Mini DV Camcorders: Little Cams, Big Results

Buying a Mini DV camcorder is like buying a car: though the priciest models cost eight times as much as the cheapest, they all have essentially the same parts and they look similar to the uninitiated. So why spring $4,995 for a JVC GY-DV500U when a Samsung SCD67 has an MSRP of $600?

Or, to go even further, why not just get a nice analog camcorder for $300 on the street? The short answer is, if you don’t plan to copy or edit your tapes, go right ahead: the quality of Hi8 camcorders is quite good. Otherwise, Mini DV is an overwhelmingly superior format because you can make exact digital copies, you can make edits without loosing quality and (with some maintenance) you can make your precious videos last forever. Also, the ability to connect with a single cable and edit digital footage with an up-to-date desktop computer is amazingly powerful, even with software you can learn in an hour.

So let’s make a quick survey of the Mini DV format, to help you decide how much camcorder to buy and how much to pay for it.

For the Casual Shooter

Today, you can find many fine DV camcorders for $1,000 or less, all chocka-block with nifty features. Models like the Panasonic PV-DV101, the RCA CC9360 and several others use imaging chips (CCDs) with a generous 680,000 pixels, which produce very high-quality video images.

A few entry-level cameras lack some useful features that might be found in a more expensive camcorder. If you just want to point and push, you may not miss the lack of manual shutter, iris, focus or white balance; but you can’t take control of your camcorder without them. Many models lack analog (S-video and/or composite) inputs, which means you cannot copy your old tapes to the camera in order to convert them to the DV format for archiving.

The Canon ZR20 is one of several models with a color viewfinder, which is better than black and white because it shows a truer picture of what you’re getting (external screens are not as accurate as internal finders.)

Finally, a couple of camcorders in the under-$1000 category, like the Sharp VL-WD450U, can capture stills on memory sticks that can be inserted in card readers and uploaded into your computer. Models with tape-only stills record each as a several-second freeze frame, which must be located and transferred like any other video shot, and that’s a far less convenient process.

For the Serious Hobbyist

And what do you get if you move up to the $1,000 to $2,000 price range? Part of the answer’s easy: all the desirable features mentioned previously that are often missing from low-end camcorders. If you consult the matrix, you’ll see that these models are loaded.

Because you’ll be using more accessories at this level, you’ll want an accessory shoe to hold a movie light or an external microphone. The Sony DCR-TRV17 and the Canon Elura 10 both have this desirable feature. A headphone jack is indispensable for any serious sound recording: think of headphones as a viewfinder for your ears. Most models in this range include them but a few omit this basic accessory.

In the $1,000 to $2,000 range, look for two very desirable editing features: remote controls and docking stations. The JVC GR-DVM55 has both. In shooting, a remote is useful for wildlife photography and other special applications. In editing, however, it is essential, because you can set your camcorder safely aside and run all its controls from the remote.

A docking station works just like the same animal on a laptop. Instead of wrangling spaghetti cords and tiny plugs and sockets every time you lash up your edit rig, just plug everything permanently into the docking base and then attach the camcorder when you are ready to edit.

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For the Budding Professional

Camcorders between $2,000 and $5,000 are intended for the dedicated amateur, for education, corporate and government applications and even broadcasting.

The quality imaging of many of these camcorders comes from a three-chip design. By directing each primary color of white light to its own dedicated CCD, they obtain better color and higher resolution than single-CCD camcorders.

High-end camcorders also add key professional features. The Canon XL1S for example, offers interchangeable professional-grade lenses, including several designed for it, in particular.

Another major improvement is in professional XLR microphone inputs, which are far superior to amateur mini-plugs for many reasons. In addition, one model, the JVC JY-VS200U, includes an audio level meter built right into the viewfinder.

Finally, some high-end models use optical image stabilization instead of electronic. Though both systems work well, the optical approach generally results in higher resolution and higher video quality.

Last but far from least, the best Mini DV camcorders are engineered and built with satisfying ruggedness and precision. To return to our auto metaphor, the controls work with the elegant, positive feel of a BMW or Jaguar with what the French like to call "exactitude."

How (and Where) to Buy

Like car shopping, buying a camcorder should involve judicious test drives; but how are you supposed to do this? Most local camera stores have dropped camcorders completely; though if you live in a megacity, you can find camera and video supply stores with dozens of models in stock and knowledgeable staff to help you. If you don’t, your other options may be, frankly, less than ideal.

X-Mart and other general retailers are OK for low-end products, but selection is limited and the salespeople are typically not experts. The giant appliance and electronics chains usually have a staff that may know a bit more and their model selection is usually wider. In both outlets, you face camcorders locked onto two-foot leashes with no tapes or batteries to allow a real test.

What about e-commerce? The Internet is a great place to shop and compare prices; and many e-merchants provide elaborate camcorder features, benefits and specifications. Comparison shopping services like Amazon and My Simon may be useful. Virtual testing of the camcorder over a broadband connection is still science fiction, so do your research. Most manufacturer Web sites offer elaborate product information, complete with full-color pictures from several angles. Some also post complete on-line manuals (often in .pdf format). While you will want to read a manufacturer’s claims with a skeptical eye, many products are reviewed by people all over the Internet, with astonishingly thorough tests, analyses, and candid criticisms. Again, a healthy dose of skepticism is warranted, as it is difficult to judge the credibility of these citizen advocates (people are often glowing about their own $2,000 purchases). To reach these resources, simply enter a camcorder make and model in and search engine and start surfing.

Can you safely buy online? Yes, especially from long-established firms with solid reputations. However, it may be better to take a hybrid approach: let your eyeballs do the walking on the Net; then, when you’ve settled on a probable vendor, telephone them, consult their sales staff, and make your actual purchase by phone. This makes it easy to settle prices, shipping charges, payment methods and return policies.

When you shop by phone, try negotiating the price in a polite way. Some companies are firm (and some manufacturers mandate hard floors that resellers cannot go below), but others will listen to legitimate prices you’ve secured from competitors and then see what they can do for you. In some cases, the camcorder price is set, but you can get substantial reductions on extra batteries, lens converters, filters and tripods.

So without further ado, study our camcorder model matrix, highlighter in hand, to identify the features you seek in the price range you can afford.

Then, when it’s time for you to throw down some cash and purchase your next camcorder, you’ll have all of your questions answered before you even speak to the retailer.

The Videomaker Editors are dedicated to bringing you the information you need to produce and share better video.