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Buying a camcorder ... what features are important, and what's just "window dressing?"
Last updated 5-13-03

One of the most harrowing decisions in life is buying a camcorder. For some people, purchasing an expensive electronic gadget like this ranks right up there with buying a new car! What brand, model, features, and extras should you get? Do you need clear-coating? Should you get a digital camcorder, or one of those heavily discounted analogue models?

The world of camcorders can be confusing, so let’s take a look at the features you REALLY need in a new camcorder … features that you will actually use in real life. You might want to print this page and bring it with you when you go shopping:

1. Digital vs. Analogue?
You should definitely go for a digital camcorder, you’ll be you’ll be happier in the long run. Digital camcorders have better resolution, 16-bit sound, the tapes last longer, and it’s easier to edit and archive digital video files. Digital camcorders are no harder to use than traditional analogue models (Hi-8, 8mm, VHS-C) and are operated in exactly the same manner.

2. What type of tape does it use?
There are actually several types of tape that these digital camcorders use … you can blame Sony for this complication.

  • Mini-DV: This is the standard digital tape format. Almost all digital camcorders use this type of tape. The tape cartridges themselves are only half the size of an audio tape, cost about $10-12, and hold 80 minutes of film.
  • Digital 8: Sony’s cheapest digital camcorders record onto cheap Hi-8 tape. These Hi-8 tapes are inexpensive (about 5 dollars), hold 60 minutes of film, and are easy to find in stores. However, the tapes are also large, so the actual camcorder has to be bigger to compensate. The video quality is exactly the same as Mini-DV. Don’t let the store salesman convince you that Digital 8 is lower quality … it’s the same digital DV-AVI signal, just on different tape. In fact, Sony camcorders tend to have a higher resolution than other brands, so you could even argue that the quality is “higher” than average.
  • Micro-MV: This is another Sony tape format used in their smallest camcorders. I would stay away from this format entirely, as the resolution in these camcorders is much lower than normal DV. If you really need a camcorder this small, look at the small JVC camcorders. They are just as tiny, but record onto standard Mini-DV tapes.

3. Portability
The smaller your camcorder, the more likely you’ll actually carry it around and use it. Don’t underestimate this portability factor! After all, what’s the point in owning a camcorder if you’re not going to use it?

4. Batteries (size, cost, availability)
Be sure to price batteries. The standard battery that comes with your camcorder is small and generally won’t last for more than an hour of use. You’ll need to buy a spare at some point. All digital camcorders use proprietary lithium ion batteries – these lithium batteries are great because they’re light, efficient, and don’t have “memory problems” like Ni-Cads. However, they can be expensive and tend to die after a few years.

5. Input and output ports
Most digital camcorders will have A/V jacks for sending video to your TV and a firewire (IEEE 1394) jack for exporting video to your computer. But what about input jacks? This is not important for most people, but if you want to transfer old videos onto digital tape, you’ll need a camera with A/V inputs as well.

6. Future upgradeability
You may want to upgrade your camcorder with a lens or external microphone. All but the smallest camcorders have lens threads that allow you to screw on a wide-angle lens (great for filming in small rooms or cars). Also, most camcorders have a microphone jack where you can plug in an external microphone or lapel mic. However, if you want to mount a “shotgun mike” onto your camera, you’ll need a camcorder with a “microphone shoe.” Many of the smaller camcorders don’t have room for a shoe, forcing you to use only the built-in microphone. (which is just fine for most circumstances, anyway)

7. Zoom
Zoom is NOT important. You shouldn’t be concerned about zoom levels at all. Most camcorders have at least a 3x optical zoom. Higher than this, and your film becomes unwatchable from all the hand shaking. Besides, excessive zooming is nauseating to watch and is one of the hallmarks of a beginning videographer. Don’t be impressed by huge “digital” zoom numbers – digital zoom just means the camcorder is enlarging the central pixels (it’s not a real optical zoom).

8. Gimmicky features
NightShot, fades, negative video, stretch, sepia coloring … these extra “special effects” are just built in gimmicks meant to impress you in the store. You’ll probably never actually use any of them in real life. For example, Sony’s NightShot feature is fun, but isn’t useful in real life because it makes your eyes look white like a vampire.

As you can see, there are a lot of things to consider when buying a digital camcorder. Fortunately, there aren’t really any “bad” digital camcorders out there, so you can’t really make a wrong decision here. Possibly the greatest factor for picking a camcorder is the “feel factor” … if the camcorder has the features you need, and feels great in your hand, than it’s probably the one for you. Good luck!

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