Annual Camcorder Buyer’s Guide 2013: Brands, Pricing and Features

With great video coming from relatively affordable smartphones, pocket camcorders and specialty rigs, think 3D and extreme sports, as well as traditional handheld or shoulder supported camcorders, acquiring that first production unit no longer has to break the bank. Technological advances have brought vast improvements to even the least expensive units, making quality production a possibility at virtually every price point.

There’s a crossover market now, with professionals acquiring low-priced units — throwaways, they call them, for special up-close and action acquisition, while the pricing for more sophisticated camcorders has dropped to the level that amateurs and hobbyists no longer have to settle for something underwhelming.

Consumer Camcorders

The range is huge and $500 will buy you a lot of off-the-shelf production ability. Nudge the budget upward to $2,000 and the line between consumer and prosumer becomes fuzzy indeed.

Canon, Panasonic and JVC camcorders
Canon, Panasonic and JVC camcorders
The major brands, from Canon to JVC, Panasonic to Polaroid and Sony all offer options in the consumer bracket, ranging in price from $500 to $2,000. Some will have viewfinders, good for sunny outdoor use, many will not. This group offers recording to built-in hard drive, flash drive and/or slots for memory cards or other storage devices. The most telling difference in low-priced consumer units and the next step up will be lack of audio monitoring capability, stereo mic inputs and white balance or other desired manual functions.

Sony, Panasonic, JVC and Canon all offer something in the AVCHD variety for much less than $2,000. The Panasonic HC-V720 ($550) offers good image quality and comes with surround sound capabilities, manual focus, stereo mic and a 21x optical zoom, making the optical image stabilization a welcome feature. Sony steps up to the plate with its HDR-CX380/B ($450), offering touch screen functions, wide angle G lens and mic jack. For $600, the HDR-PJ380/B includes a built-in projector.

Canon’s VIXIA HF R42 ($500) continues its popular line of affordable HD camcorders, providing all the primary features a discerning video producer likes to have. This camcorder has internal storage as well as a memory card slot and optical image stabilization, to name a few features.

Pocket Camcorders

Polaroid offers a range of pocket camcorders ranging in price from less than, to about $200 and featuring waterproof HD units, a model with Wi-Fi (iD450, $280). In addition to the major brands, Coby, GE, Samsung and Vivitar, along with Blackmagic Design offer a wide variety of shapes and features. The Samsung HMX-W300 ($160) is a full HD pocket camcorder with built-in USB. It is designed to be water, shock and dust proof. Many of the camcorders in this price range, pocket and otherwise, offer HD recording and a good number of them make sharing through Wi-Fi about as easy as it can get.

Pocket camcorders are all over the place in the features department and there are several that have earned broad consumer nods of approval. Take a good long look at the offerings here and with manufacturers we may have missed, and between in-store tests of usability and needs for durability, and memory options, you are bound to come up with a personal winner that will do just what you want it to.

There’s a crossover market now, with professionals acquiring low-priced units while the pricing for more sophisticated camcorders has dropped to the level that amateurs and hobbyists no longer have to settle.

Prosumer Camcorders

Arguably the sweet spot for features and price, ranging from $1,500 to about $5,000 is the huge field of prosumer camcorders with representation from all the major brands. JVC ($1,600) with its GY-HM70U, shoulder-mount model, featuring dual card slots, manual controls, dual hot-swap battery mounts and high speed capture for slow-motion. A lot of camera for the price, with features that allow it professional consideration.

Panasonic’s handheld AG-AC90A ($2,250) brings 3MOS technology, a 3.5-inch LCD screen, optical image stabilization and XLR connections to the production table for less than a budget-busting price tag. Sony also has models that qualify for prosumer-level acquisition with three models in the $1,800 range and the HXR-NX30U ($2,300) is still well below the $5,000 ceiling for prosumer camcorders. The HXR-NX5U ($4,610) bumps the price ceiling but gives you three 1/3-inch ClearVid CMOS EXMOR sensors, multiple video outputs and XLR inputs, as well as optical image stabilization in a popular body style.

