Types of Camcorders
Camcorders come in six tape formats: VHS, VHS-C, 8mm, Hi8, Mini Digital Video (MiniDV) and Digital 8. The one you choose depends on your level of comfort, desire for convenience and demand for picture quality.
VHS is the oldest format and the only one that plays back directly on a VHS VCR. Since these camcorders require bulky VHS cassettes, they can weigh in at a hefty six pounds and measure three times the size of some of the new compact units. VHS models also only offer 240 lines of horizontal resolution.
Similar in picture quality but not size are VHS-C (C for compact) camcorders, which require cassettes roughly one-third the size of VHS tapes. Using an adapter box supplied with the camera, you can easily play back VHS-C tapes on any VHS VCR. VHS-C tapes hold only 40 minutes of tape in standard play (SP) mode (90 minutes in extended play, EP) which can be an inconvenience when shooting a lengthy event.
If you yearn for longer recording times, consider an 8mm camcorder. These slightly smaller (in depth) units record from two to five hours, use tapes about the size of an audiocassette and generally offer better picture quality than VHS-C devices. However, you can't pop 8mm tapes into the VCR. Instead, you must connect the 8mm camcorder to input jacks on either your TV or your VCR.
An offshoot of the 8mm camcorder is Hi8. It, too, is compact and requires a hook up, to the TV, for viewing. But the image quality of a Hi8 camcorder rivals 8mm and is almost equal to that of a laser disc.
At the top of the format food chain (and price scheme) is Mini Digital Video (MiniDV), producing picture-perfect video while providing other conveniences. For starters, these devices (measuring roughly four inches wide, four inches high and eight inches deep) give you digital TV-quality video that, generally, does not degrade when copied onto another tape. MiniDV cassettes, measuring slightly larger than the size of a matchbox, run on lightweight lithium-ion batteries, somewhat larger than 'AA' batteries. Depending on the length of the tape, you can record up to three hours of footage in SP mode. Playback does require you to plug the unit into the TV. With a compatible FireWire connection on your PC, you can download still images from a MiniDV camcorder to your computer-a convenient feature if you have a family website or want to send snapshots vie e-mail.
If you're upgrading from an 8mm/Hi8 camcorder and have video stored on this format, look at the Digital8 camcorders. They marry the best of both the Hi8 and DV worlds: highly polished images, PC connectivity, compact size and the use of 8mm/Hi8 tapes.
Ask Yourself These Questions...
You can narrow down your camcorder choices by asking yourself some basic questions. Your answers will help you choose the model that best suits your needs.
How and when do you plan to use the camcorder?
If you just want to capture the occasional baby shower or birthday party and hate hooking up wires, the affordable VHS or VHS-C camcorders will suit your purpose. If you're buying a unit for travel, keep it light with one of the compact Hi8, Digital8 or MiniDV models. The smallest camcorder we've seen measures one inch wide, four inches high, four inches deep and weighs about two pounds. Serious videographers, or someone who needs to archive volumes of still shots, will find a digital device that connects to the PC is best.
How much do you want to pay?
With the introduction of newer digital formats, camcorder prices are plummeting and today's shopper can find some great bargains. In general, standard VHS and VHS-C camcorders cost from $400 to $700, depending on the features. Hi8 and 8mm units range from $400 to $3,000; Digital8 from $800 to $1,300; and MiniDV models can cost from $800 to more than $4,000.
Consider These Important Features...
Recording time varies with the format of the tape and the camcorder's speed setting. Most units record in both standard play (SP) and extended play (EP) modes. The EP mode runs tape more slowly through the device, letting you film longer on one cassette, while diminishing the picture quality. The format that offers the least record time is VHS-C, a mere 40 minutes in SP. The best are 8mm/Hi8 and Digital8, which record up to three hours of footage in SP mode. Digital camcorders fall somewhere in the middle, at one hour in SP.
