Choosing a Camcorder: Formats and Features

There are several criteria you should know when shopping for the "perfect" camcorder. Next to budget, the most important choices will be the recording format and options.

Written by Scott Wasser - If toasters were like camcorders, fewer people would be browning bread. Imagine walking into the store to purchase a toaster and having to choose between models using a myriad of different heating elements: metal filaments, radiant glass tubes, ultrasonic vibration, nuclear fusion, or an antimatter warp core powered by dilithium crystals.

That’s exaggerating the camcorder conundrum facing consumers… but not by much. Forget about relatively simple choices like camera size, shape, and zoom lens range. You can even set aside the standard definition-versus-high definition decision for now, since that’s probably going to be determined by your budget.

The most difficult – and arguably important – choice camcorder shoppers face is determining the medium to which their camcorder will record. That’s crucial because there are four distinct and incompatible mediums currently used by camcorders, and they determine maximum recording length, ease of playback and editing, camcorder size/shape, and – to an extent – video quality. Kind of makes you long for the good old days when home camcorder buyers only had to choose between behemoths using Betamax or VHS.

Most of today’s camcorders – whether they’re SD or HD models – record to one of four mediums: MiniDV tape, MiniDVD, flash memory card, or internal hard disc drive. The latter is often listed on spec sheets as HDD, so camcorder shoppers may come across an HD HDD camcorder, an SD HDD camcorder, or an HD MiniDVD camcorder. There also are SD and HD camcorders that record to SD (SecureDigital) memory cards.

Choose Your Media
All of that might make for a good Abbott & Costello routine… if the comedians were still alive and if getting stuck with the wrong format camcorder for your needs was a laughing matter. But run out of recording space on a memory card camcorder without a spare card in sight, or try playing a high-def MiniDVD on an incompatible player and you’ll find that camcorder formats are nothing to joke about. So let’s take a brief look at each one.

MiniDV tape: The first and most popular digital video recording medium, these little tapes are still common in today’s camcorder marketplace. Readily available and very affordable, they use less compression during recording than other formats, so video quality is generally slightly better with tape than any other current recording medium. Starting prices for top quality MiniDV tapes are around $2 for standard tape and $4 for the HD version (standard quality tape generally works fine in most high-def MiniDV camcorders). Standard MiniDV tape cartridges can hold 60 or 80 minutes of best-quality standard- or high-def video (thanks to the latter’s higher compression algorithms). MiniDV HD tape is available in 63- and 85-minute lengths.

MiniDV tape’s major shortcoming is its linear recording and playback. That means finding a particular scene to watch or a blank space on which to record can be a pain. You’ll also need to connect the camcorder to your TV for viewing tapes, and have a FireWire (iEEE 1394) connection on your PC for transferring video to it for editing. Once transferred to a computer, however, MiniDV content is faster, easier to edit, and compatible with more video editing programs than other camcorder format video.

MiniDVD: Do you know anyone with a TV who doesn’t also own a DVD player? Probably not, which explains why MiniDVD disc camcorders are now the most popular standard-definition models. It’s hard to beat the convenience of making a video and being able to play the 3-inch MiniDVD in a home, car, or hotel room, or on a laptop or portable DVD player without having to connect the camcorder. Random access, which makes it easy to find or replay a favorite scene, is another MiniDVD advantage. But the convenience of MiniDVD camcorders – which may use DVD-R/RW, DVD+R/RW, or DVD-RAM discs – comes at a price.

They are typically larger than other format camcorders, produce slightly inferior video, and are more costly to operate (single-use discs that can record up to around 30 minutes of best-quality video cost around $4; double that for reusable discs). Finally, there can be compatibility issues. Most DVD players won’t play the DVD-RAM discs recorded by some camcorders or the AVCHD-format recordings made by high-def camcorders (which will play on most but not all Blu-ray players).

Flash Memory: Camcorders that record to internal memory and removable SecureDigital (SD) or Memory Stick cards are soaring in popularity for several reasons: Flash memory models tend to be among the smallest, lightest, and most rugged camcorders. Those that use memory cards make it easy to transfer video to a computer using a card reader, and because cards are sold everywhere, users never need to worry about running out of recording space. It’s impossible to pinpoint the video capacity of a given card size because these camcorders record in various formats and at variable bit rates, so check the manufacturers specs (which tend to be pretty accurate).

Card prices also are difficult to pin down because they keep dropping and because larger capacity cards generally cost more per gigabyte than smaller ones. Unfortunately, memory cards are still pretty pricey, so you’ll probably buy one or two cards and reuse them. That means you’ll need to regularly download your video to a computer or burn it directly to DVD recorder. Until you do that, you’ll need to connect the camcorder to a TV to view your videos. Many flash memory camcorders come with docking stations that simplify that task.

Hard Drive: These camcorders share most of the characteristics of flash memory camcorders with one major exception: They capture video on a miniature internal hard drive instead of a static memory chip or removable card. That means they’re not quite as durable, and once their drives reach capacity, you can’t add more recording space by simply popping in a new card. Most hard drive camcorders have enough capacity for hours of recording, however, and like flash memory and MiniDVD camcorders they offer random access playback and worry-free recording (they automatically record to blank space). They’re cheap to operate because you never need to buy another tape or MiniDVD, but hard drive camcorders obviously need to be connected to a computer or a TV for downloading their video and/or viewing it.


Features, Features, Features
Once you’ve decided what recording medium is right for your camcorder, you can start thinking about other features that tend to be pretty common to all camcorders. Here are some features to consider:

Zoom factor: Manufacturers specify how much a camcorder can zoom in – magnify – a subject as a factor of X. So a 10X zoom means the subject will appear 10 times larger at the longest zoom than the widest angle. Generally, the greater the zoom factor, the better. But that’s only true if you’re talking about the zoom length of the lens itself (optical zoom). All camcorders also feature digital zoom capability, which simply means they also can magnify the video they’re capturing. Check out a newspaper using a powerful magnifying glass and you’ll get an idea how much a digital zoom can deteriorate video quality. So try to ignore the digital zoom whether you’re shopping for a camcorder or using one.

Image stabilization: This feature is designed to reduce blur from shaky hands, quivering subjects, and unsteady platforms. Camcorders can have optical and/or digital image stabilization, and both can be effective. But how effective very often depends on the specific camcorder, so be sure to test its stabilization if you have unsteady hands or plan to shoot from, say, a boat or car. Image stabilization, by the way, typically does not compensate for image blur caused by fast-moving subjects (such as race cars). That is more a function of a camcorder’s shutter speed, which is measured in fractions of a second (the smaller the fraction, the better it can freeze action).

Low-light capability: Manufacturer specs almost always include a camcorder’s minimum light requirement for reasonably good video, which is measured in “lux.” The lower the number, the more capable the camcorder should be in low-light shooting situations such as home interiors or auditoriums. Unfortunately, those numbers don’t always accurately forecast how well camcorders work in low light. Once you’ve narrowed down your camcorder choices, it’s always best to try them in low light. Also, some camcorders have a special feature that enables them to record in total darkness, so look for that if you think you might like to shoot, say, wildlife at night.

Still imagery: Every camcorder can shoot still images, but many don’t do it very well. If your camcorder is going to serve double-duty, start by finding one that can shoot stills at 3 megapixels or better. And since megapixels are only one factor in image quality, be sure to eyeball some test images. Finally, for maximum flexibility, be sure the camcorder captures stills to some type of flash memory card. Most do, regardless of the medium used to capture video.

There are many more features you could consider when buying a camcorder – such as audio capabilities, manual controls, connectivity options, and in-camera fade/editing features. But your specific camcorder needs – and budget – will generally determine whether these and other features are crucial, somewhat important, or totally insignificant to you. In the meantime, we’ve given you the important basic info you need to make a sound camcorder buying decision, so start shopping.

Media vs. Feature Chart
MiniDV MiniDVD Flash Memory Hard Drive
Media Cost least expensive inexpensive expensive not applicable
Camera Cost least expensive expensive varies expensive
Video Capacity1 60-85 minutes 30 minutes varies by card size varies by drive size
Video Viewing connect to TV DVD player2 connect to TV connect to TV
Video Download connect to PC3 connect to PC4 PC card reader connect to PC5
Video Editing very easy, precise limited varies by format fairly easy, precise

1 - In highest quality mode.
2 - Some MiniDVD discs not compatible with some DVD players.
3 - Typically a Firewire (iEEE1394) connection.
4 - Typically a USB 2.0 connection.
5 - Firewire or USB 2.0 connection.

Written by Scott Wasser

Electronic House - Inspiration for the Technology Lifestyle


This article does not address the avchd format and it's major drawbacks regarding editing and transferring your recordings to a computer that will most likely not even be able to edit your recordings . Great job bonehead!


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