What’s the best camcorder you can buy? It depends on what you need, what you want, and how much
you can spend.
As resident merchant at the Getting Started Stall, I’m frequently asked (oh, all right, twice) which
camcorder is best for first-time users.
My answer begins with an ancient joke: Robber shoves note at bank teller. The note says, “YOUR
MONEY OR YOUR LIFE!” The teller, a graduate student working part-time, scribbles on the note and
shoves it back: “DEFINE YOUR TERMS!”
Exactly! The “best” first camera for you is whichever model meets your personal requirements.
The good news is that those requirements fall into four common-sensical groups: format, complexity,
quality and cost. To define your camcorder terms you perform just two operations:
- Define your needs in each category and,
- Arrange the categories in order of importance.
The resulting hierarchy of desires and constraints will effectively specify your personal best camcorder. So let’s see how this process works. As we go through it, remember that decisions in each
category affect other categories (and just about everything has an impact on cost). That’s why you have to Prioritize the categories themselves in order to make a buying decision.
We’ll start with the critical question of format.
“Format” means two things: both the physical forms of the videotape and its protective cassette and
the method of creating the electronic video/audio signal and recording it on that tape.
Consumer formats come in four physical shapes and sizes:
- Regular VHS, which plays in all conventional home VCRs.
- VHS-C, which is the same tape in a smaller cartridge that can still play in regular VCRs when
enclosed in an adapter.
- 8mm, another compact format that’s even smaller but can’t be adapted to play back in a
- DV, a tape so compact that its cartridge is no bigger than a short stack of credit cards and, like 8mm, cannot be played in a regular (VHS) deck.
In addition to physical traits, formats differ in their recording protocols (the ways in which they
transform sights and sounds into coded electrical current):
- VHS and VHS-C use the universal, plain vanilla signal found on the commercial tapes you
rent from Blockbuster.
- The 8mm system uses different electronic protocols for recording the various signals, so even
if you could physically adapt 8mm tapes for VHS playback (and you can’t), your standard VCR couldn’t
read their electronic writing.
- S-VHS and Hi8 systems are physically identical to their regular cousins, but electronically
superior. They require special S-VHS or Hi8 decks for playback. (S-VHS and Hi8 machines can read and
write plain VHS or 8mm too, but regular decks cannot read the better-quality S- or Hi- formats.) Take a
serious look at these formats if you plan to edit. You will often deliver your production on a second- or
third-generation copy. The added resolution of S-VHS and Hi8 will make that copy look far better than the
- DV offers the highest quality of all and, therefore, the greatest advantage for editors. Like S-VHS or Hi8, it will play only in special decks that can read that digital format.
As you scratch your head over all these choices, keep one crucial fact in mind: though each format
can be physically played and electronically read only in its own type of deck, the resulting signal
can be converted to standard VHS and copied by any VCR and displayed on any TV. Even the digital
signal, which is as distinct from all the others as apples are from carburetors, is converted to conventional
analog form for output, so that it can be read and displayed by non-digital equipment.
So what? So don’t worry about compatibility when you select a format. Instead, choose for quality
(VHS/8mm=good, S-VHS/Hi8=better, digital=best) and/or compactness (VHS=big, VHS-C/8mm=small,
The complexity of a camcorder is proportional to how many features it has and how easy they are to
operate. The sophistication of any particular model lies somewhere along a spectrum with convenience at
one extreme and versatility at the other.
The most convenient camera is a true point-and-shooter: insert tape, turn on power, aim at subject,
press record; and if you really feel ambitious, zoom in or out once in a while, just for the heck of it. The
result: video snapshots of perfectly acceptable quality, without a second wasted on mastering the
At the other end of the spectrum, the most versatile camcorders demand a substantial learning
investment but deliver astonishing flexibility in several key areas, the most important of which is
automation overrides. Though simple cameras do a pretty fair job of automatically controlling white
balance, focus, exposure, and audio level, the results are relatively crude and sometimes just plain wrong.
By letting you fine-tune all these settings, more complex camcorders deliver greater control over picture
More complex units are also notable for lens refinements. Filters, for instance, are easier to use
because the threads on the front of the lens are more accessible (some simpler cameras have no threads at
all) and because that front lens element doesn’t rotate as the lens is focused or zoomed. (Rotation ruins the
effect of a polarizing filter.)
Complex lenses often feature optical image stabilization, a system for de-jiggling video images
that works amazingly well. (Other types of upscale camcorders achieve image stabilization electronically
instead. Either way, image stabilization is a highly desirable feature.)
A major group of bells and whistles in complex cameras improves the quality of sound.
Headphone jacks permit you to monitor sound quality while shooting. External mike jacks let you plug in
specialized mikes or microphone mixers. In top-end prosumer models you can even control the recording
volume level manually, a great feature in difficult sound environments.
Perhaps the biggest boost to versatility is an external viewfinder–a color LCD monitor that rotates
so that you can hold the camcorder in almost any position and still see what you’re shooting. External
viewfinders mean that you don’t have to paste your eye to the camera, and that vastly improves both the
steadiness of the image and your comfort in shooting it.
But the most important effect of an external viewfinder is less immediately obvious: it lets you
look at a TV picture instead of through a window. In literal fact, conventional viewfinders deliver TV
images on tiny display tubes; but because of their similarity to the finders on still and movie cameras, tube-
type video viewfinders make you feel as if you were looking through them at the scene you’re taping.
