Our Camcorder Buying Guide
a.k.a. How To Buy A Camcorder
Innovations in the video camera industry come faster and faster as manufacturers create amazing new products every day. As the sizes of consumer camcorders get smaller, the overall engineering and quality get bigger.
That also means that the number of options and features continue to increase at an amazing clip. Here are some things to consider as you look for the best compact camcorder for you.
TYPE OF CAMCORDER
For compact camcorders, the two main categories are pocket camcorders (these look very similar to iPhones in size) and the handheld camcorders (about the size of a block of cheese).
Pocket Camcorder: Flip Video Cameras made pocket camcorders the rage. As an example see pictured left: the Flip Video UltraHD 3rd generation pocket camcorder, one of the most popular compact camcorders sold. Pocket camcorders are popular because of convenience and portability. Easy to stick in your pocket (thus the name) or purse and easy to use, you can take them anywhere and just pull out and shoot. Many pocket camcorders also allow for easy transfer to your computer or uploading to your favorite social networking account like Youtube or Facebook. Many have a flip-out USB jack that you can plug directly into your desktop PC or laptop; you don’t need to fiddle with a cable. Otherwise an easy-to-use USB port. Most also use flash memory though there are some which can also use SD cards as well (for more on this, see the below section on STORAGE).
Another advantage of pocket camcorders is that some of them are also made to be water resistant.
One of the boons of pocket camcorders used to be the resolution as they used to only come in standard definition. They also now come in HD as well. But the video quality will still not be as good as the handheld camcorder with the lenses and microphones being slightly more inferior. They will also not do as well with image stabilization or low light situations.
Handheld Camcorder: These models are bigger than pocket camcorders, but not by much. They can easily be slipped into your bag or large coat pocket. As an example, pictured right is the Canon VIXIA HF R21 Full HD Camcorder, a very popular bestselling handheld camcorder. Handhelds tend to offer better quality in just about everything: controls, preview area, better video with better lenses, and better audio and microphones. And LCD panels have become remarkably crisp and vivid. You will also have more flexibility with storage options: flash, SD, and even hard drive. Being bigger also allows a bigger form factor to hold on to and steadier use.
The downside? They take a bit more time to set up and use (just a fraction) versus the pocket camcorders which are very convenient to pull out and shoot.
The days of tapes and even DVDs are gone now. For better portability and capacity, hard drive storage became the rage of camcorders. And nowadays there are even smaller more portable options: internal flash drives and SD cards.
And these days, many camcorders provide flexibility with multiple storage types, most commonly SD card slots and internal flash storage.
Hard-Drive-Based Camcorders: the benefits are that hard drive storage offers the most capacity. You can film in high quality and for the longest amounts of time without transferring to your computer. The downside? You cannot swap drives in and out if you find the need (though most of the time you will not run out of recording room prior to transfer to your computer). However, this becomes an issue because hard drives are more likely to fail over time then internal flash and SD cards due to more mechanical parts. You also have to be careful with hard drives when shooting more rugged and active videos – and once a hard drive fails, you cannot shoot with that camera anymore until a replacement is made.
Flash-Drive-Based Camcorders: Internal flash drives offer the most in convenience. They can offer sufficient storage for a few hours of shooting (4GB to 8GB) in minimal space. Many pocket camcorders utilize flash storage for this reason. And as flash drives are solid stage in nature and with less movable parts, they are much more durable. The downside: you cannot remove the drive. So for transfer you need to plug the camcorder into a computer. And once the flash drive fails (they are less prone to failure), you cannot shoot with the camera anymore until a replacement is made.
SD Cards-Based Camcorders: We favor SD cards because they are small, compact, few movable parts, AND swappable. As soon as you run out of space, you can swap in a new SD card. Furthermore, SD card technology continues to grow. This means with our flash based camcorder you are stuck at that capacity. Whereas SD cards continue to increase in capacity and thus your camcorder shooting capacity will grow with that. Currently the types of cards are SD (up to 2GB), SDHD (up to 32GB), and SDXD (up to 128GB). We have found SanDisk to be the most reliable manufacturer of SD cards and the 32GB SDHC size should fit most of your needs. (Currently the SanDisk 32GB SDHC card is $24.00 on Amazon).
