When it comes to capturing life’s precious moments, a camcorder does it best. With so many models on the market today, having a clear idea of what is important to you will help make the purchasing process much less painful.
First of all, determine what is most important to you. Do you want a machine that is easy to use and fits comfortably in your hand? Is picture quality the most important feature? For some, it’s convenience of playback, or copying the data to another format. For others, price is the determining factor. A technophobe may prefer a simple point and shoot camcorder, while a techie may crave high quality above all else.
There are two basic formats for recording video: analog and digital. Analog is the mode that our VHS VCRs use, as well as our standard television sets. The analog formats that camcorders use include 8mm, Compact VHS, SVHS-C and Hi8. While many of these work just fine, some do not provide the same picture and sound quality that many newer, digital formats do.
If you want to feel secure that your camcorder won’t be outmoded before your new baby is out of diapers, you may want to consider going digital. There are three main digital formats for recording: MiniDV, Digital8 and DVD. Newer models with flash media recording record video onto Secure Digital (SD) cards and memory sticks — these are often very pricey and provide lower quality picture due to the compression of the data.
The MiniDV is becoming a favorite in the camcorder market due to its rapidly descending price and high quality of video recording. It has virtually no compression, and the tapes are small. This allows the camcorder to be smaller in size, because it doesn’t have to accommodate a large recording media.
The MiniDV uses 6mm MiniDV tapes, which average around 6 US Dollars (USD) apiece and allow 60 to 90 minutes of recording time. The video resolution is 500 lines, which is very good quality. Many supporters of the MiniDV believe that it’s best for editing, and the machines are usually quite innovative.
Digital 8 camcorders are another popular type of digital camcorder. This type of camcorder uses a Hi8, 8 mm tape, which is usually around 4 USD. It is compatible with analog 8mm/Hi8 tapes, which is nice if you have an older camcorder. It records at a video resolution of 500 lines, and the tapes allow for a 60 minute record time. They are generally lower in price than MiniDV or DVD camcorders.
The DVD camcorder records video directly onto a DVD. This type of camcorder is great for users who have problems delaying gratification. The best feature of this type of camcorder is that you can simply pop the DVD into your own DVD player, but make sure it’s compatible. With a DVD camcorder, there's no hooking up mountains of cables or transferring from tape to computer to DVD, no wait. It does, however, compress the data a great deal more than other digital camcorders, so the quality suffers — unless you buy a very high-end model.
The advanced technology of digital camcorders makes them significantly more expensive than analog models. However, Mini DVD discs tend to be inexpensive.
Next, you must consider how long you’ll be recording for, and if you’ll need a camcorder with room for an expandable battery for extended shoots. Also, decide if you’d like more manual control to adjust exposure, white balance, focus and shutter speed. Some machines have excellent auto control for users who have no idea how a camera works.
Another feature to consider is the camcorder’s ports. These are where it connects to a VCR, TV or computer. Digital cameras usually have Universal Serial Bus (USB) ports to digitally transfer footage to a computer. Most camcorders have Audio/Visual (A/V) ports to transfer via analog to a television. An S-Video port is much like an A/V port, but separates data into separate audio and video plugs, providing a clearer picture. In general, the more ports, the better.
Many people get tricked into selecting a camcorder purely for its accessories. While these are important, many consumers don’t know that if they consider a camcorder either lower or higher in the same product line, they may get just what they need without unnecessary fluff.
Once you’ve decided on the features and accessories you want in a camcorder, it’s also important to consider where you’re buying it. Since it is a big investment, investigate the store’s return policy, shipping rates and reputation before you make your purchase. Many shoppers looking for a good deal mistakenly purchase a camcorder on the “gray market.”