How to Buy a Digital Camcorder

Flash Is King

For quite some time now, shoppers have been presented with many competing forms of video-storage media, including DV tape, MiniDVDs, and on-board hard drives. But at the moment, for most casual video shooters, the choice is clear: flash memory.

In the past few years, camcorder makers have added high-capacity flash memory drives to store footage; in the same period, capacities for removable SDHC and SDXC cards have soared. These days, many camcorders use a combination of an SD card slot (or even multiple SD card slots) and an internal flash drive to store footage. Other camcorders use one storage format or the other exclusively.

Each type of storage has its pros and cons, but the most versatile option is a camcorder that uses SDHC- and SDXC-card-based storage in one way or another. Here are the major advantages and disadvantages of each media-storage format, as well as some guidelines on how to pick the right card for your camcorder.

Hard-Drive-Based Camcorders

On-board hard drives offer a lot more storage capacity than flash, but for most users the trade-offs aren't worth the extra space. You can't swap disk drives in and out, so a hard-drive-based camcorder is less convenient for shuttling video files from the camera to your PC or Mac than a camcorder with removable storage. And even though you may have more than 100GB of storage space on a hard-drive-based camcorder, your battery is bound to poop out long before you can fill that much space in a single shoot.

Due to their small movable parts, hard drives fail more easily than flash memory does. Disk drives are more prone to crashing in challenging environments, too, such as during outdoor shoots, fast-action shoots, or high-altitude (above 10,000 feet) filming—exactly the kinds of situations you rarely get a second chance at capturing.

All that extra hard-drive space can also introduce a few bad habits when it comes to managing your video. It's best to offload smaller chunks of footage to an external drive or a PC as you shoot it, but with a honking 120GB hard drive built into your video camera, you might be tempted to just leave it there. In general, you're better off getting enough flash memory for your shooting session, and then offloading the video to an external hard drive or to a hard drive in your PC. Because massive amounts of on-board storage are some users' primary need, most camcorder makers offer at least one hard-drive-based model.

Flash-Drive-Based Camcorders

For the smallest, lightest, and lowest-cost models--pocket camcorders in particular—an internal, fixed flash drive may be the camcorder's only storage option. In the case of pocket camcorders, storage space may top out at 4GB or 8GB, which is just enough space for an hour or two of footage. A flash drive is generally more durable than a hard drive due to its solid-state nature, but a fixed flash drive has the same limitations as a hard-drive-based camcorder: You can't remove the drive, so it's not the most convenient option for transferring your files to a PC or Mac.

Higher-end camcorders offer a combination of embedded and removable flash memory, which greatly expands your video-recording time without adding much heft to the device. Even on less capacious models, embedded memory is very useful in a pinch, in case you lose your storage card or fill it up.

Picking the Right SD Card

If you opt for an SD-card-based camcorder, you'll need to buy your storage space separately.

SD cards come in three formats: SD, SDHC, and SDXC (the most recent). Cards that use the original SD format max out at 2GB of storage, which isn't enough for most video needs. You'll want to stick with SDHC cards (4GB to 32GB) or SDXC cards (64GB or more).

SDHC cards pack up to 32GB of storage, and SDXC card capacities currently offer up to 128GB of storage. A 64GB card can hold more than 5 hours of 24-mbps 1080 HD video at the the highest quality settings, and things will only get better in the near future: The SDXC card format should reach a whopping 2TB of capacity within the next few years.

But storage capacity isn't the only thing to pay attention to when you buy an SDHC or SDXC card. Each card comes with two speed ratings. The Class rating gives the minimum write speed of the card, which is important to know when you're saving video. Each Class number identifies the minimum write speeds in megabytes per second (MBps). For example, Class 4 cards offer minimum write speeds of 4 MBps. Bit rates for the current crop of consumer camcorders typically top out at 24 megabits per second (mbps), or 3 MBps, so a Class 4 rated card works fine.

If you don't plan on shooting a lot of footage, you needn't splurge on a Class 6 or Class 10 card. However, if you expect to crank out reams of long Full HD video files, get a card with the highest maximum speed rating you can afford. The higher the maximum rating, the faster you can whisk your video from the camera into your PC for editing and archiving.

One very important fact to consider is that SD cards are forward-compatible, but not backward-compatible. In other words, SDHC cards work in SDHC and SDXC slots, but SDXC cards don't work in SDHC slots.

Most camcorders announced in 2011 support the SDXC format, but before you plunk down plastic for an SDXC card, make sure your camcorder and card readers support it. The first SDXC devices came out in 2010, so any camcorder released before then won't support the format. And though most new camcorders do support SDXC, card readers and host devices may have problems reading your SDXC card unless they're brand-new readers or devices. At this time, we'd recommend the highest-capacity SDHC card for your storage needs, but as time goes on, SDXC will likely be compatible with all the newer card readers on the market.

If you have a computer with a built-in card reader, you can augment its ability to read SDXC cards with a USB external card reader. For example, SanDisk's ImageMate All-in-One Reader USB 2.0 accepts SDXC cards, and it can be used on Windows XP, Vista, or Windows 7 machines.

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