How to Choose a Future-Proof Video Camera

If the only video you shoot is clips of your dog for YouTube, most any camcorder will do. But if you're recording your child's first steps or daughter's wedding, you want some assurance that it will still be viewable in 20 or 30 years, when you'll get the most pleasure out of watching it.

The flash-based Canon Vixia HF10 records at resolutions up to 1920x1080 at 17 mbps and includes 16GB of built-in solid-state memory as well as an SDHC slot.
While today's digital video formats will undoubtedly be obsolete by then, you can choose a reasonably future-proof video camera by following three key guidelines:

  • Buy the best image quality you can afford
  • Capture in a widely supported format
  • Use a long-term storage medium

No single camcorder we've tested performs ideally in all of these criteria, but keeping these demands in mind helps narrow the field to a manageable number of cameras.

To get the highest image quality (and full-quality playback on that spanking-new HDTV you bought) you should be thinking HD. There are two main high-definition video formats in consumer camcorders: HDV, which came out in 2004 and uses the same kind of MiniDV tape cassettes as the original (and hugely successful) standard-def DV format; and AVCHD (Advanced Video Codec High Definition), a still-maturing format that first appeared in mid-2006 and can be recorded to DVD, hard disk, or flash memory.

AVCHD vs. HDV

AVCHD has several major advantages over HDV: a more efficient compression algorithm that uses less space per minute of video (an important consideration for long-term storage), drag-and-drop file transfers from camera to computer that are up to ten times faster than with HDV, and random-access media that beats the fast forwarding and rewinding of tape hands-down. Since AVCHD uses the same MPEG-4 compression as Blu-ray, you can also play AVCHD discs in Blu-ray players without re-encoding them, which is a real convenience. It is poised to become the dominant consumer video format. But HDV is not dead yet--in fact, it may still be your best bet.

HDV remains a good choice for three reasons. First, the best consumer HDV camcorders still have better image quality than the best AVCHD models (although AVCHD is catching up fast). And pro-level HDV camcorders are staples of TV production, whereas professional AVCHD cameras are just emerging.

Second, despite its awkward and time-consuming camera-to-PC transfer mechanism, the MiniDV tape used by HDV is its own handy long-term storage medium--you can just toss it in a drawer after you're done editing. A 60-minute tape costs only $3 or so. By contrast, AVCHD requires burning to optical disc for shelf storage, or dedicating hard drive space year after year. A 1-terabyte hard drive will hold about 125 hours of AVCHD video at the current top bit rate of 17 megabits per second (mbps), but you'll need to double that to back it up. Tapes are also useful on vacations, when it might be difficult or impossible to offload video from your hard disk or memory card.

Third--and a good reason to hold off on buying an AVCHD camcorder if you can--is the AVCHD format's immaturity. Most consumer video software is only just starting to handle AVCHD, and even then it may not take full advantage of your specific camera and its many shooting modes. For example, a program may handle 1440 by 1080 AVCHD at 60 interlaced frames per second (60i), but not the newer 1920x1080 or 24p (progressive scan) variations.

To use AVCHD in the current version of Windows Movie Maker, you'll need to convert it first, thereby losing image quality. Furthermore, AVCHD has not yet reached its maximum quality potential. While the spec allows for bit rates up to 24 mbps, only a handful of cameras even support 15-17 mbps. And no consumer AVCHD camcorders yet offer the true 1080p support that will get the most out of your HDTV.

All that should change over the next year or two, as AVCHD camcorders finally hit their maximum possible bit and frame rates, and as software support becomes more reliable. Prices should also continue to come down.

Click on the data chart icon below to see a table comparing the two formats.

High-Definition Video Formats
 HDV AVCHD
Recording medium
MiniDV tape
DVD, HDD, Flash
Video format
MPEG-2
MPEG-4 AVC (H.264)
Audio format
MPEG-1 layer 2 (MP2)
Dolby AC-3 stereo
Resolution
1280x720 (720p); 1440x1080 (1080i)1280x720 (720p); 1440x1080 or 1920x1080 (1080i)
Supported frame rates
60p at 1280x720; 60i at 1440x1080 (24p/30p in pro camcorders)
60p/24p/30p at 1280x720; 60i/24p/30p at 1440x1080 or 1920x1080
Bit rates
19 mbps at 720p, 25 mbps at 1080i
Variable up to 17 mbps
GB/hour
12GB/hour
8GB/hour at 17 mbps

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