video: SVHS-C, Hi8™, Digital8®, MiniDV, Mini DVD (Hitachi & Panasonic), and MICROMV™ (Sony). SVHS-C and Hi8 are analog tape formats. The other formats are the various types of the new digital video. Analog versus digital video recording can be compared to video cassette tapes versus DVDs. Digital is designed to have much higher quality video, plus most digital video cameras also have additional features, like the ability to easily transfer video on to your computer.

  • MiniDV is the most common format for digital video, and you will find the widest selection of digital video cameras using this format. MiniDV tapes are very small, and as a result, the camcorders can also be very small.
  • Digital8 tapes are the same size Hi8 tapes, named for the 8mm wide tape ribbon. Digital8 camcorders have the ability to play analog 8mm tapes, so if you have an 8mm or Hi8 camcorder, you may want a Digital8 camcorder for play your old video tapes and transfer them to your computer.
  • Mini DVD and MICROMV formats are fairly new, only available from a few manufacturers, and are more expensive than Digital8 or MiniDV, however they have some nice features and if you are willing to spend more money on the latest technology, you may want to consider one of those.

LCD Panel

Almost all recent analog and digital video cameras have LCD panels that act as a easy-to-see viewfinder, and a small screen to view previously recorded video on. Most LCD panels are 2.5″, but a few have 3.5″. 2.5″ is sufficient for most people, and a 3.5″ screen shouldn’t sway your decision on a camcorder. One thing to remember is that the LCD panel will use a lot more battery power than the viewfinder. If you want to conserve your battery for longer recording time, then you won’t want to use the LCD panel very often.

CCD

CCD is a measure of the quality of the digital video being captured. The higher the CCD, the better video quality. CCD is expressed in pixels or megapixels, and is can be anywhere between 250K pixels (.25 megapixels) and 1.25 megapixels.

Color Viewfinder

Most of the new digital video cameras offer color viewfinders, with the exception of the most basic models, which offer black & white only. A color viewfinder makes it easier to see what you are recording, however, this can be accomplished with the LCD panel too, if you opt for a less expensive video camera with a black & white viewfinder.

USB & FireWire (aka IEEE 1394 or i.Link)

Most new digital video cameras have FireWire and USB outputs that you can use to easily transfer video from your camcorder to your computer. USB is a very common type of transfer method that is available on most computers. FireWire is a much faster method of transferring data from your camcorder to your computer, but it isn’t as common on PCs as USB.

If your computer is new, it probably has both USB and FireWire inputs. If it doesn’t have FireWire or USB, you can purchase an expansion card for most desktop computers that will add one or both of these type ports. These expansion cards typically cost about $50. You may also need to purchase appropriate FireWire or USB cables if they didn’t come with your camcorder. These cables are usually about $20-$30.

Night Technologies (aka Zero Lux)

Most camcorders come with recording modes that allow users to record video in low light. Each manufacturer uses similar technology, but uses their own name for this feature:

  • MagicVu (Panasonic)
  • NightAlive (JVC)
  • NightShot and Super NightShot (Sony)
  • Cat’s Eye Lux (Sharp)
  • Lux Minimum Illumination (Hitachi)

This feature allows you to use your video camera in almost complete darkness. For example, many new parents use this feature to record a few precious moments of their sleeping infant.

Zoom (Digital & Optical)

Depending on what you intend to use your camcorder for, zoom may or may not be an important factor. First, you must understand the difference between digital and optical zoom. Optical zoom is the kind of zoom on 35mm cameras. Digital zoom, on the other hand, is artificially zooms in to make objects far away seem larger. We recommend primarily using optical zoom.

Most camcorders offer around 10 times optical zoom. For most video recording, this is more than enough. However, if you know you frequently use your camcorder to record far away subjects, you will want to look at video cameras with higher optical zoom. Some camcorders offer 20-22 times optical zoom on cameras in various price ranges.

Digital camcorders vary greatly in the amount of digital zoom offered, ranging from 120x to 700x digital zoom. Video recorded at high digital zoom levels will appear grainy and extremely shaky, however. For this reason, pay attention to the optical zoom offered with the camera, and don’t be swayed by the large digital zoom.

Picture Mode (“Digital Still Picture Capable”)

Many new camcorders also include a “picture mode” feature. Depending on the manufacturer, this feature may go by many different names. This feature allows you to use your camcorder as a digital camera, by saving still pictures to a removable media device, such as Memory Stick, SmartMedia, and CompactFlash. Typically, the quality of these pictures is less than a comparable picture from a standard digital camera. If you have a separate digital camera, this feature is probably not very important, although it is sometimes convenient to have. If you do intend to use this feature in place of a separate digital camera, look for a camcorder capable of taking still pictures at a resolution of 2.0 megapixels or higher.

Physical Size

For the most part, you can look for the smallest camcorder that has the features you want. Keep in mind that the smaller the camcorder, the more expensive usually. In addition, very small camcorders typically do not offer higher ranges of optical zoom.

The main factor that determines the size of the camera is the media format. Digital8 camcorders are much larger than MiniDV, because the media itself is much larger. They are also a very different shape typically. Many of the MiniDV camcorders are tall and narrow, which you may find easier or harder to hold than a more traditionally shaped camcorder. Deciding on the size and shape of your camcorder comes down to your personal preference. We recommend that you go to a store where you can hold each of the camcorders that you are considering before you make a final decision.

Price

The price of camcorders is based on two major things: the media format, and the extra features (such as night technologies and picture mode).

For the budget conscious, expect to spend about $200-$300 for an analog camcorder. Or if you want a digital camcorder, you can get a Digital8 camcorder for between $400 and $500. MiniDV camcorders also start at $400, but can cost up to $1000 or more, depending on the features. And MicroMV and Mini DVD camcorders start at around $900.

Brand Recommendations

Sony is a pioneer in the camcorder market, and has proven to be a manufacturer of high-quality, easy-to-use, and durable equipment. Other brands, such as Panasonic and JVC, are good alternatives, and feature-for-feature are priced competitively with the Sony camcorders. Unless one of the alternative brands offers a specific feature combination not available from Sony, a Sony camcorder is probably your best option.