13 January 2009

Researching and Choosing a Camcorder

I know what you’re thinking: How is this a New Thing? But oh, believe me, it is. Not only have I never owned a camcorder before, but this took so much time last week, I had no time for the other New Thing I had planned... or for many Regular Things, like laundry. I wish I could say it was fun, but I’d rather have been doing laundry. However...

I did learn an awful lot—about consumer camcorders in the $200–500 range, at least. The first thing I learned is that high definition (HD) is the hot new trend, and standard definition (SD) is old news. But hot new trends make me a little nervous, so I dug deeper and discovered the technology is not without fault. The main complaint is incompatibility, as footage shot in HD (at least on the budget models) may not play on your DVD player and/or your TV without first being downgraded, which defeats the purpose. HD also requires a lot of battery power for filming, as well as monster processing power for editing on your PC. Plus, HD is still pretty expensive, since it’s new. So nah, not for me just yet. I’d rather learn my way around an SD camera while HD technology moves forward and prices fall back. But if I were going the HD route, the top contender would be the Canon VIXIA HF100. Currently priced around $500, that is one sweet machine.

So then, with SD chosen, I was presented with an assortment of recording formats: flash, hard drive, analog 8mm (wow!), VHS (WTF?), mini DV, DVD, and something called Digital8 I had never-ever heard of. I mean, do we really need all this? Well, let me just tell you right now, flash is the way to go, at least today. It could all change tomorrow. But all of the other formats require moving parts, which can be noisy, can use more battery power, and are probably more likely to malfunction than the still-and-silent flash format. Some tapes do offer better image quality than flash, but tapes and DVDs are more fragile, and they generally don’t hold as much footage, depending on what size flash card you buy. Plus, I wouldn’t want to keep reusing tape... or DVDs, for that matter, so flash ends up being cheaper. Obviously, I decided on flash, but if I were shooting professionally, I would want at least one tape- or film-based camera.

So, I’ve got SD, I’ve got flash memory. Now for the onslaught of brands and models and features, oh my. Inhale... exhale... Based on reviews and ratings, Canon and Sony appear to be the top-tier brands, with JVC, Panasonic, and Samsung very close behind in the second tier. Sony doesn’t currently offer a flash-based SD model (that I know of), although they plan to introduce three new models in March, with prices ranging from $270 to $370... Wow! But I’m not sure I can wait that long to get a camcorder, now that I’m all excited about transitioning from still-image photography to video.

Speaking of brands and still-image photography, both of my still-image cameras (film and digital) were made by Olympus, and I love them. I was hoping Olympus made camcorders, but they don’t. My SP-500 UZ does shoot video, but it’s pretty low-tech compared with what’s available today. So, with Olympus and Sony out of the picture (for now), I was left with the Canon FS100, the JVC Everio GZ MS100, and the Samsung SC MX20 to choose from on my budget. (Panasonic’s offerings weren’t quite right for me.) The prices, respectively, are currently around $280, $250, and $220 on Amazon... which reminds me of the most important thing I learned: If the price seems too good to be true, it is. If you want to compare prices, I wouldn’t use anything but Computer Shopper. Otherwise, you may get so-called “gray market” vendors in your results. As with any other purchase on the Web, if you don’t know the company, research it before buying.

Anyway, with such a close price range, I needed to read qualified reviews to help me choose, and camcorderinfo.com quickly became my favorite review site. Their reviews are extensive. But even they don’t name a clear winner among the three models I was considering. The Canon has a remote control and the highest pixel count (1,070,000 gross), along with great handling and manual controls. Plus, it’s a Canon. JVC has the best night vision. Samsung is the sexiest, looks-wise, and is easiest to use. None have a viewfinder, which is something I wanted. It was a close race, and then I happened across a very useful bit of info: Canon is releasing a new FS200 model (and other new models) any day now. Well, really I don’t know when—can’t find a release date anywhere—but what I’m thinking is, the FS100 price may drop a bit. Yay for research.

Armed with all that knowledge and some “field testing” at a retail store, I made what I believe is a well educated decision: to wait, if I can, for Canon’s FS100 price to drop or Sony’s DCR-SX40 to be released and tested. Canon’s VIXIA HF100 (flash HD) is still on my radar as well. One seriously fine machine.

Whew! After this week, my next New Thing should probably be a spa day. :)

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