Camcorder Buying Guide

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With our Canon 100MC dying and eating tapes, its time to plumb the markets again. A quick A9/Google search for google””hd camcorder reviews” reveals that there are four big camcorder review sites listed below. What is clear is that right now, with CES just having happened, there is tremendous innovation.

Basically, the DVD camcorder has taken over because of convenience at the loss of picture quality, but the 2nd generation of flash based (mainly SD card) and hard disk based camcorders are maturing quickly. For high definition, them models are still miniDV based mainly because tape still have incredible information density. This it seems is the year that consumers are going to buy DVD and soon hard disk; and SD card camcorders that are utlra small at 480i while prosumers are going to get miniDV tape based systems that produce 1080i HD content.

* “Camcorderinfo.com”:http://camcorderinfo.com. As usual, a dedicated web site appears to be one of the best sources.
* “SonyHDVinfo.com”:http://www.sonyhdvinfo.com/. This board has the most on Sony HD camcorders
* “CNet”:http://reviews.cnet.com/4566-6500_7-0.html?tag=dir&sort=revDate7+desc. These I take with a large grain of salt since they normally don’t do any real testing. In the case of camcorders, it largely agrees with Camcorderinfo with the exception that it rates the DVD505 above the Panasonic D300.
* “DVspot.com”:http://dvspot.com. Another good webonly source although it is more about all the professional tools needed
* “PC Magazine”:http://pcmag.com. I usually take these reviews with a grain of salt, they are only semi-deep.

The main things we are looking for are in order are for Connie:

# Light and small. The smaller the camera, the more likely we are to carry it and actually take a shot. For travel, the other important thing are all those cables and chargers. For instance, using USB instead of firewire to connect to a PC would be a huge plus. And getting rid of the charger brick and using USB instead would really save weight.
# Image quality. That is the whole point of it all after all. Most consumer camcorders aren’t very accurate, they “red push” and ideally you want a very large chip and the best ones have three chips, one for each color so you get very accurate color. Finally, the lense and the optics have to be good with most typically have a remarkable 10x optical zoom. The other things are good low light performance because a light is very big and ungainly and also low noise.
# Reliable. Our Canon lasted 10 years of light usage, would hope this one would too. The big camera vendors are Canon and Sony and they look reasonably reliable.
# DVD conversion. Tapes are a real pain as is editing. The fastest way to get it to a DVD is a big consideration. The new cameras used SD flash memory cards, hard drives or can burn directly to DVDs. These are way better than tape in terms of convenience. The main issue though is that SD and DVD based camcorders can only write 8.5MBps where the tape-based mini-DV can write 25MBps, so picture quality is lower unless the camera is much better at compression. Most of these use MPEG-2 (2x denser than the DV format) and the latest are at the edge with MPEG-4 (another 2x improvement). But for right now, the best DVD camcorders don’t have as much bandwidth
# Still camera. If you can get a decent 5 megapixel picture, then it solves lots of problems
# Battery and film life. We take short pictures, so just need 40 minutes or so per media and the battery has to last a day of on and off
# HD. Hey we are in a high definition world, so why not be prepared. Would be a great bonus

So here are some choices in order based mainly on camerainfo.com along with their video quality and resolution scores:

| | Media | Quality (out of 10) | Resolution (mp) | Low Light (out of 10) |
| Sony HDR-HC1 | miniDV
8.75 | 31.5 | 7.25 |
| Sony DCR-PC1000 | miniDV | 8.25 | 10.4 | 5.0 |
| Panasonic SDR-S100 | SD Card | 8.0 | 14.5 | 4.0 |
| Canon Optura 600 | minidv | 7.85 | 17.0 | 5.75 |
| Panasonic VDR-D300 | DVD | 7.75 | 16.5 | 3.5 |
| Sony DCR-DVD403 | DVD | 7.75 | 8.8 | 5.5 |
| JVC GZ-MC500 | microDrvie | 7.75 | 12.7 | 5.0 |
| Sony DCR-DVD405 | 7.2 | 14.2 | 5.75 |
| Sony DCR-DVD505 | 7.2 | 13.6 | 5.75 |
| Sanyo VPC-HD1 | 7.2 | 21.3 | 3.75 |
| JVC GZ-MG37 | 4.75 | 11.0 | 1.75 |

For Connie, the list is sorted with DVD camcorders first because they are easy to get, you produce a DVD and view it. Next are the hard disk camcorders that should IMHO in the long term be the best. They won’t have the 9MBps limit in the long term, but right now, they are no better in picture quality typically than the DVD camcorders. Finally at the bottom is the SD card based camcorders. These are really small, but with today’s MPEG-2, the capacity is just so small and expensive.

* “Panasonic VDR-D300″:http://www.camcorderinfo.com/content/Sony-DCR-DVD505-Camcorder-Review.htm. This is the successor to the very nice D250 that they liked. Just announced at CES, so a full review wasn’t done, but image quality was very good for this DVD camcorder.The big improvements are that it can write to the more common DVD-R, DVD-RW but not DVD+R or DVD+RW (confused yet). This is still better than the D250 which could only write limited availability DVD-RAM. As with most DVD-based camcorders, a low cost miniDV will have better image quality for the true afictionado. The D300 is sharper than the DVD505 but has more noise as well and the other drawback is that with three smaller CCDs, it has less low light performance. It has 3 1/6” CCDs so that’s why image quality and particular color should be better but low light performance will suffer. Other drawback is that a DVD-R only has room for 20 minutes of video, so beware of that if you like taking lots and lots of video. This is fine for us since we don’t like to take too much. It all ends up not being viewed anyway :_) “Pricegrabber”:http://www.pricegrabber.com/p__Panasonic_VDR_D300_3_CCD_DIGA_DVD_Camcorder,__17692685/sort_type=bottomline has it for $725 right now.
* “Panasonic VDR-D250”:http://www.camcorderinfo.com/content/Panasonic-VDR-D250-First-Impressions-Camcorder-Review.htm is the next model down and promises roughly similar image quality with a few less bells and whistles, so not a bad compromise for a few bucks less. But the D300 offers optical image stabilization, 16:9 aspect ratio chips (as opposed to the zoom and crop method the D250 employs), and 3.1 MP stills (vs. 2.3 MP). All this for only a hundred dollars more seems like a bargain to get the D300.
* “Sony DCR=DVD505″:http://www.camcorderinfo.com/content/Sony-DCR-DVD505-Camcorder-Review.htm. This is the 1/3” CMOS imager of the 405 and although $100 more expensive, the Camcorderinfo folks didn’t think the overall image quality was that much better, although low light performance was. The main issue is lack of sharpness compared with miniDV camcorders. It is rated lower than the DVD405 because its image quality isn’t much better and it is $200 more although personally, I think the bigger the LCD screen the better.
* “Sony DCR-DVD405″:http://www.camcorderinfo.com/content/Sony-DCR-DVD405-Camcorder-Review.htm. This could be the perfect casual camcorder because it writes DVDs directly. It is also small and lightweight. It has one 1/3” CCD, but compared with the D300, it doesn’t have as sharp an image nor as true color.
* “Sony DCR-SR100”:http://www.camcorderinfo.com/content/Sony-DCR-SR100-First-Impressions-Camcorder-Review.htm . This is Sony’s hard disk based camcorder. Just out, no details on quality of image yet. Previous really small models like the “Sony DCR-PC1000″:http://www.camcorderinfo.com/content/Sony-DCR-PC1000-Camcorder-Review.htm had great image quality, but very low resolution. This new version one is close to the DVD405 with a 1/3” CCD imager so should have better resolution. Unlike other hard disk camcorder, this one is quite big. As large as the DVD based ones. Very interested to see it does review-wise.
* “JVC GX-MG77” could solve more problems with a better imager so stay tuned for that although the earlier MG70 was terrible. But it is very compact unlike the SR100 and is also hard disk baed.
* “Panasonic SDR-S100″:http://www.camcorderinfo.com/content/Panasonic-SDR-S100-Camcorder-Review.htm . A SD card camcorder that writes MPEG-2. It is quite sharp and decent resolution. It is small, but the battery is tiny so you’ll have to change batteries often. Its low light performance is terrible though and you still have the problem of how to produce a DVD when the 2GB SD card fills up after 20 minutes and these cards are way more expensive that 3.5” DVD-Rs.

