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Consumer Reports – Camcorders

hose grainy, jumpy home movies of yesteryear are long gone–replaced by home movies shot on digital or analog camcorders. You can edit and embellish the footage with music using your computer, then play it back on your VCR; you can even send it via e-mail.

Digital camcorders, now the dominant type, generally offer very good to excellent picture quality, along with very good sound capability, compactness, and ease of handling. Making copies of a digital recording won’t result in a loss of picture or sound quality. You can even take rudimentary still photos with some digital camcorders.

Analog camcorders, now a small part of the market, generally have good picture and sound quality and are less expensive. Some analog units are about as compact and easy to handle as digital models, while others are a bit bigger and bulkier.


Sony dominates the camcorder market, with multiple models in a number of formats. Other top brands include Canon, JVC, Panasonic, and Samsung.

Most digital models come in the MiniDV format. Formats such as the disc-based DVD-RAM and DVD-R have also appeared. Some digital models weigh as little as one pound.

MiniDV. Don’t let their small size deceive you. Although some models can be slipped into a large pocket, MiniDV camcorders can record very high-quality images. They use a unique tape cassette, and the typical recording time is 60 minutes at standard play (SP) speed. Expect to pay $6.50 for a 60-minute tape. You’ll need to use the camcorder for playback–it converts its recording to an analog signal, so it can be played directly into a TV or VCR. If the TV or VCR has an S-video input jack, use it to get a high-quality picture.

Price range: $350 to more than $2,000.

Digital 8. Also known as D8, this format gives you digital quality on Hi8 or 8mm cassettes, which cost $6.50 and $3.50, respectively. The Digital 8 format records with a faster tape speed, so a “120-minute” cassette lasts only 60 minutes at SP. Most models can also play your old analog Hi8 or 8mm tapes.

Price range: $350 to $800.

Disc-based. Capitalizing on the explosive growth and capabilities of DVD movie discs, these formats offer benefits tape can’t provide: long-term durability, a compact medium, and random access to scenes as with a DVD. The 3 1/4-inch discs record standard MPEG-2 video, the same format used in commercial DVD videos. The amount of recording time varies according to the quality level you select: from 20 minutes per side at the highest-quality setting for DVD-RAM up to about 60 minutes per side at the lowest setting. DVD-RAM discs are not compatible with most DVD players, but the discs can be reused. DVD-R is supposed to be compatible with most DVD players and computer DVD drives, but the discs are write-once. We paid about $25 at a local retailer for a blank DVD-RW.

Price range: $700 to $1,000.

Most analog camcorders now use the Hi8 format; VHS-C and Super VHS-C are fading from the market. Blank tapes range in price from $3.50 to $6.50. Analog camcorders usually weigh around 2 pounds. Picture quality is generally good, though a notch below that of digital.

Price range: $225 to $500.


A flip-out liquid-crystal-display (LCD) viewer is becoming commonplace on all but the lowest-priced camcorders. You’ll find it useful for reviewing footage you’ve shot and easier to use than the eyepiece viewfinder for certain shooting poses. Some LCD viewers are hard to use in sunlight, a drawback on models that have only a viewer and no eyepiece.

Screens vary from 2 1/2 to 4 inches measured diagonally, with a larger screen offered as a step-up feature on higher-priced models. Since an LCD viewer uses batteries faster than an eyepiece viewfinder does, you don’t have as much recording time when the LCD is in use.

An image stabilizer automatically reduces most of the shaking that occurs from holding the camcorder as you record a scene. Most stabilizers are electronic; a few are optical. Either type can be effective, though mounting the camcorder on a tripod is the surest way to get steady images. If you’re not using a tripod, you can try holding the camcorder with both hands and propping both elbows against your chest.

Full auto switch essentially lets you point and shoot. The camcorder automatically adjusts the color balance, shutter speed, focus, and aperture (also called the “iris” or “f-stop” with camcorders).

Autofocus adjusts for maximum sharpness; manual focus override may be needed for problem situations, such as low light. (With some camcorders, you may have to tap buttons repeatedly to get the focus just right.) With many models, you can also control exposure, shutter speed, and white balance.

The zoom is typically a finger control–press one way to zoom in, the other way to widen the view. The rate at which the zoom changes will depend on how hard you press the switch. Typical optical zoom ratios range from 10:1 to 26:1. The zoom relies on optical lenses, just like a film camera (hence the term “optical zoom”). Many camcorders offer a digital zoom to extend the range to 400:1 or more, but at a lower picture quality.

