Most people who read about technology have probably heard of "Moore's Law" - which refers to computer power doubling every 12 to 18 months. But there is another technology trend that's equally pervasive: technology not only gets more powerful, it gets smaller too. Camcorders have been a huge (if you will) beneficiary of this. Those of a certain vintage will remember when camcorders resembled shoulder-fired missiles. Now, with mini camcorders, they're small enough to slip unobtrusively into your shirt pocket or even over your ear.
But while camcorders have slimmed down remarkably, truly small, spy camera-style mini camcorders have their limitations. Here's what you need to know about mini camcorders:
What Is a Mini Camcorder?
There's no hard-and-fast definition, but generally a mini camcorder is one that's so small it does not have a built-in LCD display, few external controls and is small enough to be easily concealed. They are often marketed as spy camcorders or spy cameras but they can include products that are not meant for James Bond-style snooping.
Mini camcorders record video footage using flash memory and usually lack any on-board storage for holding your video. Instead they usually take microSD cards, which are smaller than the traditional SD cards used in most camcorders but readily available through online retailers. They also have USB ports, so you can connect a USB cable to a computer and transfer your footage that way.
Mini Camcorder Benefits
The obvious selling point of a mini camcorder is its size. Since they're so small and lightweight, you can slip them in your shirt pocket or wear them around your neck like a pendant to film a first-person view of what you're doing. Some mini camcorders are used on dog or cat collars to let you see what your cat or dog sees during their day (that is, if they don't bite the camera first). One firm has even placed a mini camcorder inside a Bluetooth headset you'd use with a mobile phone.
Mini camcorders are also fairly inexpensive: you can usually find them below $150 and there are many models available for under $100, which is a good bargain when shopping for a video camera. The other virtue of mini camcorders is that they're pretty easy to use. Aside from a power button, there isn't much in the way of external controls to navigate around. You can a true "point-and-film" experience.
Mini Camcorder Drawbacks
It's understood that if you're buying a camcorder the size of a pinkie finger that costs under $100, it's not going to pack the same feature-punch as traditional-sized camcorder that costs ten times as much. Keeping that in mind, there are some downsides to a mini camcorder. First, the video quality is usually pretty lousy. Mini camcorders are mostly standard definition - not high definition - products. They tend to have slower frame rates than the 30fps you're used to on more featured products. And since they have tiny image sensors, the video tends to suffer from a lot of digital noise, or graininess.
Image stabilization is also usually lacking. Given the camcorders are often not held in your hand but worn in a shirt pocket or in some other unstable place, they usually produce very jerky footage.
Finally, since mini camcorders don't, in general, have LCD displays, you have no way to properly frame or preview what you're recording. The audio quality tends to be crumby as well.
Mini Camcorders: Built for a Purpose
Odds are, if you're considering a mini camcorder, you're doing so for a specific purpose. Maybe you do really want to see what your cat is up to all day or want to surreptitiously record something (for benign and totally legal reasons, mind you). In that case, and with the downsides in mind, they can be useful tools but if you just want a smallish camcorder for more straightforward uses (filming the family, your friends, etc.) consider a pocket camcorder instead. You can learn more about pocket camcorders here