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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 forkboy
Go with HD... but its up to you on what storage type to use
This is really a two part question. The first part of the question is about what format to use; do you use SD or HD video formats? The second part of the question is about how the camera stores that chosen format.
So let's look first at the question of which format to use. Do you go with an HD camera or an SD (non-HD) camera? Much like HDTV television, video cameras are experiencing the same technology transition. A good indicator of how HD is not just hype is looking at the middle to high end camera market. There is not a single camera in the middle to high end market that is SD anymore. Everything is HD. The only SD cameras left on the market are at the low end as manufacturers are trying to get rid of their old supplies so they can move on to manufacture the new HD format equipment. So this really becomes a question of whether or not you want to have a future proof video camera or if you want to save a lot of money in the short term. In the end (5-10 years from now) SD video cameras will no longer be available anywhere nor will they be supported by many of the daily household items you will use.
So now we come to the second part of your question. How does the format get stored? There are many choices for how a camera will store a format's data. Traditionally cameras store the data on magnetic tape or film. In today's world we have a few more options such as hard drives, optical media (DVD), and even flash memory. The type of storage used does not change the format the video is recorded in but rather changes how you will interact with the data once your video has been recorded. Also, not every storage choice is available for both SD and HD formats. The following is a break down of the available storage choices, the formats they support and their pros and cons.
DV/HDV/MiniDV - This will be familiar to you as these are magnetic tapes like Hi8 uses. It is available for both SD and HD formats. SD formats use DV or MiniDV tapes and HD formats use HDV tapes. The down side to this storage choice is that you will have to carry around lots of tapes if you want to capture a lot of video (but you're already used to that with your Hi8). The up side to the format is that it is very easy to connect to a computer and edit your material. These cameras are supported by virtually every video editing software available.
DVD - This option uses optical media to store your recordings. These cameras require no editing or further preparation. Because of this your recordings can immediately be put into a standard DVD player for playback. The disadvantages of these cameras are that they only support the SD video format and it is much more difficult to download to a computer for editing. There are also only few software packages which allow you to edit this type of media and they are all typically simplistic programs that have little to no advanced editing features.
Hard Drive/Flash Memory - This option uses small hard drives or flash memory to store the video recordings. These cameras come in both SD and HD flavors. The downside to this choice is that your storage size is fixed within the camera. If you run out of space your only option is to copy your recordings to a computer so you can further free up the space on the camera. The up side of course is that you don't have to carry around lots of tapes. Also, these cameras are as easy to connect to a computer as the DV/HDV/MiniDV cameras are.
My recommendation would be to buy an HD camera in whatever storage format you prefer most. If you cannot afford an HD camera yet then wait to save some money and purchase one later. The video camera I chose is a Sony HDR-HC3. It is an HDV camera. While the hard drive based cameras are great I like not having a camera with fixed recording capacity. This is especially crucial if I go on trips where I may not have a computer accessible to me for days or even weeks at a time.
Whatever format and storage type you ultimately decide to go with make sure you do some more research as there are many cameras within each category to choose from and they all vary in terms of recording quality, extra features and so forth. Good luck!
Submitted by caskater4
A reasonably priced camcorder with a future
I'll start with a short answer followed by an elaborate justification. I would recommend a Canon HV20 with an external firewire hard drive recorder. This is based on owning and enjoying a Canon HV10, Sony HC3, Sanyo HD1, Canon TX1, and Aiptek A-HD high definition camcorders, and miscellaneous SD cameras.
There are many measures of quality, but one of the most basic is resolution. Here are some picture size approximations for reference: SD 480I = 720 x 480 pixels, or about 350K pixels per picture (two interlaced fields); 720P = 1280 x 720, or about 1 megapixel per picture; and 1080P = 1920 x 1080, or about 2 megapixels per picture (1080I requires two successive fields for one picture).
And here are the pixel rates per second for various common formats: SD, 10 megapixels per second, 30 complete pictures; 720P30, 30 megapixels per second, 30 complete pictures; 1080I, 60 megapixels per second, 30 complete pictures; 1080P24, 48 megapixels per second, 24 complete pictures.
Interlaced standards imply that a picture will be reproduced using two interwoven fields, the first consisting of the odd numbered lines, the second of the even numbered lines. Most cameras expose each field separately, 1/60 of a second apart, which means that moving objects in the image won't line up when a picture is composed from the two fields. The benefit is that when they are shown as video, they produce a smoother moving image. Progressive standards imply that the entire picture is exposed at one time, as it would be on film. 1080P24 is supposed to emulate the appearance of film, as film is typically exposed at 24 frames per second.
We'll use this information below.
The first consideration in your choice of equipment should be the value of the content over your lifetime. It takes little more effort to shoot good video using HD formats versus SD formats, but results in pictures with three to six times the resolution. As resolution standards increase in the future, they will have greater value than SD video of the same content. It doesn't matter if this is personal or professional video, the same rule applies. The cost of the equipment is far less important than the time and effort you will spend using it over its life, and the content you will produce -- go for the best results.
Within the HD camcorders you are considering, there are four predominant compression formats: MJPEG (Canon TX1, JVC), HDV (HV20, others), MPEG-4 (Sanyo, Aiptek), and HDAVC (really MPEG-4 AVC, aka h.264). Real AVC requires lots of horsepower, and current implementations leave room for improvement, as one might expect in the first generation. HDAVC cameras typically record to hard disk or flash media.
