It’s much easier to pick up and shoot with a camcorder than review one. Evaluating a camcorder involves a battery of tests, from inspecting video and image quality to considering aspects like button placement and battery life. Here’s how we do it.
At Digital Trends, we want our product reviews to provide readers with insight into a product’s technical performance–and its usability. To that end, we go beyond specs and measurements by placing emphasis on the user experience. For camcorders, that means taking a close look at all the little touches that, taken together, make the difference between an ordinary model and one you’ll want to buy and use to capture important events–and life–in general.
If you’d like an idea of what cameras we do like make sure to take a look at our list of best camcorders.
Opening The Box
We do not test prototypes or any camcorder that is not ready for primetime. We get full production models so the model we test is the same as the one you’ll pick up at the store or delivered by UPS/FedEx. When it arrives, we unpack it and all of the supplied accessories. At that point, the battery gets charged which typically takes 2-3 hours.
Build Quality and Styling
When the battery is charged and placed in the camcorder, we turn it on, following the same instructions as you would for setting the time and date. Amazingly, we read the supplied owner’s manual. Yes, it’s heresy to admit but no matter how many we test, all are different and have their own nuances. At this point we begin walking through the menu system. This gives us a strong indication as to the camcorder’s overall engineering and design. A clunky or obtuse menu system usually means the company really hasn’t thought through the entire user experience. Fortunately, most top makers have improved their user interfaces dramatically over the years even adding touchscreens to the mix. They’re not iPhones or iPads but good progress has been made. However, some bury important features deeply in the menu system and we point this out in our reviews, hoping company engineers take the hint and make positive changes for the next generation.
Next we closely examine every camcorder, noting the position of the many buttons, levers and keys. Again, like the menu system, properly identified and logically placed controls are strong indicators a camcorder will be a winner or loser—at least ergonomically—video and still quality is another story. What makes a pleasing industrial design is as individual as your favorite food or car. That doesn’t stop us from giving our opinion and it’s one that’s been honed by handling hundreds of camcorders over the years. Again personal preferences are just that but we know a clunker when we see/handle one and will share our thoughts, no matter how touchy company ego.
Once we’ve set the date/time and have generally given the camcorder a careful examination, it’s time to load a memory card – even if the camcorder has onboard flash. Typically we use Class 6 or 10 SDHC or SDXC media. We always do a deep formatting of the card before we start shooting. Quality settings are adjusted to maximum levels. At this point, it’s time to start taking videos and photographs.
Depending on the time of year, subject matter will change dramatically as will location. We like taking our review samples to various locales, using them just as you would. That means we typically start off in auto mode. Again depending on the model, we’ll then move through all the options on the mode dial or via the menu system including various Scene modes. Increasingly, more camcorders have higher-quality still capability and we’ll capture our share of them as well. In the course of weeks-long shoots, we’ll record many movies of various lengths and take dozens of images.
Checking Them Out
When we’re done, we review our efforts in a variety of ways—directly on a 50-inch HDTV via HDMI and via card readers on a PC. The large display is most critical, however, as it gives a true representation of video quality as any compression artifacts will easily make themselves apparent. For us, this is “eyes-on” test is the difference between a good camcorder and one that doesn’t make the grade. A camcorder’s entire raison d’être is recording movies of things, people, places and experiences accurately. If it can’t do that, the party’s over.
We don’t perform audiophile-level tests, just let our years-long experience let’s know if sound is pleasing or not. Scrolling through dozens of images using a TV remote is not the most pleasant thing so we use the computer for that task.
For photo and video inspection our Samsung monitors are calibrated using the supplied software and then we settle in for “pixel peeping.” When we find an interesting photo we proceed to enlarge it 100% or more in order to closely examine it. This gives us a real indication of color quality and the impact of digital noise. Besides our “real world” photos, we also take a series of shots of a test subject—a multi-colored beaded lampshade–with the flash off, of course. This not only shows when noise starts to kick in and degrade the photos but how well a camcorder’s image stabilization system functions.
As we’re doing the pixel-peeping, we’ll note which image we want to print. We do not make any changes to the file, such as Auto Fix—we want to see what the camcorder captures without any software fixes. At this point, we’ll make 8.5x11full-bleed prints on photo glossy inkjet paper with a 5-color Canon Pixma all-in-one printer using pigment-based ink (4800×1200 DPI). This gives us a proverbial hard copy to closely examine.
And The Envelope, Please
Once our testing and review process is complete, we take into consideration a camcorder’s overall performance, its cost and the competition it faces with similarly priced and featured models. Although camcorder costs have dropped as megapixel counts have risen, more pixels doesn’t mean better videos/photos. Camcorders are much more than their imaging sensors and sometimes you really have to spend more for the best results. That’s why we do extensive hands-on reviews rather than merely recite speeds and feeds.
We want readers to walk away from our reviews with a solid idea of what it would be like to own any particular model, and whether the camcorder in question might be a good fit for your needs.
As always, we value reader feedback and will take comments, requests and questions into consideration as we refine our testing processes to reflect the needs of our readers.