How to Buy a Camcorder
Last updated on 03/19/2009
Buying a camcorder isn't as straightforward as it once was. The vast array of resolutions, storage formats, and body configurations make it difficult to discern which one is best suited for your particular situation. It's easy to get caught up in the specifications and numbers presented
By retailers and manufacturers, using them to rank camcorders as "better" or "worse" without considering how they'd actually be used in your life. This short guide will walk you through the tangle of information and help you discover the right camcorder for you.
Step One: Decide How You're Going to Use the Camcorder
Before you do anything, decide how you're going to be using your new camcorder. You should ask yourself: what kind of home movies do you want to shoot?
Traditionally, people have used camcorders to record important memories like graduations, birthday parties, and vacations, events that become part of a family's historical record. These videos tend to be longer, and are usually watched on a television in a living room.
In the new millennium, however, short video clips have also become popular, as people begin to share little bits of levity on YouTube or through email. These videos are usually candid, spur-of-the-moment recordings that happen off the cuff. They're not as significant, perhaps, as the longer, special-event videos, but have become a fun, exciting aspect of modern camcorder use.
Deciding whether you wish to primarily shoot longer videos or short Web-ready clips (or both!) is a good first step toward finding a camcorder you can be comfortable with.
Step Two: The Importance of Ergonomics
The design and construction of a camcorder is important, as an easy, comfortable experience will ensure that you're able to take excellent videos as often as you like. If you're old enough to remember the first wave of camcorders, those shoulder-mounted monsters that recorded directly to full-size VHS cassettes, you'll understand how serious this issue is.
Thankfully, today's camcorders are all incredibly small and lightweight. There are some differences in design, however, that must be considered when purchasing a new camcorder.
The most familiar camcorders use the long, barrel-like configuration and can fit easily in the palm of one's hand with the use of a side-strap. These camcorders conform to the shape of one's palm and have buttons specifically laid out to be easily reached by the fingers as they wrap around the device.
Some newer camcorders, like those designed to shoot short Web-video clips, look more like cell phones than the camcorders of yesteryear. They are brick or candy bar shaped, and are often oriented vertically, so you would hold them like a cell phone, instead of horizontally, like a digital camera.
Much can be learned about a camcorder from its body shape and design. They tell you something about what the manufacturer intended when they created it. For example, a slim, candy-bar-shaped camcorder is easy to slip in a pocket and to grab quickly so you can start recording without missing a beat. It would not be very comfortable however, for shooting an hour-long graduation ceremony. That kind of job is best suited for the palm-fit traditionally shaped camcorder, which in turn would not exactly excel at capturing short clips and definitely won't fit in your pocket.
Step Three: Resolution Isn't Everything
Common sense dictates that high-definition, meaning video that is shot in resolutions of 1920 x 1080 pixels or 1280 x 720 pixels, is superior to standard-definition, or video that is shot in 640 x 480 pixels. Some newer SD camcorders can shoot in widescreen, too, at a resolution of 720 x 480 pixels, but the quality is still much lower than HD video.
On the surface, that is true: high-definition video contains more detail than standard, and is also displayed in a widescreen format suitable for today's HDTVs. When looking at camcorder specifications and prices, however, common sense doesn't always hold up.
If you were to view a selection of currently available high-definition camcorders, you would see several HD models available for between $150 and $250 and the rest of the HD models in the $700 to $1,400 price range. In between $250 and $700, no HD camcorders will be found, only standard-definition camcorders.
What, then, is the difference between a $250 high-definition camcorder and a $700 high-definition camcorder? And why is a standard-definition camcorder, which records in lower resolution than a high-def camcorder, more expensive (between $300 and $700) than the cheapest HD models?
Well, typically, the less expensive HD models shoot in 1280 x 720 pixel resolution and the more expensive use 1920 x 1080 pixel resolution, which can account for some of the difference between the low and high-end HD models, but not all of it. It does not account for the difference between the middle-priced 640 x 480 (720 x 480 pixel if widescreen-capable) pixel SD camcorders and the low-priced 1280 x 720 pixel HD camcorders.
The dirty little secret is that those cheap high-definition camcorders lack just about every other possible feature you'd want. Though they offer high-resolution, highly-detailed videos, they have no optical zoom, no image stabilization, no still-photo capability, no manual controls, and a fairly limited storage capacity (usually about 60 minutes of video). Now, that's not to say that these camcorders aren't useful; they are, for taking brief video clips intended for sharing on the Web. But just because they're HD doesn't mean you're going to get a video that looks good. They're not nearly as capable as the high-end HD models and the mid-range SD models will, in some respects, offer superior performance and video.
Step Four: The Different Types of Storage Media
In the old days, video was stored on cassette tapes, first the standard VHS cassette, then smaller cassette formats like MiniDV, which until recently was the best choice for camcorder shoppers. Now there are a number of different storage media for consumers to choose from, each with its own strengths and weaknesses. They are:
- MiniDV: Still alive and kicking, this format records standard-definition video to compact cassette tapes. It offers between 5 and 7 hours of recording time, depending on the quality settings. Camcorders that record to MiniDV are very cheap, and are good for consumers who are on a budget.
- Mini DVD: These camcorders record standard-definition video to mini DVD discs that are 3 inches in diameter. These discs hold between 30 and 120 minutes of video and can be played in most traditional, tray-loading DVD players. These camcorders are affordable and a good choice for those looking for a physical format that's easy to store and easy to share.
- Hard Disk Drive: Hard Disk Drives, like the ones in your computer, can be found in camcorders that shoot standard-definition or high-definition, and in both cases they provide a staggering amount of storage capacity. The amount of video it can hold depends on how many GB are available (the highest HDD capacity at the moment is 120GB), but you'll almost never have to worry about running out of space. Videos must be imported to a computer for sharing or burning to DVD. Hard Disk Drives have moving parts, and are somewhat susceptible from damage due to shaking or bumps.
- Flash Media (Internal): Like having a flash memory card permanently embedded in the camcorder, internal flash media provides the advantages of a hard disk (high capacity, internal memory) without the drawbacks (no moving parts). Flash Media can be found in both standard and high-definition camcorders, and the memory can often be expanded with removable memory cards.
- Memory Card: Recording video to a Memory Card is a lot like recording to flash media, except you can remove the card and swap it out for a fresh one when you're done. They make storage, adding more capacity, and transferring to computers easier. Some camcorders only record to memory cards, but a lot of camcorders that use HDDs, internal flash media, and even Mini DVDs also allow for recording to removable memory cards.
MiniDV and Mini DVD camcorders tend to be the least expensive. The cost of Hard Disk Drives and Flash Media depend on their capacities, though HDDs are typically cheaper than camcorders with internal Flash Media. HDDs are more often found on mid-priced standard-definition camcorders.
Step Five: Figuring Out Your Profile
Using the above information, you can cobble together a user profile of what kind of camcorder user you intend on being. Design, ergonomics, form factor, resolution, price, storage media, and intended use combine to give you a clearer picture of what camcorder is in your future. Once you've fully grasped how each of those elements affects your camcorder experience, separating the good from the bad should be a piece of cake.