Video camcorders are available in all price ranges and for all types of people - regardless of age or occupation. Knowing the type of camcorder that best suits your needs will result in one happy camper.
The use of video camcorders has exploded and, thanks to digital, the features have multiplied as well. Camcorders are as likely to be used by a grandparent as by a grade schooler, although it's in the use that the two will differ.
A real difference is the price that comes into play when it's time to bridge the level of sophistication between the casual user, enthusiast and professional. Not that technology can't be had at all price ranges - who'd have ever imagined you could get HD resolution for less than $200? However, there are significant aspects of a camera's specifications that affect the way it performs. Such as in whether there's optical zoom versus digital only. Or, the physical size of the image sensor that is capturing the visuals, which may limit image quality. Or the amount of storage capacity; be that internal, external or a mix of both. Or the added functionality that is brought over from a digital camera or other technology (example: face detection, fast auto focus, 3D).
For better or worse, these choices are segmented into categories that are dictated by price. Knowing what to look for in the categories can aid you in deciding just what kind of video camcorder you want, and more importantly, truly need.
Beginners can now use video camcorders that are not only compact in size but in price as well. Most compact cams keep their content on memory hard-wired inside, which means that you will have to off-load the video to your computer. Since USB is the usual means to do this, that's a simple enough affair, even as some of the camcorders employ a built-in USB plug, rather than a slot for attaching to the PC or Mac. Some compact camcorders provide memory slots for added storage. Resolution varies, but unlike just a few years ago, a moderate to high resolution is more the standard.
Of course, price does dictate some compromises, for example, how long the rechargeable battery lasts (if disposable batteries aren't used) as well as having to accept a digital in lieu of optical zoom. Still camera capabilities are often tossed in as well. So call these camcorders the basic building-block models. They're not stripped of features so much as they don't have some of them to begin with. What they give you is the means to view and shoot (with sound) at a moment's notice. That can be a pretty good thing when a fast start up is the issue, for example when a toddler or pet is about to do something cute. Here are some examples of this kind of camera.
JVC PICSIO GC-FM1/$200
This $200 portable gives you HD video, although some might complain about the lack of any optical zoom - there's a 4X digital zoom only. An SDHC card slot (up to 32GBs) requires an added purchase of a memory card since onboard memory is unavailable. Macro-capability is another added benefit, as is the built-in HDMI output. The 1/3.2 inch CMOS optical sensor does its thing and presents it on a 2-inch color screen, which is more than enough real estate for viewing during shooting. It also includes an 8-megapixel still camera, electronic stabilization and a built-in flash as well.
Sony 3D Bloggie HD Camera/$250
This rechargeable Bloggie is similar in many ways to its 2-hour HD recording sibling - for example it employs a USB connector, has digital zoom, a 1/4-inch sensor and still shooting capabilities. But unlike the other Bloggies, this model records in 3D at full 1920x1080p high-resolution. Upping the internal memory (8GBs) means four hours of recording (in 2D) before it's quitting time. And look Ma... no glasses! You can review the 3D view on the 2.4-inch LCD color screen with just your eyeballs working.
For those who want to stretch their video "muscles," but not give up ease or convenience, there's the intermediate video camcorder. These are priced a bit higher than beginner models, but the additional cost translates into valuable features, for example, optical zoom (working with a more expensive, better resolution glass lens) and in-camera editing capabilities. Intermediate camcorders require a bit more effort to use correctly - like manual focus and manual iris compared to that of lower priced cam. A faster startup is common as well, as is a design that makes for longer video sessions, due to more comfortable grips and ergonomic design. These camcorders will still make the grade when it comes to "impulse" shooting, but the results will be more professional. Here are some examples of this kind of camera.
Samsung HMX-H304 16GB Long Zoom Full HD Camcorder/$500
While the name carries most of the description, it doesn't point out that the 3-inch LCD color panel is touch-sensitive, or that the 16GBs of solid state memory is good for three hours of full high-definition video. "Long Zoom" refers to 30X for the optical-grade glass as it transfers what it sees to the 1/4-inch BSI, or Backside Illuminated CMOS sensor whose sensitivity makes it a good choice for low-light imaging.
Canon VIXIA HF M31/$700
This Canon features 32GBs of internal flash memory that can be used for recording. SD card storage is also available. There's a 15X optical glass lens (F-stop 1.8-3.2) for light gathering power, and a 1/4-inch CMOS sensor to process the light. Full 1080p HD resolution, no surprise, and variable recording speeds, automatic exposure and auto white balance (with manual override) will suit your needs at any given time. This camera also has image stabilization, a widescreen touch-screen 2.7-inch LCD color panel for observing and accessing controls, film (24p) and video (30p) frame modes and multiple built-in mics for processing 5.1 surround sound.
Advanced Consumer Cams
Those wanting a more professional video camcorder will turn to the advanced models - also called "prosumer" by some. These models don't forsake features for convenience. They build on solid performance by increasing the capabilities from one end to the other, for example, the light-gathering capacity of the lens and the stability of the image as it's captured. These camcorders play real nice with computer video editing programs, yet while you may be looking at a higher cost than an intermediate model, most are in the $1500 and up price range. Of course the sensor capturing the video is much "beefier" than intermediate models, resulting in a vibrant and highly detailed image, not to mention the camera has more options for audio capturing as well as the ability to add accessories. One thing that will always stand out with a camera in this price range is that you're in control, because manual overrides are present. Here are some examples.
