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Camcorder Buying Guide

Need to make some movies? Find out everything you need to know about purchasing a camcorder from the experts at Consumer Reports

What is a camcorder?
A device that records images in a manner that is similar to that of a digital camera. A series of images is captured by collecting light from a subject and focusing it on a photosensitive substance inside the device. In an old movie camera, that substance was film. With digital camcorders, it’s a light-sensitive imaging sensor (or multiple sensors), which converts the light into electric signals. The camcorder then internally converts those signals into video data, which it stores in one of a variety of media formats—miniDV tape, DVD disc, hard drive, or memory card. Audio is also captured and recorded simultaneously.

Types of camcorders
Camcorder manufacturers have not introduced any new analog models in several years and have concentrated on producing only digital models. They generally offer fine picture quality and decent sound, and most are quite compact. Many weigh about one pound, and the smallest are closer to half a pound.

Unlike analog camcorders of the past, digital camcorders allow you to do a lot more with videos than simply play them back on your TV. You can edit and embellish them with music using your computer, then play your productions on your DVD or Blu-ray player or PC. You can also e-mail recordings or upload your video clips to sites such as YouTube. Many video-editing-software suites also allow you to combine your video with digital stills, graphics, and text, expanding your creative possibilities.

Although there has been an increase in interest in camcorders that capture high-definition (HD), which offers the best video quality, another group of camcorders, pocket camcorders, has also grown in popularity. Unlike some HD models, most of these pocket models are compact, lightweight and very easy to use. But pocket camcorders, which are available in HD and SD, offer far less video quality and fewer features than what full-sized SD and HD camcorders have.

Some full-sized models are also becoming smaller and lighter, especially those that store video on removable flash-memory cards. But in order to reduce the "footprint" of the camcorder, some models have eliminated features such as a viewfinder. If you'll be watching your video on an HDTV, it's worth considering an HD camcorder, but be prepared to pay hundreds more for one.

There are several different recording formats that are available, each with advantages and disadvantages. (See Types for more information on specific formats.) Camcorders store your video on mini tape cassettes, DVDs, internal hard drives, mini Blu-ray discs, or removable flash-memory cards similar to those you’d use in a digital camera. Many pocket models include on-board flash memory, similar to what you find on MP3 players. More models now combine two storage options, such as a hard drive and DVD or memory card, for added flexibility.

High-definition primer
The ability to capture HD-quality video is probably within your reach. In fact, most are priced between $600 and $900, although you'll still find some models that cost more than $1,000. Many models we've rated have very good overall quality and produce either excellent or very good picture and audio quality. But the most common weak spot was picture quality in low-light conditions. Most are also easy to use.

Most consumer HD models have either a 10x or 12x optical zoom, although some have more. At maximum zoom, most camcorders display some image vibration because of hand shake or other factors. To compensate for that, all include an image stabilizer, which can do an excellent job. But note that pocket camcorders that shoot HD-resolution video rarely have a stabilizer.

HD camcorders offer the same variety of storage formats as standard-definition models: MiniDV tape, DVD, hard-drive, and flash-memory card. But you can also find models that combine formats, such as one that stores video on either a DVD or flash-memory card. So you can record longer clips on, say, a 16GB memory card and shorter ones on a DVD. Or take the video recorded on the card and burn it to a DVD. Pocket camcorders that shoot HD-resolution video generally store video on either internal flash memory or flash memory cards.

In HD, as with standard-definition camcorders, manufacturers are producing more flash-based and hard-drive models than other formats. But you can find some very good values in the few MiniDV models that are available. Most manufacturers have stopped making high-def DVD models, although you may still be able find some discontinued models on the market. Flash-memory card models tend to be lighter and more compact than other types, although none have the viewfinders found on most other models.

One additional difference you’ll find with HD camcorders is that they will generally have an HDMI output, which stands for High-Definition Multimedia Interface. This interface is designed to be the best way to connect your camcorder to an HD television.

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