MPEG-4 is generally for flash media cameras, such as the HD1 and A-HD. It allows 720P30 high definition recordings around 4 gigabytes per hour with acceptable quality, although quite a bit short of HDV quality. This is necessitated by the current capacity and data rate of flash memory cards. Memory cards still cost about ten times as much as DV tape for the same storage capacity, so you will probably want to erase and reuse the cards. Just be sure you have made two copies to different storage devices before erasing the original.
MJPEG is a format that offers easy editing, much like DV format (each picture is compressed individually). However, it eats memory like crazy (Canon TX1 uses about 8 GB/hr). And the difficulty of editing MPEG formats which share information from picture to picture is only a problem for the guy who has to write the editing program -- for you, there should be no additional burden.
MPEG-2, which is the basis for HDV, is well understood, and although it isn't as efficient at compression, produces an excellent image. HDV compression puts an hour of high definition content on a one hour DV tape, the same as a standard definition DV camera. HDV editing tools are common. DV tapes are inexpensive enough that it makes sense to never erase them, keeping them as your archive instead.
Speaking of media, DV tapes store about 12 GB for about $4. Flash memory is down to about $5 per gigabyte, and hard drives are around twenty cents per gigabyte to forty cents per gig for tiny drives. While hard drives are remarkably reliable, when they fail, their entire contents is gone. With video tapes, only the section affected by the failure (e.g. crinkling) is lost. When video is captured to a hard drive, it is ready to plug into a non-linear editing system immediately, avoiding the "real time" (1x) transfer of content from tape to disk before editing can begin. An ideal capture medium in terms of reliability, cost, and workflow is a removable hard drive.
But wait -- none of the consumer camcorders have removable hard drives! So you have to take the camera out of service in order to edit the content of its hard drive, or at least transfer it to another drive before editing, since you'll have to erase the contents of the camera's fixed hard drive before continuing to use it!
What makes a lot more sense is to use an external hard drive, capturing simultaneously to DV tape for archival purposes (copy 1) and to the disk (archival copy 2), which can then immediately be used for editing. Unfortunately, external firewire disks (with controller intelligence to be able to download) are remarkably expensive -- about the cost of a portable computer. So -- use a portable computer! Run an editor with a built-in capture program to record the content as you shoot. If you record it to an external hard drive, you can hot swap drives in the field for immediate editing.
The Canon HV20 is about the best quality, most versatile HDV camera available (according to reviews from owners at Amazon, NewEgg, CNet, etc.). My HV10 has been very pleasing, and the HV20 offers both 1080I and 1080P24 recording formats. It is said to have an actual 1920 x 1080 sensor (many HDV cameras are 1440 x 1080), with reasonable sensitivity and noise. It has an external mike in, and a headphone output (it is very important that you monitor your audio while shooting).
So that is the basis for my recommendation. However, I also recommend that you get an Aiptek A-HD (about $120 on sale) to play with, so you'll know what is coming. I have always associated Aiptek with gimick cameras that were fun but low quality. The A-HD is a real surprise in quality and low noise, and you can afford to give an HD Camcorder to your children! It seems to readout the video sensor in real time, so that if you pan quickly vertical objects tilt. Getting good audio is difficult. You'll need a tripod. But by and large, it is really cool. It can even record an NTSC video input (with audio) and work as a portable video (or MP3) player.
I've carried the HD1 (pocket sized) or the TX1 (even smaller) at all times for a few years. The world's finest camera setup won't do you any good if you don't have it with you when an opportunity presents itself. The 720P30 format is just fine in this context. The A-HD could also serve in this capacity.
By the way, great video requires great audio. Small portable recorders with good microphones (such as the iRiver IFP 7xx and 8xx series sold as MP3 players, or the Zoom H2) have crystal controlled timebases, just like your digital camera. As a result, the audio can be synchronized during editing and (as long as all devices remained rolling during record) they should remain in very good sync. You can sprinkle recorders in areas where you expect interesting audio, and once everything is rolling, clap once in front of the camera so you can line things up later. In this way, you don't have to be dependent on the camera's mike, or worry about dragging around the external microphone wire while you shoot. And you are not limited to the single channel of audio a wireless mike typically provides. If you get a wireless mike, remember you want a lightweight, battery operated receiver (most come with clunky AC powered receivers).
Although your camcorder will be great for handheld shots, please also get a decent tripod, with a quickly removable camera mount (and a spare platform), with "fluid head". The fluid is a viscous dampling fluid, which almost guarantees all of your camera moves will be smooth. A jerky tripod is almost useless for a video camera. Also, when you shoot on the tripod, turn off the image stabilization which will otherwise produce strange lagging movement effects.
Please remember when you are shooting that camera moves and zooms are like fonts on a page -- use too many and you distract from the content by calling attention to the camerawork.
So the answer, although it can be boiled down to a rational choice of equipment, is not intuitive. First, the cost of the equipment will be of far less importance than the value of the content; second, great video requires great audio; and third, great video requires great attention to lighting.
One last thing: Please back up your media, both locally and on distant servers. There are services which specialize in this, but with a little effort, you can use private space on a shared Internet host that is readily accessible but secure. Hosting space in a distant city can cost as little as $6 per terabyte(!) per month, but guarantees that any local catastrophes won't destroy your family picture and video collection. And if you wish, you can also set up your own website in the public space.
Whatever you choose, Russ, I hope you have a blast.
Submitted by Steven W Rose