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Camcorders forum: What are the differences in today's camcorders? Go HD or wait?

by: Lee Koo (ADMIN) January 4, 2008 2:23 AM PST

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What are the differences in today's camcorders? Go HD or wait?

by Lee Koo (ADMIN) ModeratorCNET staff - 1/4/08 2:23 AM


I would like to get rid of my Sony Hi-8 camcorder and get something better. In the stores, I see lots of different styles including hard-drive, mini-DVD, and even memory card formats. There are even some high-definition camcorders that I have seen for under $1,000 that record to HDV. What is the difference here? I know there has to be pros and cons to each--please let me know what they are. Is it worth my time to get an HD camcorder, or am I better off waiting another 6 to 12 months, or should I just stick with the mini DV and forget the HD hype? Thanks!

--Submitted by Russ E.

Answer voted most helpful by CNET Community newsletter readers:

Selecting a video camera


One might say that this is the best of times and the worst of times for making a decision regarding a video camera. There are many choices from which to select and making a good long-term selection can be difficult. You have inadvertently made helping you a bit more difficult because you haven't given us any clues as to what your needs and expectations are, other than you want to modernize from the Hi-8 you currently own. However, I'll offer my two-cents worth of information and let you decide what is or isn't important.

As I see things (and this is strictly my opinion), you have two major issues with which to contend regarding the actual video camera: (1) storage format, and (2) standard definition (SD) or high definition (HD). I'm going to address the latter first as I think it is an easier decision.

There are a handful of high-def video cameras on the market these days. While watching your home movies in HD on your HD t.v. must be very exciting you may run into a problem if you want to create (i.e. capture, edit and burn to DVD) home movies from your recordings. It is my understanding that there remains little in the way of available software for working with high-def home video recordings (at least where the software can work directly with your footage - some software will allow you to work with your footage, but only after transcoding to a different format, which inevitably degrades the quality of the video). This may not be as true today as it was last year, but from what I am reading around the web (including here at CNET), the hardware is there, but software has lagged behind. If you are interested in the creative process of making home movies this may prove to be a problem. However, if you simply want to record movies and then watch them (directly) on your television, then go HD if you want to spend the money.

The more complicated issue is the one of to which media format you wish to record your movies. Currently the big three are Mini-DV tape, direct to DVD, and hard-drive-based units. There are some flash-memory type cameras on the market, but at this time I would, again, in my own opinion, steer clear of this option due to it's lack of recording time and video quality. Each of the big three has its own advantages and disadvantages, but it is how you will use your camera that may best determine the more appropriate route for you. That said....

While Mini-DV is the older technology here I still firmly believe it's the best all-round choice for the average consumer. First, the technology is tried-and-true. Second, Mini-DV tapes are rather inexpensive (especially when bought in bulk at a place like Costco or Sam's). Third, while they take a while to download ('capture') onto your computer, there is plenty of software available for editing if that is a direction in which you are currently engaged or think you would like to go. Fourth, they offer a very high-quality image and use a minimum amount of compression. Finally, you can save the tape for long-term storage as it remains quite stable over long periods of time if you take just a modicum of care of the tape.

Direct-to-DVD appears to me to be a system that is geared towards instant gratification. You can shoot your video and then take your DVD (actually it's a mini-DVD; not a full-sized one) to your computer or stand-alone DVD player and watch it on your monitor or television. It couldn't be simpler. This format works very well if you have no intention of making home movies (avoiding that creative process), but this method comes with a price: video quality. There isn't a whole lot of room on an unused mini DVD. If you elect to capture video using less compression you will have less recording time. If you opt to increase compression you will obtain longer recording times, but the video quality will diminish. This will become even more apparent if you watch your video on a large screen television where compression artifacts will become much more apparent. In addition, the cost of mini DVDs is more than that of mini-DV tapes by a fair margin.

Finally, there is the latest incarnation of media - the well-known hard drive. Hard-drive based camcorders appear to be the wave of the future based upon how many I see at my local consumer electronics stores as well as by what I read in the press and on the Internet. This isn't necessarily a bad thing either as a hard-drive based camcorder seems to bridge the gap between mini-DV tape and mini-DVD based camcorders. With a sufficiently sized hard drive you should be able to record long movies without the need for much in the way of compression, thus offering you good (if not great) quality video as well as long recording times. Transferring your videos to your computer should also be quick, but keep in mind that large video files still take time to transfer. However, you are no longer tied to the 1:1 time ratio when moving video from mini-DV tape to your computer so things will be much quicker than if you purchased a tape-based camcorder.

They only down-side that I can see with hard-drive based units is long-term reliability and I say this from the perspective of the hard-drive. Hard drives can be finicky. When they sit in your desktop PC there is no concern about motion (as opposed to a camcorder being moved while your video tape, dropped, etc.). There are no physical forces being exercised upon the drive other than those created by the drive itself (as it spins and the read/write heads move back and forth). Even laptops are reasonably safe for hard drives because most folks aren't moving around their laptops while they work on them. A camcorder is a different story and might better be related to the mini hard drives that have been found for years in MP3 players. Both camcorders and MP3 players can receive quite a bit of shock when being moved about in the normal course of use. And even with all the physical and software-based things a company can do to help protect a hard-drive, it is still in an environment that is less than conducive to long-life and reliability (this may be why so many folks see what they perceive to be premature deaths in hard-drive based MP3 players). If you are considering the hard-drive route for a camcorder I think I would carefully consider under what circumstances and how often it will be used. Remember, the big professional video cameras used by the folks at your local television station are tape-based and there is a reason they remain so: tried-and-true and long-term reliability.

I hope this helps you in your decision-making process.

Submitted by: CNET member forkboy

If you have any additional recommendations for Russ, please click on the reply link and post away. Please be as detailed as possible when providing an explanation.

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