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What to Consider When Buying a Digital Camcorder

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You don’t want to plunge blindly into the thicket of the camcorder market without a sense of where you’re going. Here are several things you’ll need to keep in mind to help narrow your choices.

Price

Camcorders span the range from $149 for a low-end model to $1,500 or more for advanced products. Within this range, the $600 mark is typically a dividing line between the high end and the rest of market. You can still buy a quality camcorder for considerably less than $600, but most of the advanced technologies will be introduced at higher price points.

Your Lifestyle

Think carefully about how you plan on using your camcorder. Do you want to carry it with you at all times to record spontaneous moments, or is it mostly for special occasions? Do you want to take it underwater? Do you want to share your video far and wide on YouTube, or watch it in widescreen splendor on your HDTV? Do you fancy yourself the next Steven Spielberg, or do advanced features bore you?

Pocket Versus Full Featured

Pocket camcorders, like the Flip from Cisco are all the rage these days. They’re very compact, extremely easy to use and the video is easily transferred to the computer and Web. They’re inexpensive, too, usually falling below $200. These benefits have motivated a fair number of shoppers to opt for pocket models, but they do come with trade-offs.

The lenses used in these camcorders are considerably inferior to the ones found on full featured camcorders. In fact, one way to distinguish between a pocket camcorder and a full featured model is the optical zoom specification. If the camcorder does not offer an optical zoom lens, or image stabilization, it’s likely a pocket model. These camcorders also tend to struggle in low light environments.

Resolution

Like televisions, digital camcorders are available in standard definition and high definition (HD). Standard definition models will cost less, on average, than high definition. They’ll deliver video quality suitable for viewing on a computer or non-HDTV. HD camcorders will produce wide-screen video suitable for viewing on an HDTV.

Media Format

The type of media your camcorder uses impacts the size, weight, battery life, performance and the overall user experience.

Both standard definition and HD camcorders can record to hard disk drives, flash memory cards and built-in flash memory.. Older formats, like mini DVDs and tape, have been all but phased out. A flash memory based camcorder will be lighter in weight and smaller in size than a hard drive-based camcorder, but won't offer as much internal storage.

For more, see this Guide to Digital Camcorder Memory Formats.

Core Features

Once you’ve assessed your lifestyle, picked a resolution and media format, you need to focus on some additional core features.

These include:
  • Optical Zoom: If you want to get up close to your subject, you’ll need a model with a high-powered zoom lens. The lens’ power is given as a factor of “x” – so a 10x lens will magnify an object by a factor of 10. Some zoom lenses can go to 48x and beyond. See this article comparing Optical vs. Digital Zoom for more details.

  • Image Stabilization: To avoid blurry video due to shaking hands, many camcorders offer image stabilization. It’s an essential feature for long zoom models. See this article on Optical vs. Digital Stabilization for more details.

  • Photo Features: If you want to leave the digital camera behind, you can find camcorders with very robust photo capabilities including scene modes, a flash, burst shooting, and exposure controls.

  • Audio Recording: Want to film your home movies with surround sound? Higher-end camcorders can record in Dolby Digital 5.1.
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