Why does this matter? Because video images are really so different from the reality they purport
to record that they are often surprising and all too frequently disappointing. By showing you the image in a
form that you accept as a TV picture, an external viewfinder alerts you to the tree growing out of Aunt
Edna’s head or the fact that the breathtaking depth of Bryce Canyon has been reduced to a dimensionless
jumble of red and brown blotches.
If external viewfinder camcorders are more versatile, the most flexible models of all offer both
internal and external finders, so that you can choose the viewer to match the shooting situation.
Sophisticated camcorders serve up other forms of versatility as well, but these are the most
After format and complexity, the next major camera qualifier is quality, and you can assess quality in
three ways, by:
- How good are the video and audio recorded by the system.
- How easy and convenient the unit is to operate.
- How sturdy and reliable the machinery is.
High-end equipment produces tapes that do look and sound better (although evaluating this is like
judging audio equipment: it’s easier to compare results from two different systems, side-by-side). To be
fair, however, I have used $400 (street price) regular VHS camcorders that delivered gratifyingly good
picture quality, along with quite acceptable sound.
Uptown hardware is often, though by no means always, easier to use because the manufacturers
have included expensive conveniences. For instance, it’s simpler to enable camcorder features by pushing
buttons than by stepping through on-screen menu trees as dense as the IRS voice-mail system. But electro-
mechanical buttons and circuits are far more costly than microchip-based functions, so they tend to show
up in higher-end hardware.
Finally, better equipment lasts longer before breaking, and with repair people charging $100 to
say “Good Morning,” the longer time between failures, the lower the total cost of ownership.
In some cases, lower-quality features are simply unrepairable. On one of my cameras, the
threaded brass collar forming the tripod socket was fitted by physically trapping it between the two halves
of the plastic camera body shell. When the plastic around the collar fatigued and spread, it popped out; and
there was no way to reattach it. The camcorder remained perfectly functional, except that I couldn’t use it
on a tripod.
On another cheap camera, the diopter lens in front of the viewfinder (for adjusting the picture to
individual eyesight) had a cheesy snap-on hinge. Result: I lost two of them that dropped off during the heat
of fast shooting.
Aside from peering at tripod threads and finder diopters, how can you check for quality? Rating
design solutions like these can be difficult, but quality is evident in a number of highly visible areas.
The most obvious quality indicator is format. As noted previously, S-VHS or Hi8 recording
systems produce better results than plain VHS or 8mm; and digital recording is clearly the best of all.
Cameras that use these systems tend to be better quality overall.
The next big quality flag is the camera’s imaging chip or, significantly, chips, plural. Most
amateur/prosumer camcorders (including some digital-format models) use a single charge-coupled device
(CCD) to convert optical images into electrical signals. The best camcorders, however, split the incoming
light three ways, recording each primary color on its own chip.
Three-chip cameras produce sharper pictures and better color because they have three times as
much surface area and because technicians can fine-tune the processing circuitry for each primary color.
(Be aware, however, that three-chip cameras operate less efficiently in very low light levels, because they
must split the incoming illumination three ways.)
The final measure of quality is more subtle, whether you’re rating a camcorder or a sports sedan: it
involves the feel, fit, and finish of the unit and its components. There’s no easy way to quantify slipshod
design, cheap materials, and indifferent workmanship. But cheesy quality is like pornography, as the
Supreme Court justice famously described it: you can’t define it but you know it when you see it.
Since the price of a camcorder depends strongly on factors like format, features, and quality, which
we’ve already covered, why treat cost as another factor in its own right? For two reasons: because costs are
also influenced by intangibles (which is why people buy Bentleys and Rolex watches) and because the
price you pay may be determined quite simply by the amount you have to spend.
In the department of intangibles, I can think of two manufacturers–call them Japan, Inc. and
Korea, Ltd.–who make very good video equipment, including camcorders, VCRs, and monitors. Because
of the prestige of Japanese electronics in general and Japan, Inc.’s decades-old reputation, its products cost
about one-third to half again as much as comparable hardware from Korea, Ltd.
I first bought K.L. products because they were cheap; but since I’ve discovered their quality, I now
look to them first, regardless of price. On the other hand, if you’re new to camcorder buying, you may very
well want to pay a premium to get a brand name that you know and trust.
As for how much you have to spend, the reality is that those of us who don’t play pro ball or own
Microsoft need to watch the pennies. So many of us may start looking for a camcorder by saying
something like, “Okay, I can budget 800 clams for a camera; now what can I get for that?”
Lining Up Ducks
Which brings us around to the second and last phase of defining our camcorder needs: prioritizing the
categories of format, complexity, quality and cost.
As noted, many of us care less about white balance than bank balance. For us, the funds available
for a camcorder determine every other buying decision.
Other folks lead with format, especially if they value the compact size and shooting convenience
of the VHS-C or 8mm systems. On the other hand, teachers like me often go for full-size VHS camcorders
with big, accessible controls. Prosumer and entry-level professionals usually choose full-size models for
their ruggedness and stability.
Complexity, of course, depends largely on the features included in the package. One school of
video newcomer wants no truck with video technology. Their objective is to pick it up, turn it on and blast
away, without a thought to how anything works. The opposite school wants the greatest versatility and
personal control obtainable. Choose your party.
Money permitting, quality is always a sound investment. We want our programs to look and
sound as good as broadcast or cable products, and we want our hardware to serve us for years without
failure or hassle.
Fact is, if quality were my driving criterion, I’d invest in a digital format, three-chip camcorder
from a certain highly respected company.
Let’s just call them “Japan, Inc.”