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

Essential tips for buying the ultimate HD camcorder

So it's that time of year again (i.e. - tax time), and you've decided to treat yourself — or surreptitiously 'treat' your spouse — to a high-definition camcorder. It's the last piece of hardware you need for that Full HD lifestyle, and something no AV enthusiast should be without. After all, you've already forked out an ungodly amount of cash on a HDTV and Blu-ray player, so what's a couple of extra grand, eh? Even if the purchase leads to a worldwide economic recession and ostracism from your friends and family, it'll be worth it for all those high-def colours. [Er, possibly — Ed.]

But before you throw down your hard-earned cash in these uncomfortably stingy times, ask yourself a question: do you know which camcorder is best for you? Or are you, in fact, a mug? If you're not 100 per cent sure, chances are you have the word chump, dupe or sucker tattooed across your forehead. (You can probably see it in the reflected gleam of the store clerk's greedy eyes.) Before you know it, you'll be walking out of the shop with an obsolete handycam packed with features you'll never need or use.

However, there's no need to cower in the shadows like the Elephant Man: a bit of research will wipe those spectral slogans away. Armed with the knowledge contained in this article, you'll be able to pick the perfect camcorder without being horribly fleeced in the process. To go from video mug to video maestro, buck up your chin and read on!

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Choosing the right format:

The first step is to narrow down a suitable recording format. There are currently four major formats on the market: HDV tape, hard disk drive/HDD, flash memory and Blu-ray. Below we'll take a look at each in turn and direct you to reviews of our favourite models.

HDV/Tape: old but reliable

If you care most about image quality, then HDV/tape is probably the way to go. These camcorders record high-def video in the MiniDV format, which has been around for over a decade. If you own an old MiniDV camcorder, you can even reuse your old tapes. Although HDV camcorders are on the way out, MiniDVs will continue to be manufactured for many years to come. In other words, you don't have to worry about the format disappearing overnight.

Two of the best tape-based models on the market are the Canon HV30 (RRP: $1149) and — for serious users — the Sony HDR-FX7 (RRP: $5299).

HDD: the video hoarder's choice

HDD models are best if you plan to shoot lots of footage and want an easy storage solution. These camcorders record video onto inbuilt hard drives, which can be anywhere between 30GB and 120GB in size. HDD camcorders use the AVCHD codec, which compresses video footage more efficiently than HDV. This means you can fit more video on the hard drive, but it also means you'll need compatible software to edit your video.

Two of the best HDD-based camcorders are the Sony HDR-SR12 E (RRP: $2199) and the JVC [[prodid:6710] (RRP: $1649).

Flash memory: small and sexy

Flash memory camcorders are the new kids on the block (though they're thankfully more stylish than Donnie Wahlberg). Their main claim to fame is probably their astonishingly small size. Because the flash memory format requires no moving parts, manufacturers have been able to shrink down the size of these models. This makes them ideal for social outings, as the camcorder can be carried around in a jacket pocket or handbag with ease. Other benefits include longer battery life, sound-free operation and the ability to transfer data seamlessly to your computer with a card reader. Like hard disk–based models, flash memory camcorders record video in the AVCHD format.

Flash memory cards come in a range of different formats, including Memory Stick (used by Sony camcorders), SD/SDHC (Panasonic and Canon) and MicroSD (JVC). They all do the same thing, although SD/SDHC is more widely supported and offers higher capacities (up to 64GB).

Two of the best flash memory camcorders are the Samsung VP-HMX20C (RRP: $1199) and the Panasonic HDC-SD9 (RRP: $1869).

Blu-ray/DVD: the instant DVD

Blu-ray camcorders are best suited to novice users who want fast and convent results. Unlike the other models on this list, they record video directly to 8cm discs, which can then be watched on your Blu-ray player (i.e. you don't have to muck around with cables or computers).

Two of our favourite Blu-ray camcorders are the Sony Omnia i900 (RRP: $1599) and the Panasonic HR10 (RRP: $1099).

Okay, so by now you've hopefully narrowed down which camcorder format best suits your tastes. The next step is simple: print out the shopping checklist on the following page, adopt a world-weary 'expert' expression and blow your wad of cash.

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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.