Camcorder Buying Guide

Camcorders have become a lot more complicated in recent years, offering more brands, formats, and extra features than their analog ancestors. For the first-time buyer, all the options can be quite confusing. This guide decodes the jargon and helps you better understand your options.

Ten years ago, buying a camcorder required no more thought than choosing a brand and model. Today’s buyer finds himself faced not only with more brands, but with more features to choose from and a lot of jargon to read through. The price range has also widened—you can now start shooting for as little as $60 or plop down $5,000 for a top-of-the-line model. How do you know which camcorder is right for you? Here’s a simple buying guide to help you decide.

Choose a format

For the first-time buyer, choosing a format can be the most confusing part. Where there used to be just cassette tape, you can now record on tape, disc, card, and even a hard drive. Some of your choices include:

MiniDVD. These camcorders use miniature DVD discs (3” across) that fit into the center slot in most DVD players. They offer all the capabilities of regular DVD, from chapter access to quick file transfers, but with the advantage of a smaller form factor and therefore better handling.

MiniDV. The MiniDV format uses Digital8®, a miniature digital tape, which connects to your computer via USB or FireWire for transfer and editing. The sound and picture quality are similar to that of DVD. Most of them have A/V out connectivity so you can watch them directly on your TV.

HDD. This format records on a built-in hard disk drive, giving you a good deal of storage without the hassle of buying discs or tapes. Capacities range from 20GB to 80GB. The hard disk format allows a very compact form factor, so most HDD models are built for style as well.

Flash. The smallest camcorders often use flash memory—a medium that can be the size of a fingernail. Because it’s so small, most flash camcorders can fit in your pocket. Transfer is also a breeze; all you need to do is pull out the memory card and plug it into your computer.

Hybrid. Some people prefer to record on two media at once, whether to edit on multiple computers or simply for backup. Whatever your purpose, a hybrid camcorder gives you exactly that kind of flexibility. Most models couple a hard drive with either DVD or flash memory.

Check for features

When it comes to gadgets, features are a matter of personal preference. A professional videographer can pay hundreds more for an add-on that wouldn’t matter to an amateur. Some features are always worth having, though. Here are some of them:

Optical zoom. When you can’t get close to your subject, optical zoom saves the day. Most camcorders also have digital zoom, but pictures tend to lose quality when zoomed in digitally. For casual shooting and home videos, 6x to 10x digital zoom should be enough.

Still pictures. Many camcorders also take pretty decent stills, although image quality may not be comparable to digital cameras. If you like this feature, try looking for a higher resolution still mode—about 4 megapixels will do—to take better, clearer pictures.

Camcorder lights. This may come in handy when you’re shooting indoors, on overcast days, or other low-light conditions. They won’t provide professional-quality lighting, though—if that’s what you’re after, invest in a separate set of lights.

Viewfinder. The swing-out LCD screen may look cool, but using it all the time can eat up your camcorder’s power. Most videographers use the viewfinder, which lets you save power and improve your focus at the same time.

Connectivity options

Some high-end camcorders let you edit directly on the screen, but in most cases you’ll need to transfer your work to a computer for editing. The most common interfaces are USB and FireWire. The latter allows much higher transfer speeds, making it ideal for large file transfers typically found in HDD camcorders. Not all computers have FireWire ports, though, so compatibility may be a problem.

If you’re getting a flash memory camcorder, it’s best to stick to cable connections to limit manual handling of your card. Flash memory can be very delicate, and even a bit of mishandling can wipe out all your precious memories.