Playback can't get simpler than with a VHS camcorder. There are no wires, no adapters. Just pop the tape into any standard VCR for instant playback. A VHS-C camcorder requires an adapter, but playback is also pretty straightforward. The remaining formats can't be played back on a standard VCR. You must connect the unit to either the TV or the VCR. Even so, the process isn't difficult. To view 8mm/Hi8, MiniDV or Digital8 home movies, plug the RCA (good) or S-video (better) jack from your camcorder to the corresponding jacks of your TV or VCR. If you have a newer TV or VCR with front-panel inputs, connecting the colour-coded wires is very simple. With digital units, you have one more option - playback through the PC using the camcorder's FireWire output. Doing so lets you precisely edit and manipulate images frame by frame, with the use of your computer's video-editing software.
Picture quality is paramount in a camcorder, especially if you have a high-resolution TV that can take full advantage of your footage. There are three levels of picture quality, all measured by their horizontal resolution. The higher the number of lines of resolution, the better. VHS, VHS-C and 8mm camcorders range from 230 to 290 lines and are fine for viewing on a standard analog set; Hi8 images are sharper, offering 400 or so lines of resolution; MiniDV or Digital8 units boast the sharpest resolution of approximately 500 lines.
Audio quality is an often-overlooked part of home movies. But, if you want to make the best video possible, sound is a major factor. At the low end are mono-VHS camcorders, offering one channel of sound. If you're taking the VHS route, consider stepping up to hi-fi (stereo), which records a broader range of sound. The remaining formats offer several varieties of sound, although most new models come with stereo. If you plan to record kids' plays or concerts, check out units that offer volume controls or external microphone jacks that minimize chatter in an audience.
Other camcorder features worth considering are listed below.
Audio dubbing. Lets you replace or add a soundtrack to a tape.
- Colour viewfinder. Most camcorders offer these, but some models with flip-out displays will pair a black-and-white viewfinder with a colour swivel monitor to cut down cost.
- Date/time labelling. A great way to remember when you shot your video, this option stamps the time and date on the tape.
- Fade in/out. Makes the scene change slowly to black (or white) at the end of a recorded segment and gives the same effect as when a TV show fades before a commercial.
- Image stabilization. Through the use of either an optical or a digital image stabilizer, this feature steadies the picture when you can't. Note: Small camcorders are harder to hold steady and those with long zooms magnify your every move, so this can be an important feature. LCD displays. These adjustable, fold-out displays allow you to hold the camera away from your eye while you're shooting. The LCD display lets you film (and watch your footage) at any height. What's more, you can instantly view replays. These screens range from 2.5 to 4 inches and are ideal for videotaping a parade (when you're stuck behind a crowd of people) or small children at their eye level. Note: An LCD screen can drain your battery, so use it sparingly.
- Lux rating. This rating refers to the minimum amount of light it takes to record a video image (the term means the light of one candle). The lower the number, the better you're able to shoot in low light. Three lux or less is fine for filming by the light of your home. If you'll be videotaping in very low light, look for models with built-in lights.
- Random assemble editing. Divides a tape into scenes and plays them back in the order you want for transferring to another tape.
- Shutter speed. The number of times the shutter opens and closes each second. The faster the speed, the sharper the image when played back (ideal for studying your golf swing). This is automated on most camcorders, but some let you control it manually.
- Title generator. Creates word labels on the tape to identify special occasions or individuals.
- Video dubbing. When connected to a VCR or another camcorder, this feature lets you splice images or video footage into a tape. This feature is standard fare in most full-size VHS camcorders, less so in the other formats.
- Zoom. Allows the user to focus on faraway objects. There are two types of zoom: optical zoom (which uses the lens to magnify images from 10 to 26 times larger than normal) and digital zoom (which uses computer imaging to zero in on objects to magnify images up to 400 times larger than normal). All cameras have optical zoom, some offer digital. But bigger doesn't necessarily mean better. Anything over 100x will give you a blurry picture.
All camcorders use rechargeable batteries and include adapters. Various types of batteries are available: five-hour-maximum nickel-cadmium batteries, four-hour-maximum nickel-metal hydride batteries and the newer digital devices have lithium-ion (Li) batteries. Li batteries are lightweight and, most importantly, don't require that you completely drain them before recharging. Some camcorder features - such as zoom, image stabilization, built-in lights and especially LCD view screens - are battery hogs. To avoid running out of juice when on the road, always keep a spare charged battery with you. Consider models with handy onscreen guides to tell you exactly how soon the power will run out.