The mug's guide to buying a high-def camcorder

Essential tips for buying the ultimate HD camcorder

Shopping Checklist

Sensor and pixel count: If you want your footage to look as sharp and vibrant as possible, go for a large sensor (1/3in or more) and an effective pixel count of at least 300k. Usually, this information will be listed in the user manual or on the back of the box. You can also find it on the manufacturer's Web site. Generally, it's better to have a large, high-quality sensor than a high pixel count, though both are important.

User interface: Some HD camcorders can be quite difficult to operate, with fiddly controls or confusing menus. This can make them very frustrating to use, even if they take good pictures. To ensure a camcorder is user-friendly, have a good fiddle with the interface. Is the joystick/touch screen responsive? Is the menu easy to navigate? Does the camcorder feel right in your hands? These are all aspects you need to consider.

Manual features: If you prefer to take a hands-on approach, take the time to test out the manual features. Most HD camcorders come with plenty of manual options, but a lot of them are poorly implemented. Ideally, look for a manual dial on the side of the camera, or a focus ring on the lens barrel. (Joysticks and touch screens are far less effective when it comes to making manual adjustments.)

Night modes: Most camcorders offer a dedicated night mode to help you capture video in dark settings, but some work better than others. Some models use a long shutter mode which captured video at a vastly reduced frame rate, which can give your video an ugly strobe effect. Other camcorders use an infrared mode that only records in one colour, or use a light that illuminates nearby subjects. If you intend to do lots of nocturnal shooting check out the different night modes on competing models and go with the one that works best.

LCD screens and viewfinders: Some LCD screens will wash out or become highly reflective in bright sunlight. This makes it difficult to see what you're recording and can result in poorly shot footage. To test the LCD screen, hold the camcorder directly beneath the shop's lights — you should be able to see the screen clearly without shading it with your hand. Some camcorder models also come with optical viewfinders, which do not let in any sunlight. Viewfinders also use less power than the LCD screen, which will help to prolong battery life.

Optical zoom vs. digital zoom: Make sure that the zoom magnification advertised is optical, not digital. Digital zoom merely enlarges the captured image in the same way you enlarge a digital photo: this reduces the sharpness of the image and leads to fuzzy, unattractive video. The optical zoom adjusts the focal length of the lens to produce a closer picture: the image quality and number of pixels remain the same. Some camcorders have very powerful digital zooms but they are basically useless. Optical zooms vary from camcorder to camcorder — they typically range between 10x and 40x. Bear in mind, though, that you will need a tripod to take advantage of powerful zooms.

HDMI output: All high-def camcorders have a HDMI output for viewing movies on high-def televisions. However, some hard disk–based models feature the HDMI port on the docking station. This means you need to carry the docking station around whenever you want to watch videos on a HDTV. For added convenience, go for a camcorder that has a HDMI port on the camera's body.

Front-mounted microphones get better results: Top-mounted microphones tend to capture the voice of the person using the camera, and drown out everything else. It's difficult to gauge the audio capabilities of a camcorder in the shop, but it's not impossible. Bring along a pair of headphones: if the camcorder has an inbuilt headphone jack you can use this to test the sound.

Ignore editing features: Most camcorders provide in-camera editing options such as fades, digital effects and titles, but these are best ignored. They tend to look poor compared to a fully fledged editing suite and usually cannot be removed from the recorded video.

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