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Digital camcorders: Caught in transition?

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Posted 03-21-2009 at 06:55 AM by JDArt

If a picture is worth a thousand words, what's a moving picture worth? The answer is probably "priceless" when it comes to capturing video of your friends and family. Years down the road, those videos will no doubt become treasured mementos of people and experiences that just can't be captured the same way with still images.

That's where digital camcorders come in. Today you'll find camcorders of every shape and size - ones that fit in the palm of your hand as well as larger units that you carry on your shoulder - and ones that suit every budget. But you'll also find that when you go shopping for a digital camcorder, you'll have to make a lot of tough decisions about the technology in these camcorders. Some of the decisions will force you to think about how you might use your digital videos in the years to come.

MiniDV or hard drive?
Digital camcorders are in a state of transition right now on a number of levels. One example of this transition is the choice you'll have to make between camcorders that record to MiniDV tapes and those that record to a hard drive. Some models even record directly to a DVD.

Hard drive-based camcorders store the video you shoot on an internal hard drive. You then transfer your videos to computer, where you can edit them and burn them to a DVD. Hard drives have one signficant advantage over tape: they're faster. Unfortunately, the hard drives found in current camcorder models generally aren't very large, so you'll be limited in how much video you can shoot before offloading the results. Also, the devices today insist on connecting to the computer via USB rather than FireWire, which is faster than USB.

DVD-based camcorders record video directly to a DVD. While this approach sounds the simplest if your intention is to watch a DVD directly after recording, in practice DVD camcorders are the least versatile. Editing the footage on a computer after recording to the DVD is next to impossible. Choose this option only if you have a high tolerance for watching a lot of unedited video.

MiniDV camcorders record video digitally to a MiniDV tape - a small cassette-like cartridge that can hold anywhere from 60 minutes to two hours of footage. With MiniDV, you do have to suffer through the process of rewinding, and searching for footage can take a while, because the medium is linear. But the tapes themselves are inexpensive, and you can carry many into the field with you so that you never run out of storage. MiniDV is probably still the best choice for camcorders for most people.

Standard def or high def?
The world of video is moving to high-definition, and digital camcorders are part of the transition. Unfortunately, that means a tough choice awaits those currently in the market for a camcorder: high definition or standard definition? Standard definition refers to the video quality that most of us are used to watching on our televisions. High definition has a much higher resolution and can be played back in full spendour on the new high definition televisions.

If you're buying solely with the future in mind, high-def is the way to go. If budget is a consideration, however, standard def devices will be easier on the wallet. You can buy an inexpensive camcorder now and wait for prices of high-def camcorders to fall. Your standard def recordings will still be playable on high-def screens. You just won't get the resolution that the screens are capable of.

Multi-CCD or single CCD?
A CCD (charge-coupled device) is what allows the camcorder to "see" light. Lower-priced models have on CCD, while higher-priced camcorders often have three. In three-CCD models, a separate CCD is used to measure red, green, and blue light, generally resulting in better picture quality. When it comes to camcorders, more CCDs are almost always better. But single-CCD units can take very good videos as well. Let price and your intentions be your guide here.

Big or small?
Don't kid yourself: when it comes to camcorders, for most people, size really does matter. In the end, the best videos are those you actually take, and you won't take any videos at all if your camcorder is sitting on a shelf at home because it's too heavy to carry around with you when you need it. So choose a camcorder that everyone in the family feels comfortable using and carrying.

Just remember that smaller camcorders can actually be more difficult to hold steady. And you want a steady video, not one that makes you seasick to look at. So prefer smaller camcorders that incorporate some type of image stabilisation. Otherwise, plan on using a tripod at all times.
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