Buying A Camcorder - A Basic Introduction
Avoid Camcorder Shopping Mistakes
You got the money. You hop in the Car. You drive down to the local electronics megastore with ad in hand to buy a camcorder! Shouldn't be difficult, after all you've been taking photos with your little point&shoot camera for years and have been happy; you should be able to walk in, grab one of the cheap ones in the ad and get back home before lunch!
You enter the store and ask the greeter where the camcorder in the AD is and are directed to the video department, near the rear of the store.
You finally find the camcorder section and a salesperson approaches. After asking the salesperson where the camcorder in the AD is, You are taken around this island of camcorders (there must be 50 of them!) priced from $229 to $2000, to the slot where the AD camcorder was (which was priced at, you guessed it ($229).
You are woefully unprepared for this! Why so many camcorders? Why so many prices? Why did the salesperson make sure you walked passed all the expensive ones before showing you the one in the AD? What the heck are you doing here? Are you about to be a victim of Bait and Switch? Your heart starts to pace. You start to sweat. You excuse yourself from the salesperson and get out of the store quick; you go do some grocery shopping instead; it was almost lunch time anyway.
I am sure we have all had an experience like this at some time or another. Our friend above was right, he was unprepared to shop for a camcorder.
Shopping for a camcorder requires a bit of homework, just like buying a car or a house. When you buy a car, you are buying freedom and mobility. When you buy a house you are buying shelter and security. When you buy a camcorder, you are buying memories, memories that will be recorded in picture and sound to pass down through the generations.
Having worked in retail electronics for several years, I have come in contact with five types of camcorder customers: (1) The family with children or about to have children. (2) The retired couple or person with grandchildren. (3) The techie who wants the best. (4) The Traveler (5) The last minute person that wants something but has no frame of reference.
Believe it or not, the basic principles of purchasing a camcorder is the same for all. These principles are: (1) The Physical comfort of the machine. (2)Ease of use. (3)Convenience of Playback and/or copying. (4) Picture quality. (5) Fits within budget.
Notice I did not mention Features. That is not to say that features are not that important, but I am emphasizing that without the above principles, features are meaningless. Your camcorder can have all the bells and whistles in the world, but if it uncomfortable to use, is hard to access the features, is inconvenient to use, suffers from lackluster picture quality, then it is bad no matter what your budget.
In follow-up articles, I will go into more detail on camcorder formats and features that will narrow down the selection process. In the meantime there are a several good websites that will aid you in your search for the perfect camcorder. For starters try Consumer Reports Magazine although their publication times don't always reflect the exact model numbers that are currently available, it gives a good basic explanation on what features are and are not important in camcorders.
For the consumer that is (or thinks he/she is) more understanding of camcorder technology try the Videomaker Magazine website . This publication gives good technical reviews of the current camcorder state-of-the-art, but also gets into areas such as video editing and computer/video products. Videomaker also has a lot of do-it-yourself articles on how to make your camcorder experience more rewarding
An Overview of Analog and Digital Camcorder Formats For Consumers
A lot goes into deciding what camcorder to purchase, including factors as basic as how the camcorder feels in your hand and as complex as how many special effects it can perform, but one must also choose the camcorder format that will be best to work with.
Choosing a format is not always an easy decision. There are currently seven formats available for the camcorder consumer, all with strengths and weaknesses, depending on your video needs.
Almost everyone owns a VHS VCR (a lot of us own two or three) so it would seem logical that the best camcorder format would be one that plays and records on regular VHS tapes. Not necessarily. The needs of shooting live video can be very different than the needs of recording and viewing video at home. Below is a basic overview of the various camcorder formats available to the consumer.
Analog Camcorder Formats
1. Uses Regular VHS tapes, just like a VHS VCR. The recorded tape can be played in a regular VHS VCR just like any other VHS tape. Video Resolution is 240/250 lines just like VHS VCR.
2. Tape Speeds of 2hrs (SP) and 6hrs (EP/SLP) just like VHS VCR (although some units may only have 2hr SP speed available).
3. Due to the size of VHS Tape, these camcorders must be shoulder mounted during shooting.
4. Sound quality is poor, audio is recorded in the same fashion as a non-HIFI VCR.
5. Manufacturers: Full size VHS camcorders for the consumer market are no longer being manufactured, however professional and used units may still be available from professional dealers and online sources.
Compact VHS (also known as VHS-C):
1. Uses a smaller version of VHS tape. Tape must be placed into an adapter (one is provided with each VHS-C camcorder) in order to be played back in a home VCR. The Camcorder can also be connected to a VCR or TV via AV cables and the tapes can then be copied onto a regular VHS Tape if desired.
2. Video resolution is the same as regular VHS VCR, 240-250 lines.
3. Tape speeds are SP(30min) and EP/SLP(90min). Since the tapes are much smaller than a regular VHS tape, the amount of tape available in the cassette is much less, necessitating shorter recording times. 4. With smaller tapes, these camcorders can be much smaller, thus are easily handheld, rather than shoulder mounted.
5. The sound quality is the same as a Full Size VHS camcorder or non-HiFi VCR.
6. Manufacturers include, Panasonic, JVC, and RCA.
1. Uses tape that is smaller than that of VHS or VHS-C. Tape can be played back by connecting the camcorder via A/V cables to a VCR or TV. Tapes can be transferred (copied) to a regular VHS tape. Note: An 8mm tape cannot be placed in a regular VHS VCR for playback, there is no 8mm/VHS adapter!
2. Video resolution is 250 lines, about the same as VHS or VHS-C (although the color consistency on 8mm is slightly better).
3. Tape speed is typically 2hrs (SP) although Sony supports a 4hr (LP) tape speed in their newer camcorders.
4. Since the tapes are extemely small (about the size of an audio cassette), 8mm camcorders are small units that are easily handheld
5. Sound quality is very good. Sound is recorded in the same fashion as on a HiFi VCR.
6. Manufacturers include; Canon, Sony, Sharp, Samsung, and Hitachi
2. Manufacturers: Primarily JVC
1. This format is the same as 8mm except that the resolution is about 60% higher at 400 lines. Once again, there is no adapter to play these tapes in a regular VCR, however, all HI-8 camcorders can play and record in the regular 8mm format. Regular 8mm camcorders connot play recorded HI8 tapes.
2. Manufacturers are Canon, Sony, Sharp, Samsung, Hitachi.
Digital Camcorder Formats
1. This camcorder format takes advantage of existing the HI8 format and pushes it into the Digital realm.
2. Uses either 8mm or HI8 tape. The only way to play the tape back is through the camcorder connected to a VCR or TV or by Digitally playing the tape back by connecting the Camcorder to a computer via its IEEE-1394 (Firewire) port (special hardware and software required, not included with camcorder).
3. These camcorders can also play back previously recorded analog 8mm and HI8 tapes using the regular AV connections, but at present cannot convert the analog 8mm and HI8 recording for direct pass through to a computer via the IEEE-1394 port.
4. Video resolution approaches 500 lines, which is 20% higher than HI8 or SVHS-C.
5. Tape speed of one hour is currently available, when using a 2hr length HI8 or 8mm tape.
6. Camcorders are the same physical size of 8mm and HI8 camcorders, thus are easily handheld.
7. Sound quality is excellent. The sound is recorded in either 12bit or 16bit PCM Audio for almost CD quality sound.
8.The Digital8 format also allows for still frame capture.
9. Manufacturers: Sony, Canon, and Hitachi
1. Uses extremely small 6mm MiniDV tapes (similar is size to DAT Audio Tapes). Tapes are played back through the camcorder via AV connectors to a VCR or TV or to a computer, using the IEEE-1394 port (extra hardware and software required).
2. Video resolution is 500 lines, which is 20% better than HI8 or SVHS-C.
3. There are typically two recording speeds SP and LP, which allow 60min or 90min recording times.
4. Since the tape is so small, camcorders of extremely small size can be manufactured, some are not much larger than a pack of cigarettes.
5. Sound quality is excellent. Audio can be recorded in either the 12bit or 16bit PCM format, which can produce almost CD quality results. In the 12bit mode there is provision for in-camera audio dubbing.
6. The MiniDV format also provides for still frame capture, with some camcorders using Progressive Scan technology for more accuracy in this mode of operation.
7. Manufacturers: Canon, Sharp, JVC, Panasonic, and Samsung.
With recordable DVD finally taking a bite about of VHS for home video recording, DVD camcorders are finally making their way to the market place at reasonable price points.
1. These units record on a mini 3-inch size DVD disc, which can hold about 30 min of DVD quality video. If you desire, you can change the recording mode to get more recording time, but the video quality will decrease as the time on the DVD increases.
2. There are currently three different formats used in DVD camorders. Sony uses the DVD-R and DVD-RW formats, while Panasonic and Hitachi use the DVD-R and DVD-RAM formats. The DVD-R format is the easiest, uses the least expensive discs, and is the most compatible with standard DVD players. However, it must be noted when recording in the DVD-R format, you can only use the disc once. As listed above, the major players in DVD camcorders are Sony, Panasonic, and Hitachi.
3. For additional information on what you need to know about DVD recording and the various formats in use, check out my DVD Recorder FAQs
So, as you can see there are a wide variety of choices in camcorder formats. If you are looking for the most convenience, VHS-C, with its compactness and ability for its tapes to be adapted for play in a regular VCR might be your choice.
If you travel a lot and length of recording on each tape is important to you, then 8mm or HI8 may be good choices. In addition, these camcorders are also compact and are easily carried.
If you are upgrading from HI8 or 8mm and don't have a way to continue to playback your library of old HI8 or 8mm tapes, you might be a good candidate for Digital8. This format provides a means of playing back your older tapes, while enabling you to enter the world of Digital Video.
Lastly, if you want to maintain the best future compatibility, miniDV is a format standard used by both consumers and professionals, and is especially popular with student and independent film makers. Eventually, even miniDV will give way to tape less formats, such as DVD and the coming high definition disc recording formats.
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