Camcorder buying guide

camcorder closeup filmingAlthough digital cameras and smartphones can grab acceptable video clips, nothing beats a full-featured camcorder for videos you’ll want to preserve for years and show off to friends and family on a big-screen HDTV. Whether you’re looking for standard definition, full HD or an affordable pocket camcorder, this mini buyer’s guide will help you sort through the many available.

Camcorders cost anywhere from $75 to $3,500 and have more specs and options than a Tesla Model S. Read the many camcorder reviews on the site but if you just want to clear away most of the clutter, read these key buying tips to zero in on the camcorder that’s best for you.

Also check out our selections for the best camcorders based on our reviews and ratings.

Full-featured or pocket camcorder?

This is the first question you need to answer since this decision will take you down two very different paths. Full-featured camcorders like Sony Handycams offer higher quality, optical zoom lenses, optical image stabilization, stereo sound and many other options we’ll detail shortly. Pocket camcorders such as the Kodak PlayFull are much cheaper, extremely compact, and make it easy to share videos online, but their quality and features are much more limited. We’re not huge fans of this type of camcorder but it’s hard to beat the portability and price. If you want to spend $75 to $150, the decision is made for you — a pocket camcorder it is. That said, we suggest you spend more for a full-featured model. The results are so much better, it’s simply no contest.

Why go full-featured?

Just like your smartphone, almost all pocket camcorders have digital zooms. As you zoom in on your subject, image quality drops. All full-featured models have true optical zooms so your framing options are much more varied (close-up or telephoto) with much superior results. This is reason enough to spend more. Beyond this key factor, pocket camcorders capture videos using the MPEG4 format, whereas full-featured editions typically use AVCHD or MPEG2. Again, this quality is far better. If you just want to share videos with your friends online, just use your smartphone and don’t bother spending the money for a pocket camcorder. If you want save family memories with the quality they deserve, opt for more expensive editions.

how to buy a camcorder article in handWhen we say more expensive, we’re not talking about thousands more, but simply moving to the $229 and up neighborhood. That’s what a decent Standard Definition (MPEG2) camcorder with a potent zoom will set you back. This is the list price, so you know they’ll go for less in the real world. For the record, SD still makes up close to 50 percent of all the camcorders sold; but now that high-definition camcorders are readily available for $300 to $500, HD has the majority share.

If you’re looking for the absolute best quality, look for models featuring the new AVCHD Progressive format. AVCHD version 2.0 was introduced late in 2011 and lets you record 1920 x 1080/60p video, compared to 60i of AVCHD version 1.0. AVCHD Progressive movies shown on a 1080p display are out of this world.

Now if you want to move into the next dimension, there are several camcorders that take full HD 3D videos. They cost $1,000 or more, but if you have a 3D HDTV, it might be worth the investment. Also some Panasonic camcorders accept 3D accessory lenses. The effects aren’t nearly as good as true 3D models, but it’s a more affordable way to experiment.

Storing videos and stills

One of the biggest ongoing camcorder trends is the shift to flash memory — either flash memory cards, onboard storage or both. In the bad old days, camcorders used tapes and recordable disks to store footage, so they were much bulkier. In 2005 the first HDD models were introduced, which dropped the size and boosted capacity way beyond the typical hour or two of tapes and discs. For example, a JVC GZ-HD620 with a 120GB HDD captures 11 hours of best-quality AVCHD video, yet it weighs around 11 ounces with the battery. That was a major advance, but manufacturers continued to shrink their camcorders. Enter models with just slots for memory cards or onboard flash ranging from 8GB to 96GB. Manufacturers typically offer both cameras with no storage that need an SD card to function, and models with some internal storage that can be added onto with an SD card. Prices are lowest with slots-only as you’d imagine, and it’s not a bad way to go, especially with the cost of cards falling through the floor. Pocket camcorders typically come with 8GB or 16GB of onboard storage, depending on the model. Some accept cards, others do not.

Megapixels matter

Camcorders use imaging sensors just like digital cameras, and the more yours has, the better the video and still quality. Basic standard definition models use 680K-pixel CCDs, which are OK. You’re much better off with megapixel-plus chips found in entry-level AVCHD models. Not only do you get better video quality, but you can also capture decent stills. And just like digicams, overall quality improves as you move higher, and so does the price. One of the best models available, the Sony NEX VG10/20, has the same-sized sensor as a DSLR but it costs close to $2,000 with an interchangeable lens. Needless to say, pick the highest megapixel count in your budget.

Some companies put a megapixel figure on their models that is more than the actual pixel count on the sensor. They’re not lying, just fudging things a bit as the higher figure is interpolated, i.e. enhanced in the camcorder to hit that figure. When shopping, use the chip’s actual pixel count as you do your apples-to-apples comparisons.

Zooming along

Full-featured camcorders offer optical zooms from the basic 10x to 70x. As we stressed earlier, no pocket camcorder offers this. These lenses are far bigger, so overall results — especially in low light — are far better. A new trend that has emerged over the past few years (which we like a great deal) is wide-angle focal lengths. Typically camcorder lenses start at around 42mm and zoom out from there. More models now kick off at less than 30mm. This means you can capture a much broader expanse. This is great for shooting videos of family gatherings, especially in smaller rooms when you can’t back up through a wall!

camcorder buying guide zoomWe strongly suggest you zoom the entire focal length when you do your hands-on evaluation at the local store.

Sounds great

Since pocket camcorders are so small — their major redeeming value — they don’t have much room for large microphones or capture stereo sound in most instances. This isn’t the case with full-featured camcorders, which not only offer two-channel stereo but better models even record 5.1-channel surround sound, delivering a powerful impact when you experience it with a 5.1-speaker system.

Eyes on the prize

All camcorders have LCD screens used to frame and review your scenes. They too are rated in pixels, and the more you have the better. Most start off at 2.7-inches and 230K pixels, with 3.5 inches and 921K pixels being the best available. When you move into the high-rent region, select camcorders also have electronic viewfinders (EVFs). These small eyepieces come in handy in those instances when the LCD wipes out in direct sunshine. You should see how your LCD handles light when doing a hands-on. While you’re checking out the screen, make sure the camcorder feels good in your hands and the controls seem logically placed. While we’re all in favor of tiny, card-based camcorders, but they can be too small for some hands.

Steady as she goes

Camcorders have two types of image stabilization — digital (or electronic) and optical. OIS is far better as elements in the lens adjust for handshake and movement. This really smoothes out shakes and jerks in your videos; your viewers will appreciate a steady scene. EIS uses software algorithms to accomplish the same feat, but it can degrade picture quality. If your budget can handle it, opt for optical image stabilization.

Advanced controls

All camcorders are as easy to use as riding a bike. Just put it into auto mode, adjust the zoom to frame your subject and press record. It doesn’t get much simpler. Many camcorders have similar features as digicams, including Intelligent or Smart Auto where they “guess” the scene in the frame and adjust settings accordingly. This is an excellent feature to look for. Many also have specific scene modes (portrait, landscape and so on) and others let you adjust shutter speed, aperture, focus, white balance, exposure compensation. These features are typically found in costlier models, as are flashes to help with your stills. It all depends just how deeply you want to delve into the video-making world, and the old cost-benefit analysis comparing one model to another.

Take a smartphone or a smart friend

If you have a phone with Web access, bring it with you when you walk up to the camcorder section at the local retailer. If you can’t get some of the vital information about the model you are looking at from the display or sales people, then we assure you it is available on the ‘net and can be found in minutes. Also, you might end up finding a better deal on the same model elsewhere, which can be a valuable bargaining tool.

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