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Friday, November 04, 2005

Dissecting Digital Camcorders

You almost can't go anywhere without someone bringing along a camcorder. And it's easy to understand why: These devices allow you to make a permanent record of big and small events in your life, from family get-togethers to weddings and vacations.

But recently camcorders have changed. They now record video digitally, creating lasting images that look good enough for network TV. In fact, today it's hard to find the analog camcorders of yesteryear.

And that's not necessarily a bad thing. Digital camcorders are decidedly more flexible. You can easily transmit the video they capture to a personal computer for manipulation. Or you can burn the video to DVD, which lasts longer than analog tapes.

But which type of digital camcorder should you choose? Not surprisingly, there are about as many ways of recording digital video as there are personal computing technologies. With the holidays right around the corner, here's a guide to the different types of digital camcorders.
Digital Videotape

Cost: From $300

Pros: Affordable; wide range of options

Cons: Searching the captured video can be a pain

The most common type of camcorder today uses traditional magnetic tape to store video. But unlike your aging VHS video recorder (or the Video8 Handycam you bought five years ago), they do it digitally, so the sound and video are of better quality.

There are three major types: MiniDV, MicroMV, and Digital8. MiniDV camcorders use matchbox-size digital videotapes to store 60 or 90 minutes of sound and video. They range in price from $300 for basic models such as the JVC GR-D250 to many thousands of dollars for professional models like the Canon XL2, which pros have even used to make movies.

Many models in the $400-and-up price range can also double as digital cameras, storing still images on a flash memory card. However, the results are usually not as good as a dedicated still camera, so don't assume you can leave your digital camera at home.

The MicroMV and Digital8 formats were created by Sony, but both are now falling out of favor. MicroMV camcorders like the tiny, $1000 Sony DCR-IP1 use a tape the size of a matchbook, which means the camcorders can be smaller, but the video quality is not as good as that of MiniDV models. Digital8 models like the $300 DCR-TRV280 are fairly similar to MiniDV--the tapes are the same size, and the devices can connect to a PC in the same way, via FireWire/I.Link.

The image quality you get from these digital-tape camcorders is a lot better than what you used to see from their older analog cousins, and you can copy the digital video to a PC for editing and burning to DVD with ease. But the fact that you're using a tape means finding a particular scene can be a real pain. It's rather like trying to find a music track on an old-fashioned audiotape--fast forward, check where you are, fast forward again, and repeat until you find it. And you always run the risk of rewinding to watch a clip, then inadvertently overwriting your video when you start recording again.
DVD

Cost: From $600

Upside: DVDs used can be viewed with most set-top DVD players

Downside: More expensive than MiniDV camcorders; video is even more difficult to edit

Camcorders like the $750 Canon DC10 and the $1000 Sony Handycam DCR-DVD403 that record straight to DVD are becoming increasingly popular for one reason: You can record to DVD, then pop the disc into most set-top players and watch it. And like commercial DVDs, you can fast forward and skip scenes with the touch of a button. Most DVD camcorders even create a menu, allowing you to choose your favorite scenes more easily.

But there are a couple of caveats. The small, 8-centimeter DVDs that these camcorders use can only hold 30 minutes of video. And before you can view the disc in a set-top DVD player, you have to run through a process called "finishing," which can take a few minutes and essentially "locks" the disc so you can't record anything more on it.

DVD camcorders are also more expensive than equivalent MiniDV camcorders, and they make it more difficult to edit video after you've shot it. This means that if you want to take all the video you've shot and put only the good parts on another DVD, it's more awkward with a DVD camcorder than a MiniDV model.
Flash Memory

Cost: $100 and up

Upside: Some are very cheap; others are well-suited for extreme sports fans

Downside: Video quality is lousy

Using the same memory cards as digital cameras, camcorders such as the $100 Aiptek Pocket DV4500 and the $600 Samsung SC-X105L record video without any moving parts. The Samsung is also waterproof and has an external camera pod that you can attach to a helmet so you can record adventures such as skydiving (something that you should never try with a MiniDV or DVD model).

Just for fun, there's even a single-use, flash-memory-based camcorder. Buy the CVS camcorder for just $30, shoot up to 20 minutes of video, then take it back to the pharmacy, and CVS will put your video on DVD. As you might imagine, the video quality leaves a lot to be desired, but it's cheap and could make sense in situations where you might be afraid to take an expensive camcorder.

Overall, flash camcorder technology is still rather new. The video these camcorders produce is of lower resolution and quality than that captured by MiniDV and DVD models. But this is changing. New models such as the $1000 Panasonic SV-AV100 record video that is nearly as good as a MiniDV camcorder, but they are expensive.
Hard Drive

Cost: $800 to $1000

Upside: Can hold a lot of video that's easy to edit and copy

Downside: Relatively expensive; unproven technology

The new kids on the camcorder block use a hard drive instead of a tape, DVD, or memory card. Models such as the $800 JVC Everio GZ-MG30 employ the same hard drives that high-capacity music players like the IPod use. This means they can store a lot of video. The GZ-MG30, for instance, has a built-in 30GB hard drive that can hold up to 10 hours of video. It's enough for even the most ardent video users to record what they want without ever changing tapes. And editing the video is a breeze: Just connect the camcorder to a PC via the USB port and you can copy video to the PC's hard drive with a couple of mouse clicks. Now you're ready for editing and burning DVDs.

Richard Baguley is a San Francisco Bay Area freelance writer who takes videos of his dog, Fester. He also blogs about camcorders and digital video for Camcorderinfo.com.

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