Sony NEX-VG20 Interchangeable Lens Handycam/$1600
Of all the advanced-style camcorders, the Sony NEX-VG20 stands out from the rest. The reason? It has interchangeable lenses - a feature often only found on DSLRs and professional camcorders. Combine this with the camcorder's large APS-C style sensor and the VG20 can capture shallower depth of field than you typically see at this price range. Besides the image, the camcorder includes a quad-capsule spatial array microphone, which supports surround sound recording. In still mode, the camera also captures RAW images which look crisp on the 3-inch LCD screen.
JVC Everio GZ-HD6/$2300
Let's focus on what makes this model stand out - first, a 120GB hard drive working inside (MicroSD slot, too). Add a Fujinon F1.8/1.9 10X optical glass zoom (image stabilized optically as well). Capturing 1080i HD video, courtesy of a 3CCD imaging system (1/5-inch sensor) - incorporating 16:9 progressive scans - it is much smaller than the previous JVC model. It has multiple recording speeds for up to 24 hours of record time, a focus assist to let you be the person in charge and not the electronics, and all the outputs you could ask for (FireWire/iLink, USB, HDMI, etc.), 2.8-inch color LCD screen and a built-in stereo mic too.
There's a point where cost translates into proven value. In this case, that means a few thousand dollars will translate into the best video image you can get without renting high-end, highly expensive gear. The professional-end camcorders are less about "special" features than they are about the quality of the components - this is not where you go to cut costs. What they're all about is giving you greater control over what you're shooting. Blending man and machine, you might say, so that the video results are top-notch. Here are some examples of this kind of camera.
Canon XH A1S/$3999
Though this Canon camcorder shoots in HDV (1440x1080), it still has the ability to capture beautifully crisp images using its series of three 1/3-inch sensors and a F1.6-3.5 lens. The camera has a host of external controls for setting everything from your neutral density filters, to gain, zoom, focus, white balance, audio levels, and exposure. The XH A1 also includes a handy 20x optical zoom, XLR inputs, and optical image stabilization technology for smoother shots. Like any good professional camera, it comes with a large 2.8-inch screen and a BNC-style port to get video to another larger display.
Panasonic Professional AG-HMC40/$1995
The Panasonic's 12X optical F1.8/2.8 Leica Dicomar lens (13 elements in 10 groups) includes a wide-angle setting, an extremely smooth zoom and optical image stabilizing. The 3-megapixel, progressive 1/4-inch 3MOS imagers provide for full HD resolution that ranges from 720p (24/30/60 frames per second) to 1080 (at 24/30 frames per second for 1080p, or 60 frames per second for 1080i). 10.6-megapixel still images can also be taken. There is a 2.7-inch 16:9 color touchscreen LCD and shooting assist functions, including a focus bar, face detection and waveform monitor for green screen work. A remote control can also be used to control functions; for example, zoom, focus and start and stop. Video is stored on a high capacity SD memory card.
Point-Of-View camcorders are designed not just to shoot where ordinary camcorders fear to tread, but to tough out the results when falling to the ground, smacking into a tree or otherwise taking a beating. POV camcorders don't skimp on the features though, some are even capable of shooting underwater video. Here are some examples.
Contour ContourGPS HD/$300
1080p HD recording at 30 frames per second gets lightweight - 5.3 ounces to be precise - in a barrel-like design that begs for gripping. There's still enough space, though, to include an omnidirectional mic and a 135-degree wide-angle lens operating at three resolutions (1080p/960p/720p) and two frame rates (30/60). The camera is capable of shooting stills, too. But it's the extras that rate a bow here: besides being able to shoot PAL (European standard) as well as NTSC, there's built-in GPS to track location, speed and altitude. Bluetooth, meanwhile, turns your iPhone into a remote viewfinder in real-time. The camera is MicroSD card capable, but there's USB out as well, all in one tough aluminum, water-resistant body.
Drift Innovation HD170 Stealth Action Camera/$350
You wouldn't expect a helmet cam-type camcorder to have an LCD screen (1.5 inch) or a 300-degree rotating lens, but the HD170 has that as well as 1080p HD operating at 30 frames a second. You can even turn it into "stealth" with hands-off control, courtesy of an RF remote. Add features like built in memory (32 megabytes) and an SD card slot, 5 megapixel still photos, a night-mode and narrow or wide views - 170-degrees versus 127-degrees depending on whether you choose 1080p or 720p - to find this camcorder becomes useful for almost any situation.
GoPro HD Helmet HERO/$240
The first and foremost feature of the HERO is that it is wearable. Once you get past the fact that the camera is your third eye, you're good to go with a 1080p, 960p or 720p resolution covering everything you see - your choice of 30 or 60 frames a second (60 only at 720p). The HERO can also snap five megapixel still photos. The SD card slot takes care of the storage needs, while the fixed focus glass lens (F-stop/2.8 - 1/2.5 inch HD CMOS sensor) covers a 170-degree wide-angle view (127 in 1080p). Auto white balance and auto exposure control work their magic in conjunction with low-light sensitivity to capture the moment. The camera is waterproof (with the appropriate housing) and shockproof, too.
The Choice Is Yours
What shouldn't be lost in the discussion of which video camcorder best suits your needs is the elephant in the room: the smartphone that records video. Certainly this has made video more intimate, as many people now have their phones grafted to their bodies for all practical purposes, but a multi-purpose device can never perform as well as one that is devoted to a single task. Besides, there's something visceral about pulling out a video camcorder that screams out its purpose - certainly it's not about making a phone call! As long as there are folks looking to capture events, make memories or tell stories, there'll be the need for a video camcorder to be an active participant.
Click here to download a PDF of Videomaker's All Camcorders Buyer's Guide
Marshal M. Rosenthal is a technology and consumer electronics freelance writer.