Standard Definition (SD): Standard Defintion is slowly fading from the scene, but with that this means that these camcorders are much cheaper these days (such as the original Flip video cameras). The video files are naturally smaller and easier to work with when editing. Standard definition will usually shoot with 480 horizontal lines, with the normal resolution of 640×480 resolution (think older televisions). Most youtube videos and online videos are also of standard definition quality (640×480).
High Definition (HD): These days just about everything is in high definition. All new televisions are HD and so you will want to consider shooting all your videos in HD also. The horizontal lines can be up to 1,080 lines for HD. There are three common HD resolutions: 1080p, 1080i, and 720p.
The “i” stands for interlaced. The “p” stands for progressive.
“Interlaced Video” is not common. This means it will shoot every other line of resolution (lines 1, 3, 5, etc) and then follow with the later lines (lines 2, 4, 6, etc). Interlaced video tends to be of lower quality, especially with action video.
“Progressive Video” which is a fancy way of saying that the shooting of video starts with line one and continues all the way through the end (line 1080 or line 720). As you would expect, the quality is much better, especially for action videos.
Currently HD resolution maxes out at 1920×1080 which is also called “Full HD” or “Full High Def”.
There are many other features you will see with both handheld and pocket camcorders. Here is a list of things you may want to consider:
Optical Zoom Lens: Optical zoom means you can zoom in while maintaining high quality video. Digital zoom lets you zoom in much father but the resolution becomes very spotty. In most cases we would recommend you don’t even bother with digital zoom as no manufacturer can really keep good video quality with digital zoom.
Image Stabilization Quality: Just about all camcorders will feature image stabilization. In the old days, shaky hands resulted in shaky video. Image stabilization saved the day by keeping the video nice and steady even with shaky hands. Optical image stabilization means the lens itself will move to compensate, while electronic image stabilization uses internal software to float the image to keep it steady and stabilized. Both tend to work well, optical working better. Read owner reviews of the camcorders closely to see how good the image stabilization is for the camcorder you are interested in.
Sound Quality: The handheld camcorders tend to have better quality microphones then the pocket camcorders. Sometimes the difference in sound quality can be a deal breaker. Make sure to read owner reviews of camcorders you are researching to see what current owners think of the sound quality of their recordings. Also of note is the position of the microphone. Microphones that are mounted on the front of the camera will tend ot have better sound quality than those mounted elsewhere, such as the top mount microphone.
Low light modes: Many camcorders feature some sort of backlighting for low light filming or can slow the shutter speed down to allow in more light. While you shouldn’t expect low light shooting to be as good as regular bright and sunny videos, low light modes are a godsend for those that would normally shoot videos in dark settings such as nightclubs or outdoor areas in the evening.
Water Resistant: For some who plan to take their cameras underwater, yes of course you would want waterproof cameras. You will be hard pressed to find waterproof cameras in a handheld camcorder. But many pocket camcorders are also water resistant to 10 meters or more.
Connectivity To Computer/TV: Many camcorders will offer USB ports for easy hookup to your computer. Some will even offer a flipout USB cable to easily connect to your computer without having to carry an extra cable (more likely to be found on pocket camcorders). There are also computers that will offer HDMI ports for easy hookup to a television. Soon to be found: wireless transfer.
Have Fun and Good Luck!
I hope this camcorder buying guide has been helpful for you!
The next step I would recommend in shopping: check out bestseller lists to see what currently is the most popular and bestselling camcorders – use that as a starting point to research quality and features to see if it is the best compact camcorder for your needs!
And now you should be armed with knowledge for researching the best compact camcorder for your home and your needs. Remember to thoroughly read product info and current owner reviews.
One purchasing “tactic” to make things easier: start with popular opinion and go with whatever is currently the most popular and bestselling and start your research there. This is why along with our reviews of pocket camcorders and handheld camcorders we also publish up-to-date bestseller lists of compact camcorders (you can check them out here)
We continue to research and publish bestseller lists for that reason along with our product reviews.
p.s. This is a few years old, but I continue to find it very helpful! Macworld has a fun article (and corresponding video) on how to buy a camcorder. You can check it out here:
p.p.s. and the corresponding video is below: