Like Doctor Dolittle's two-headed pushmi-pullyu, camcorder technology is confidently moving in two directions at once. Makers of tape-based models are delivering dramatic video-quality improvements, including high-definition capabilities that make store-bought DVDs look low-res by comparison. At the same time, the quality-schmality-give-me-convenience camp produces recorders that shoot video with no tape at all—and with very mixed results.
Camcorders that record directly to DVD discs are gaining popularity, accounting for more than one in five purchases today. Then there's the wealth of multifunction digital cameras that also shoot video clips and store them on memory cards. Even cell phones now function as ersatz video cameras (is there anything cell phones won't do at this point?).
Before we venture onto the bleeding edge of new camcorder technology, it's worth noting that the most exciting development today might not be new technology at all, but the significant price drop for mainstream MiniDV digital camcorders.
The era of VHS-C and Hi8 tapes (both analog formats) has come and gone, and Sony's Digital 8 and MicroMV tape formats never got much traction in the marketplace. That leaves MiniDV tapes as the format of choice, which is just fine with me. The digital format brings clean, distortion-free recording and playback on very compact tapes (just 2.6'' x 1.9'' x 0.5''). Both the audio and video quality is noticeably superior to the old analog formats. You can view your MiniDV tapes on a TV set or copy them to full-size VHS tapes, using a simple cable connection. MiniDV recordings are easily transferred to a computer for editing and (with the appropriate disk drive) DVD creation. What's more, a reusable tape that holds up to an hour at the highest quality setting sells for less than seven bucks—such a deal!
Your basic MiniDV camcorder—one that's fine for shooting the kid's soccer game or gathering blackmail material at the office Christmas party—can be yours on sale for a thrifty $300 to $400, and you don't have to settle for stripped-down, no-name models. One of my favorite budget-conscious recommendations, for example, is the Canon ZR100. We're talking a 20x optical zoom (i.e., a real zoom lens with 20x magnification, not a digital magnification parlor trick that lets manufacturers claim nonsensical 400x zooms), a reasonable 2.4-inch LCD screen and an effective image stabilization system to minimize shaky-hands syndrome, all in a one-pound package selling for under $300 at the Circuit City Web site.
Of course, as an enthusiastic gadget aficionado, I'm always looking for the testosterone rush that comes with cutting-edge tech, not just the business-as-usual model. It turns out, venturing beyond the basics in camcorders yields some very worthwhile options.
Most camcorders use only one optical sensor, overlaid with a filter that assigns individual cells to read one of the three colors (red, green and blue) used to re-create an image. There's a better way, though, used in professional-level cameras: incorporating three separate sensors, each designated for a different color, produces a more accurate video image with noticeably better color. Three-sensor camcorders have been available in so-called prosumer models aimed at advanced amateurs for some time, but they've always been expensive and prohibitively bulky. Not anymore. Panasonic and Sony have each created three-sensor cameras as easy to handle as their single-sensor cousins.
The Panasonic PV-GS150 ($700) looks like lots of other compact, lightweight camcorders, but beneath its Clark Kent exterior lurks some serious video firepower. The test video I shot of my niece mastering a new pogo stick is excellent, especially when it comes to color reproduction, from the spot-on flesh tones to the tricky dusty pink and aqua colors of her outfit. The PV-GS150 did well indoors, too (sans pogo stick, happily)—the video isn't overly grainy, and colors are dark but not washed out. And shooting is a breeze, thanks to a curved camera body that fits the hand nicely and a joystick control that keeps one-handed adjustments just a thumb-flick away. There's also a hot shoe for connecting optional video lights and a built-in lens cover. A zoom control that's less than smooth is my only serious complaint.
The Sony DCR-PC1000 ($1,300) delivers all the outward design sizzle that the Panasonic lacks, with a sleek dark-gray body that would look just right in a BMW glove compartment. Unlike the Panasonic, the Sony fits in your hands vertically, with the zoom control up front under your index finger and the record button under your thumb. I found it very comfortable. The handsome wide-screen LCD is touch-sensitive for accessing advanced camcorder controls, and includes an additional record button (worthwhile for two-handed shooting) and zoom controls (hard to press and nearly worthless). Whether I was shooting outdoors or in, the DCR-PC1000 didn't disappoint, matching the Panasonic (though not exceeding it, a significant point given the price difference). The Sony unit works with an optional microphone ($150), which can capture surround sound (two channels front, two channels rear). When played back through a home theater speaker system, it delivers a you-are-there sensation, re-creating the sound of birds chirping in the backyard or the audience applauding in a school auditorium. Just remember not to mutter editorial comments under your breath while shooting and you'll really enjoy the effect.
Yes, prices for three-sensor models are higher than your average camcorder, but not painfully so. And when you get a gander at the rich, deeply saturated colors, it's hard to settle for anything less.
Unless, of course, you're itching for something more—specifically, a high-definition camcorder. High-definition television (HDTV) is growing rapidly, with an ever-increasing variety of high-def shows available on network, cable and satellite systems driving sales of new sets. The appeal of HDTV is obvious the minute you look at a set broadcasting your favorite sporting event or movie in digitally precise wide-screen format, with every blade of grass, bead of sweat and bustier lace crisply defined. Standard TV uses 480 horizontal lines to draw a picture. HDTV comes in two formats, one with 720 lines, the other 1,080. Making the switch to HD is mathematically inevitable.
So if you're going to watch your favorite shows in glorious high definition, why not enjoy videos of your daughter's birthday party and your trip to Lake Wobegon with the same superb clarity? Sony came out with a groundbreaking $3,700 high-definition camcorder, the HDR-FX1, able to shoot in the highest-res 1080i HDTV format. With its three-sensor imaging system, the video I shot with this rig is nothing short of amazing. Much as I love the results, it's tough to recommend that you buy one. Sony bills the HDR-FX1 as a "consumer" camcorder, but, weighing in at more than four pounds and requiring two-handed operation, it's really designed for the would-be film-festival crowd. When I carried it to a local softball game, people looked at me as if I were filming a documentary on parental sports insanity (my Michael Moore waistline may have fueled that idea). Didn't stop them from cursing a blue streak when an eight-year-old muffed a catch, though...and it was still uncomfortable.
Fortunately, Sony has recently followed up with a more petite but still potent high-def contender, the HDR-HC1. The new model is significantly smaller at 7.4'' x 3.7'' x 2.8'' and 1.5 pounds—you can lug it along without exceptional effort. While the price is still high at $2,000, it's a whole lot less than the FX1. Unfortunately, I can't vouch for the video quality just yet, since Sony didn't have review samples in time for this article. We do know the HC1 will shoot in wide-screen 1080i format (and can be throttled back to shoot standard-definition video, too), with a 10x zoom lens and an optical image stabilization system to minimize camera jiggle. However, the new model uses a single-sensor system instead of the triple sensor of its much larger brand cousin, so it's impossible to make image quality assumptions. By the time you read this, though, the HC1 will be on store shelves and, if you walk in waving your gold card, you'll be able to take one for a test drive.
Price isn't the only caveat when considering a high-def camcorder purchase. This is early-adopter technology, with few product choices and the certainty of improvements down the line. Unlike with standard-definition camcorders, you don't have many options for high-def video editing software (full credit goes to Apple for seizing the high ground here with HD-friendly versions of both its low-end iMovie software and its more pro-oriented Final Cut programs). The first high-definition DVD player/recorders, due sometime in the next few months, introduce another new tech-nology with attendant complications, which are made even more complex by the likelihood that two competing and incompatible formats (Blu-ray and HD-DVD) will make it to store shelves.
Still, if you have the requisite budget, you have to consider an HD camcorder very seriously, either now or soon. If you haven't already bought an HDTV set, you probably will before long. High-def DVD players will be widely available within the next year or two, along with the ability to record your own discs from high-def footage you've shot. Sony has been smart about handling the HD transition period. It offers the option to view standard-definition versions of your high-def footage on regular TV and even allows you to upload standard-def files to your computer for editing. Most important, though, you only get one shot at shooting video, and a lifetime to linger over the results. Can't go back to your kid's soccer game five years from now when you finally spring for a great camcorder and ask for a do-over, more's the pity.
At some point, we're going to stop using tape to capture video—it's inevitable. Tape wears out, it snags, it requires you to zip forward and backward to find the section you want to play back. Just as audio 8-track and cassette tapes gave way to CDs and DVD recorders increasingly muscle VCRs out of our living rooms, videotape camcorders will be phased out. However, after fiddling with several current alternatives, I'm not predicting it will happen soon.
When it comes to watching movies at home, we all know that DVD delivers much better video and audio quality than VHS tape. It seems only natural, then, that one of the new camcorders that record directly to DVD discs must be a better choice than a tape-based camcorder, right?
Not so fast, my technophilic friend. The sticking point is that all DVDs are not created equal.
While discs created on DVD camcorders are just as cleanly digital as commercial DVDs, and play back on the same DVD players, they're not recorded to the same quality standards. When a computer (whether at a commercial video production company or your own home) compresses digital video to record onto a DVD, it can take its own sweet time, optimizing each frame to create a high-
resolution video image. Inside a DVD camcorder, on the other hand, those images must be compressed and burned onto the disc as fast as they're received, and the only way to accomplish that is by lowering video quality substantially.
Also, remember the huge difference between MiniDV camcorder tapes and VHS tapes for your VCR. The camcorder tape is recording a digital signal, a pristine stream of ones and zeros, while the VHS tape is an analog recording medium, based on magnetic fluctuations and prone to corruption and distortion. You can squeeze a whole lot of video data onto a MiniDV tape cassette. In fact, the high-definition camcorders discussed earlier use standard MiniDV cassettes, an amazing technical achievement.
Still, the number of DVD camcorders sold continues to rise. Why? Because we crave convenience, and popping a disc out of your camcorder and into your DVD player is a seductive proposition. So here's where we hit the proverbial fork in the road. There's indisputably a case to be made for DVD camcorders. They record on pint-size three-inch DVD discs (about 20 minutes per disc at the highest quality settings) that are easy to carry and store. You can easily jump from scene to scene on the disc, and even create playlists that string together scenes in the order you choose. And yes, you can play the discs on your home DVD player, after you've finished shooting with that disc and permanently "finalized" it (there are rewritable DVD discs, too, but playing them on a home DVD player is strictly hit-and-miss). What you're sacrificing, though, is video quality, and to my eyes it's too noticeable a sacrifice to accept. And if you ever want to edit your video footage on a computer, you're asking for additional image deterioration—opening up compressed video, fiddling with it and then recompressing it makes a bad story worse. At the very least, I'd urge you to look at DVD camcorder playback on a TV set (not the little camcorder screen) before making up your mind.
I took two DVD camcorder models for test drives, the oh-so-cute Sony DCR-DVD7 ($700) and the more businesslike Hitachi DZGX20A ($1,000). The Sony quickly proved to be a wonderful way to meet new people—its unique round shape consistently drew interested inquiries from passersby. As for performance, I liked the 2.5-inch touch-screen LCD menus and the solid feel in my hands (it does take two hands to hold properly), though the lack of an optical viewfinder is a problem when shooting in bright light. Unfortunately, the video image was not what I'd hoped for. My beautiful solid-white American Eskimo dog lost all detail running through a green grassy yard, and indoor shots in moderate light were a gloomy mess.
The Hitachi is a more straightforward camcorder—no crowd-pleasing peculiarities, but I did admire the new model's slender body, compared to the over-wide handful of previous versions. The ability to connect your old tape camcorder and record the footage onto a DVD on the Hitachi is a nice touch and, if you're into camcorder still photography, the two-megapixel stills are better than average. As for video quality, it's a step up from the Sony, but a critical eye will still pick out jagged lines that should be straight and loss of detail (particularly in fast action scenes).
JVC has found a different way to deliver the instantaneous scene-to-scene navigation and easy computer file transfer found in DVD-based camcorders. Its Everio line includes several models that record to internal hard drives. The JVC GZ-MC500 I tested ($1,799.99) is the top-of-the-line model, boasting a three-image-sensor system for optimal color quality and five-megapixel still capture capability. In a lot of ways, it's directly targeted at guys like me, who live on their computers, enjoy tinkering with video files and love a good job of miniaturization—the 14-ounce camera is about the size of my fist, and that's tasty tech. On the plus side, those three image sensors deliver scrumptious colors with very good sharpness. Results aren't quite as impressive indoors, where the color shifts uncomfortably toward red under regular light bulbs, although manual adjustments are available to cope with the problem. The recorded video files aren't recognized by every video-editing program, which is annoying, but JVC does supply perfectly respectable software for file playback and DVD creation. As for photos, the five-megapixel claim is a bit overstated (some mathematical manipulation is used to achieve this level of resolution), but the stills are still very good overall, and look fine in typical 4'' x 6'' prints.
On the other hand, I can get equal video quality from a compact three-sensor tape camcorder (see the Panasonic above) at a much lower price. JVC records video and stills onto a four-gigabyte removable hard drive, each of which holds an hour of video at the highest quality settings. You might spring for a spare drive (they run over $200), but inevitably you'll have to transfer files from the camera to your computer—not a difficult task, but more work than popping in a fresh tape or blank DVD. You get fast navigation through your video files, and even the option of deleting scenes that came out badly and reusing the disk space instantly, but I'm not sure the perks justify the price.
Tale of the Two Heads
One of the most ballyhooed camcorder features in today's market is the ability to shoot digital photos along with video. Sounds good—nobody wants to lug two pieces of gear, after all. The results, though, are almost universally disappointing. Camcorder photos are better than cell-phone snapshots—at least you have a lens larger than a pinhead. But the image sensor is optimized for video, not to capture still images, and that's not going to give you great photo quality. I still carry a real still camera when I travel, and use the camcorder for snaps when it's the only option. With one exception.
Back in 2003, Samsung got the wacky idea of essentially merging two separate devices, a camcorder and a digital camera, in a single body and calling it a DuoCam. Two lenses, two image sensors, no compromises. Well, OK, there was one compromise. As with Ray Milland and Rosey Grier in the beloved 1972 film The Thing with Two Heads, the original DuoCam was an ungainly
creation, too bulky to carry comfortably. The mad scientists at the company didn't give up on their experiment, though, and with the new SC-D6550 DuoCam ($800), I do believe they've gotten it right. For starters, the new model is roughly the same size and shape as any other camcorder. Weighing in at about one pound, it's 40 percent smaller than the previous-generation DuoCam. Video performance is fine, with a 10x zoom lens and controls that, for the most part, are easy to use (the exception is the video record button, which is wedged between the battery and the mode select switch in such an extraordinarily uncomfortable way, you have to assume it was designed for alien appendages). Still, I'll forgive even this gross blunder when I factor in the DuoCam's photographic capabilities—it shoots high-resolution stills with a separate 3x zoom lens and five-megapixel sensor, delivering impressive color and sharpness (and there's a separate photo shutter button, thank goodness). For mission-critical photo expeditions I'm still going to pack my digital SLR camera, which boasts a sharper lens and zippier performance. But for family gatherings and such, the DuoCam is a terrific dual-purpose device.
The world and I seem to be having a disagreement over what I'll call "casual" photos and video—the less-than-optimal-quality digital files shot with a variety of phones, cameras and oddball devices, designed mostly for e-mailing or capturing a moment when a higher-quality camera or camcorder isn't available. I knew the mainstream was leaving me off in a drainage ditch a few years ago when, on a trip to Japan, I toted my digital SLR camera from scenic wonder to historic shrine, happily grabbing high-res images, while all around me Japanese tourists were merrily clicking away with their cell phones. Today, I see the same behavior as I walk the streets of New York, as people of many lands descend on our fair city and leave with low-res cell-phone souvenirs of their stay. Guess I'm just out of step—after all, I actually walk the streets sometimes with no cell phone at all. I'll end up in a reeducation camp before the decade's over.
So with my prejudices admitted up front, I went searching for devices that made the quality compromise of casual video more acceptable. And I found a few intriguing possibilities.
Cell phones seem like the right place to start. The phones now arriving on U.S. shores with two-megapixel image sensors for stills also show a welcome boost in video clip quality. My favorite so far is the new Nokia N90, an ingeniously designed phone/
camera hybrid that boasts a Carl Zeiss lens with autofocus (not the fixed-focus, one-size-fits-all setting of most camera phones, but something that actually tries to adjust to what you're shooting). The video is captured at 352 x 288-pixel resolution—about 30 percent of standard TV resolution, so you might want to avoid watching your clips on that big-screen set, but they're fine when played back on a phone or even in a window on a computer screen. You can even edit your video right on the Nokia phone, piecing together clips and adding music. It's not going to get you to Sundance any time soon, but it's a nice way to kill time while waiting for your flight.
If you're a Palm smartphone fan, the Treo 650 model allows video-clip recording at similar resolutions, though the action isn't as smooth as on the Nokia phone. An interesting software upgrade does improve the Treo's video performance and lets you do some cool tricks, such as grabbing a single frame as a still image. The program's called Live! for Treo 650, available for download at toysoft.ca/live650.html—it's free to try and $14.95 to buy.
Many digital cameras today offer video-clip recording capabilities, some with sound, some without. One of the few that deliver exceptional video quality is Casio's Exlim Pro EX-P505 ($500), which offers 640 x 480-resolution video at 30 frames per second (most digital camera video comes in at half that frame rate and one-quarter the resolution). Colors are warm and deep, there's none of the herky-jerky motion that usually afflicts digital-camera video, and the files are saved in a format that will play on most computers without your having to install oddball software. Most important, the Casio is an excellent digital still camera, with five-megapixel resolution and 5x zoom lens. The rounded barrel and sculpted body make for a secure, comfortable grip, controls are extensive but easy to use, and image quality is first-rate.
Let's finish off with a unique tapeless video recorder, a device that lets you boldly shoot where you'd never consider shooting before. The Samsung SC-X105L ($599.99) is shockingly small at just 3.7'' x 2.3'' x 1.1'' and a barely there 5.1 ounces. Tuck it into a pocket or toss it in your bag and you're always ready to grab a video clip or a still, use the built-in voice recorder and even play back MP3 files. I rarely use the word "gadget" to describe the products I review with suitable reverence, but the word was created to describe digital all-in-ones like this. The basic camera is fun in its own right, producing decent if still sub-tape-quality video clips and mediocre stills (the 800 x 600 resolution isn't enough to make a decent print). But then there's the killer feature, the one that makes this a "sports camcorder"—a weather-resistant external lens that attaches to the camera via a thin wire and connects to your body via a headband, wristband or clip. Suddenly you can take hands-free video as you shred down the slopes, paraglide on thermals or do whatever else thin, attractive people do that looks cool in TV commercials. Since the camera's so light and the lens is so flexible, a world of possibilities for unusual video angles and opportunities present themselves. A pet-cam? Why not. A helium-balloon's-eye view of your home from above? Certainly feasible. And if you've been wondering what to give Paris Hilton for her upcoming nuptials, I think your problem is solved. v
Steve Morgenstern writes often on technology for Cigar Aficionado.