Then these are models that sound great, but image quality means you shouldn’t get them:

* “Sanyo VPC-HD1”:http://www.camcorderinfo.com/content/Sanyo-VPC-HD1-Camcorder-Review.htm. This is a camera that has incredible specs, but terrible performance. It is SD based and only 8 ounces, but the video quality is very poor. It is essentially a still camera that has been adapted to take video, so has lots of compromises.
* “JVC GX-MG37”:http://www.camcorderinfo.com/content/JVC-GZ-MG37-Camcorder-Review.htm. This is a hard disk based camcorder which should look great, because it has the bandwidth, but in reality just has terrible image quality.
* “JVC GX-MG70”:http://www.camcorderinfo.com/content/JVC-GZ-MG70-Camcorder-Review.htm was similarly lackluster in image quality despite the 30GB hard drive.

h2. High quality HD camcorder

If you don’t need super compact, then miniDV tape continues to dominate. Assuming you want HD. That is 1080i recording at least, then the choices are bigger. Sony is pretty much running away with the prosumer HD market and there is lots more data in the “Sonyhdinfo”:http://www.sonyhdvinfo.com/ forums:

* “Sony DCR-HC1”:http://www.camcorderinfo.com/content/Sony-HCR-HC1-Review.htm. The leader for the last year as the best HD camcorder. It has excellent quality but is expensive at $1300 street. Its image quality is amazing even though it is as large as a 1995 camcorder, so compact is definitely not what this guy is all about. This model is being discontinued in favor of the new HC3, so if you want its prosumer features, get it now. There is now a big gap between the HC3 and the $2K professional camcorders. You can still get the HC1, so if you want something close to professional, then maybe getting an HC1 before they are all gone is a smart thing.
* “Sony DCR-HC3”:http://www.camcorderinfo.com/content/Sony-to-Announce-Lower-Priced-HDV-Camcorder-HDR-HC3.htm. This is just coming out at $1500 list and the buzz is that it is not as high quality in output. This uses the same imaging chip as the DVD505 and is much smaller than the HC1 but the quality is lower. See the “forum”:http://www.sonyhdvinfo.com/forumdisplay.php?f=26 as well.
* “JVC GZ MC500”:http://www.camcorderinfo.com/content/JVC-GZ-MC500-Camcorder-Review.htm. This isn’t an HD camcorder, but has a high price. 3 CCD imager so quality is good, but ships with a microdrive It is small, but expensive, so the HC1 or HC3 are winners compared with it.

One Reply to “Camcorder Buying Guide”

  1. Great post,

    I’m in the market for a new camcorder myself, so I found this list to be quite informative. From what I read, it appears as though the Sony DCR-HC1 is still the best model available so long as you aren’t specifically looking for an extra compact camcorder. However, you also say that it’s being phased out in favor of the HC3 but then go on to say that getting an HC1 before they are gone would be a good idea. My question is, what are the biggest differences between the HC3 and the HC1? Not just a price difference, but what features and performance based things are different also? Also, how much longer before the Hc3 begins getting phased out in favor of an upgraded model? If the HC3 is nearing it’s last legs, should I simply wait until the next wave of camcorders hits the shelves? I spoke to a salesman in the electronics department, and asked him to explain to me some of the major differences — but I got the impression that he was merely trying to sell me on the most expensive camera they had, even if it wasn’t what I was specifically looking for. So I came online and tried to find some good articles and guides like the one you wrote for your blog. I also found several others that were worthwhile, like this one. I think the sites that you linked to in your blog post are closer to what I was looking for though. However, you can never have too many good resources, and I want to find out all of the information I can before making such a purchase. So if anyone happens to have any more links to blogs and lists similar to this one, or to actual websites like the links the author posted here, I would greatly appreciate it if someone could share them. Thanks in advance to anyone who could help me with this. Great post either way. Your blog is alwyas a great read. Keep up the good work!

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