Specialty Camcorders

Sony, iON and GoPro cameras
GoPro probably leads the pack when you think about specialty cameras, units that allow a go-anywhere, shoot-anything attitude and from limitless points of view from which to work. But the arena is getting crowded as other manufacturers jump into this popular industry for athletic expression and more. From their latest offerings, the GoPro HERO3, White ($200), Silver ($300) and Black ($400) Editions, most of the early complaints about this extreme sports favorite have been resolved. Each step up in price offers an increased range of resolution and options.

While this popular brand might enjoy high visibility and recognition, there are other options as well, including the Coleman Bravo ($349) 1080p with waterproof housing and mounts, LCD display and more. The Liquid Image Model 727 Ego ($200) features options for colorful and bright housings that protect a Wi-Fi enabled unit that shoots 1080p video and has a micro SDHC card slot that supports cards up to 32GB. It has the Liquid Image app for Android and iOS to help you view videos, photos and remotely control the camera.

Even the likes of iON and Lavod have jumped into the extreme sports camera arena. iON sports a few versions of their Air Pro cameras with kits ranging from $200-$350 and including stuff like alternate mounts, Wi-Fi, 1920×1080, 180-degree field of view, and a table top tripod. Lavod has the Eagle LFC-513 with a flashlight form factor and you can physically switch from 1080p to 720p. Check the accompanying chart to compare other brands, makes, models and pricing. While most provide similar features, others may have something specific that you are looking for in a rugged, all-weather, extreme sports camera.

Professional Camcorders

A budget as little as $2,500 and as much as say $15,000, can put you in possession of a professional camcorder. As Mike Wilhelm, Videomaker Content Director, asks in his sidebar “What is Pro?” Videomaker, July, 2013, “Where does prosumer end and professional begin?” Wilhelm adds that there are non-professional camcorders that cost more than $1,500 as well as camcorders with professional features that cost less. This is true and a videographer with a $15,000 budget for a new professional camcorder doesn’t necessarily have to spend all that money on just the camera.

You might need to budget for multiple cameras, so you might try on a Blackmagic Production Camera 4K ($3,995) with more for accessories and have a drool-worthy system, or pick up JVC’s GY-HM790U ($10,000) and record high bitrate files at 35Mb/s, using a 3CCD unit with a nice 4.3-inch LCD. Of course it shoots 1920×1080 at 60i among many recording options and has XLR inputs along with many other desirable features. There’s the RED SCARLET-X (brain only, for $7,950), but you’ll easily double that by the time you invest in a full kit. (Click here to download a PDF of Videomaker's Pro Camcorder Buyer's Guide)

3D Camcorders

Again, if you want one of the major brands and plan to pursue 3D production, JVC, Panasonic, Sony, Vivitar and Fujifilm offer affordable options. Pricing ranges from less than Sony’s HDR-TD30V ($1,000) to $3,700, for the Panasonic HDC-Z10000. Then there’s the Panasonic HC-V500M ($500) camcorder offering 2D to 3D conversion.

There’s a Right Budget for Everyone

Depending on your professional or personal desires and needs, if you pay close attention to the features and details as outlined in the charts of this camcorder buyer’s guide, chances are you’ll fit your budget quite nicely. Any leftover budget will help you get the inevitable accessories, starting with extra memory cards and batteries, that you’ll need to flesh out your new production toolchest.

Click here to download a PDF of Videomaker's Camcorder's Buyer's Guide.


Specialty Camera Manufacturer's Listing:

Liquid Image Co.
Drift Innovations
Garmin Ltd.
General Imaging
iON America LLC
JVC Consumer
Kodak Corporation (JK Imaging LTD)
Ocean Systems, Inc.
Oregon Scientific LLC
Polaroid Corporation
Sakar International/Vivitar
Samsung Electronics, Inc.
Silicon Valley Peripherals
Sony Electronics, Inc.

Contributing editor Earl Chessher is a full-time video producer, career journalist, freelance writer and published author.

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