For tape-based formats, analog or digital, every camcorder displays tape speeds the same way a VCR does. Every model, for example, includes an SP (standard play) speed. Digitals have a slower, LP (long play) speed that adds 50 percent to the recording time. A few 8mm and Hi8 models have an LP speed that doubles the recording time. All VHS-C and S-VHS-C camcorders have an even slower EP (extended play) speed that triples the recording time. With analog camcorders, slower speeds worsen picture quality. Slow speed usually doesn’t reduce picture quality on digital camcorders. But using slow speed means sacrificing some seldom-used editing options and may restrict playback on other camcorders.

Disc-based formats have a variety of modes that trade off recording time for image quality.

Quick review lets you view the last few seconds of a scene without having to press a lot of buttons. For special lighting situations, preset auto-exposure settings can be helpful. A “snow & sand” setting, for example, adjusts shutter speed or aperture to accommodate high reflectivity.

A light provides some illumination for close shots when the image would otherwise be too dark. Backlight compensation increases the exposure slightly when your subject is lit from behind and silhouetted. An infrared-sensitive recording mode (also known as night vision, zero lux, or MagicVu) allows shooting in very dim or dark situations, using infrared emitters. You can use it for nighttime shots, although colors won’t register accurately in this mode.

Audio/video inputs let you record material from another camcorder or from a VCR, useful for copying part of another video onto your own. (A digital camcorder must have such an input jack if you want to record analog material digitally.) Unlike a built-in microphone, an external microphone that is plugged into a microphone jack won’t pick up noises from the camcorder itself, and it typically improves audio performance.

A camcorder with digital still capability lets you take snapshots, which can be downloaded to your computer. The photo quality is generally inferior to that of a still camera.

Features that may aid editing include a built-in title generator, a time-and-date stamp, and a time code, which is a frame reference of exactly where you are on a tape–the hour, minute, second, and frame. A remote control helps when you’re using the camcorder as a playback device or when you’re using a tripod. Programmed recording (a self-timer) starts the camcorder recording at a preset time.


Pick your price range and format. The least-expensive camcorders on the market are analog. All the rest are digital.

Once you’ve decided which part of the price spectrum to explore, you need to pick a specific recording format. That determines not only how much you’ll be spending for tapes or discs, but also how much recording time you’ll get. The tape-based formats are typically superior in picture quality.

With analog, you can get 120 to 300 minutes of recording on a Hi8 cassette; with the SVHS-C or VHS-C formats, you can get only 30 to 120 minutes.

With digital formats that use MiniDV, Digital 8, or MicroMV tapes, you can get at least 60 minutes of recording on a standard cassette. MiniDV and D8 cassettes are the least expensive and easiest to find.

Digital DVD camcorders from Panasonic and Hitachi can accommodate DVD-RAM discs, which can be reused but aren’t compatible with all DVD players. All brands also use DVD-R, one-use discs that work in most DVD players. The standard setting yields 60 minutes of recording; the “fine” setting, 30 minutes.

If you’re replacing an older camcorder, think about what you’ll do with the tapes you’ve accumulated. If you don’t stay with the same format you’ve been using, you will probably want to transfer the old tapes to an easily viewed medium, such as a DVD.

If you’re buying your first camcorder, concentrate on finding the best one for your budget, regardless of format.

Check the size, weight, and controls. In the store, try different camcorders to make sure they fit your hand and are comfortable to use. Some models can feel disconcertingly tiny. (You’ll need to use a tripod if you want rock-steady video, no matter which camcorders you choose.) Most camcorders are designed so that the most frequently used controls–the switch to zoom in and out, and the record button–fall readily to hand. Make sure that the controls are convenient and that you can change the tape or DVD and remove the battery.

Check the flip-out LCD viewer. Most measure 2.5 inches on the diagonal, but some are larger, adding about $100 to the price. If the viewer seems small and difficult to use or suffers from too much glare, consider trading up to a similar model or a different brand to get a better screen.

Think about the lighting. A camcorders isn’t always used outdoors or in a brightly lit room. You can shoot video in dim light, but don’t expect miracles. In our tests, using the camcorders’ default mode, most produced only fair or poor images in very low light. Many camcorders have settings that can improve performance but can be a challenge to use.

Copyright © 2002-2006 Consumers Union of U.S., Inc.

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Brooke Yan

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