Which Camcorder Format to Choose?
Comedian Buddy Hackett once declared: "As a child, my family's menu only consisted of two choices: Take it or leave it." If the Hacketts were choosing a camcorder today, they would be overwhelmed by the choices available to the modern home moviemaker. Peruse the camcorder section of your local electronics store, and you'll be confronted with an incredible selection of models, from MiniDV and DVD camcorders to hard-drive and flash memory models, plus a few oddballs that fit into more than one category. Here is my guide to the different types, and the pros and cons of each.
Mini DVD Camcorders
The current darlings of the camcorder market, mini-DVD camcorders record standard-definition video to smaller versions of the same discs on which you watch movies. This means that you can pop the tiny, 3-inch DVD out of the camcorder and into a set-top DVD player--great for, say, showing the video of a party at the party itself. However, the video that mini-DVD cams record is more heavily compressed than that of MiniDV camcorders, and it's more difficult to edit; many video editing programs can't import the video.
Pros: Camcorders can shoot and play back video instantly on the camcorder or a set-top DVD player.
Cons: They produce lower-quality video than MiniDV camcorders; also, the video is more difficult to edit.
Best for: Movie makers with short attention spans--i.e. those who want to make short films; and those who want to shoot without editing.
The aging but still beloved grandfather of the digital video world, the 13-year-old MiniDV format records standard-def video to videotapes about the size of matchboxes. Both the tapes and the camcorders are inexpensive: You'll pay about $280 or more for a MiniDV camcorder such as the Canon ZR800, and you can import the video into any PC with a FireWire (aka iLink) input, and then write it to DVD. But finding particular bits of video on a tape is difficult: You have to fast-forward and rewind to find your favorite bits if you haven't yet edited them.
Pros: These camcorders are cheap, reliable, and widely compatible.
Cons: They shoot standard-definition video; finding a particular spot on a tape is a pain.
Best for: Cost cutters, wannabe video editors, and indie filmmakers.
These camcorders (such as the new $1100 Canon HV20 or the $1000 HDR-HC5) record high-definition video to the same MiniDV tapes that MiniDV camcorders use. And the video they take can be edited in most video editing programs, with some adding the ability to write the high-def video out to HD DVD or Blu-ray discs. But they are expensive: The cheapest you'll find is about $900.
Pros: These models shoot high-def video that's easy to edit; the media is cheap.
Cons: They're expensive--HDV camcorders cost two to three times as much as MiniDV ones.
Best for: Makers of high-def home movies and lovers of HDTV.