If, as they say, variety is the spice of life, the choice we have in camcorders today must be a little like a bowl of four-alarm chili. For at least the past decade or so, it could be argued that too much variety is the problem when deciding which is the best digital video camera to select. From basic single-chip models, to the latest three-chip rigs, the world of digital camcorders today offers more choices than any other category of video camera. In order to help you sort things out, let’s take a look at the features and capabilities you can expect to find in basic, intermediate and advanced models with an eye to helping you understand what to look for when you go out to buy your next camcorder.
Finding the Best Digital Video Camera: Entry-Level ($600-$1,100)
Digital cameras enter the market at around $600. Samsung's SC-D80 lists for just $599. Sony produces cameras in a transition format called Digital8 that use Hi8 tape stock but record a digital video signal, the TRV240 ($600) for example. Entry-level Mini DV camcorders are not any more expensive, however, and unless you have an archive of analog Hi8 tapes, you might want to consider Mini DV. Entry-level Mini DV units are sure to sport plenty of automatic controls, like auto focus and auto iris, in addition to laying a visually pleasing picture to tape. Even the most basic DV camcorders are capable of quality videography. And since the Mini DV format is all-digital, every camcorder in this category records video and audio in a format that can be edited on a computer without translation.
Finding the Best Digital Video Camera: Mid-Level ($1,200-$2,400)
At the next level of sophistication and price are Mini DV camcorders that start at around $1,200. These single-CCD units are incredibly popular for vacation videos , family events and other types of typically non-commercial video production. Yet, in the hands of a serious videographer, they are often fully capable of professional work.
As you move up the price scale with a single chip Mini DV camcorder you’ll find three causes for the increase. First, the units will typically get smaller and smaller. Some of them are so small and unobtrusive that it is a snap to toss them in a small bag and tote them along wherever you go. Mid-level Mini DV models are small in size, but they have a large feature set. When you look at two cameras with similar features at two very different prices, you might find that the more expensive camera weighs in at less than a pound (the lightweight Samsung SC-D590, at $1,299, for instance) while the less expensive camera might be nearly three times as heavy.
Second, there are more bells and whistles, some of them useful, some of them less so. While digital sound effects and infrared night mode might have their uses (and they sure are fun), not everyone needs them. An increasingly more important feature may be the ability to take quality megapixel digital still images and save them to a memory card. At $1,699, the Canon Optura 200MC is a fine example.
The third reason for slightly higher prices is more advanced manual controls such as white balance, exposure and shutter speed, offered by camcorders like the $1,500 Panasonic PV-DV852.
While it’s true that a single-chip camcorder won’t typically produce a picture that can compare to the quality level of it’s more expensive three-chip cousins, camcorder manufacturing technology has advanced to the point where – when you pay attention to proper lighting – even a modestly priced single chip Mini DV camcorder will produce a professional picture. Just don’t tell the pros we said so.
Finding the Best Digital Video Camera: High End Three-Chippers ($2,500-$5,000)
At the top of the camcorder pyramid are today’s utterly amazing three-chip digital camcorders. Packed with three imaging chips, one for each color, and other state-of-the-art technology, these incredible devices are fully professional and surprisingly affordable when compared to truly professional gear. The choice of wedding and event videographers as well as corporate and commercial producers, some models in this class are used to shoot feature length movies and network news reports. The quality is astonishing.
At this level, manual control is the name of the game. The variety of professional features on the Canon XL1S ($4,699) include XLR microphone inputs, manual audio level controls, precision manual focus controls, aperture control, manual shutter speed and interchangeable lenses.
The Panasonic AG-DVX100 ($3,795) records 24 progressive frames per second, like film, to facilitate the transfer of the images onto celluloid (provided you also have the thousands of dollars necessary for the transfer). There are models that wirelessly send pictures via infrared to set top receiver or using Bluetooth networking (Sony TRV950, $2,500). JVC’s Streamcorder (GY-DV3000U, $4,635) provides users with direct Internet access to stream video live from the camera to the Web as they shoot.
The bottom line for the camcorder shopper is that there are more features and choices packed into today’s camcorders than ever before. Examine your needs and learn what you can find at each price break. We’re sure you’ll be able to find the best digital video camera to fit both your needs and your pocketbook.
Comparative Shopper’s Grid
For a comparative listing of features and prices of current DV camcorders, pick up a copy of our December 2002 issue, or visit www.videomaker.com.
Mini DV used to be the final word in digital video and, while the market is still dominated by DV, there are a number of other serious digital formats available. MPEG-2 video, similar to what you might find on a DVD or in satellite-transmitted video, can be recorded directly to DVD disc by some camcorders. Sony has also developed it’s own compressed format called Micro MV (Sony IP220, $2,000). At this time, MPEG-compressed video falls solidly in the consumer video category, but the quality is still high, and the features are pretty amazing.
You may also find video cameras that record extremely compressed video to memory cards, but these devices capture short postage-stamp sized clips and are not in the same class as the other cameras discussed here.