VHS Family Camcorder Buyers Guide

Multiple guess is what we called it in college, but when choosing a camcorder, its definitely multiple choice and people have been choosing the VHS format for years. Its longevity has proven that it can pass the test of time. But why is there such loyalty to a format that competes against formats with greater resolution, smaller size and more advanced features? In short, its convenience. You can take a tape directly from a full-size VHS camcorder and play it directly in any home VCR. You can do the same with a VHS-C cassette and an adapter. Nothing is handier.

However, the VHS format does suffer from some drawbacks. The large size of regular VHS tapes requires a large camera to accommodate it. (Some would argue that this is an advantage, as it helps steady the camcorder for better shots.) To eliminate the sometimes unwieldy, bulky size, manufacturers came up with the compact VHS (VHS-C) format.

Another mark against VHS is image quality. As one of the poorest performers in the consumer camcorder arena, its video is mediocre. As with all analog formats, quality degrades even further each time you make a copy or edit on linear gear. To combat the poor image quality, manufacturers introduced Super VHS (S-VHS). This nearly doubled the image quality, putting it in on par with Hi8 and moved the VHS format into the professional arena.

At the high end of the S-VHS format, JVC Professional offers the GY-X2BU for $7,999. With it, you get all of the essentials you need for professional shooting like full manual control and three CCDs with 380,000 pixels per CCD. Panasonic Broadcast & Digital Systems AG-456U for $2,225 is another model aimed at the professional. This camcorder has manual and automatic exposure control, one CCD and time code.

On the other spectrum, for the family archivist and weekend video journalist, plain old VHS and VHS-C models are ringing in at considerably lower prices. Hitachis VM6500 full-size VHS camcorder lists at $299. Its fully automatic functions, simple character generator and color viewfinder make it a great unit for a novice, child or a technically challenged grandparent. Other no-hassle models include RCAs compact VHS CC6263 for $399 or the CC6373 that has a 2.5-inch flip-out color LCD monitor for an additional $100.

And how about this for a novelty – Panasonics PV-L850 ($800) has a built-in TV tuner. Now you can get local programming from its mini antenna so you wont miss the big game if youre out on the family picnic. This camcorder also includes digital still capability, as does RCAs CC6393 ($699).

Now if you want Super VHS image quality but the compact VHS size, JVCs line of S-VHS-C camcorders offers the best of both worlds. In an effort to make the different formats compatible, JVC developed what they call "Expansion Technology" (ET). The GR-SX850U ($550), GR-SX851U ($570), GR-SXM320U ($650) and the GR-SXM520U ($700) are all compact camcorders that have the ability to record in either VHS or S-VHS mode on a standard VHS-C tape. If this piques your interest, you might want to look into their line of VCRs that can also handle both VHS and S-VHS in record and playback modes.

If the convenience, affordability and unique features of the VHS format sound like the things youre looking for in a camcorder, check out the buyers guide grid on page 60 to find the features and prices that make the grade and pass your test.

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Mike Wilhelm
Mike is the Editor-in-Chief of Videomaker and Creator Handbook