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Camcorders

Camcorder buying guide

Last updated: November 2014

Getting started

Buying a camcorder can be complicated. Models not only vary in size and capabilities, but also in price. You can spend as little as $150 or as much as $1600, or more. This camcorder guide organizes the process of buying a camcorder into clear steps that will let you make the right decision.

Types of camcorders

Today's full-sized camcorders are smaller and more lightweight than previous models. They fit easily in your hand and weigh as little as a half a pound, yet still include at least a 10x optical zoom lens and other powerful features. Some have 3D capability, GPS receivers for adding geographical identification (known as geotagging) or built-in, or pico, projectors. And although both full-size and action cam models capture video in high-definition resolution, now, a new type of camcorder (or resolution setting) is beginning to appear: 4K-resolution camcorders or settings.

If you want a camcorder that's more compact than a full-sized model, you should consider an action cam, like one of GoPro's Hero line of camcorders. Such models are very small and lightweight, and they often have rugged bodies.

What is a camcorder?

A camcorder is a device that records images in a manner that is similar to that of a digital camera. A series of images is captured by collecting light from a subject and focusing it on a photosensitive substance inside the device. In an old movie camera, that substance was film. With digital camcorders, it's a light-sensitive imaging sensor (or multiple sensors), which converts the light into electric signals. The camcorder then internally converts those signals into video data, which it stores on either a memory card or a nonremovable, on-board flash memory chip. Audio is captured and recorded simultaneously.

Today's full-size camcorders

Unlike analog camcorders of the past, digital camcorders allow you to do a lot more with videos than simply play them back on your TV. You can edit and embellish them with music using your computer, then play your productions on your DVD or Blu-ray player or PC. You can also e-mail recordings or upload your video clips to sites such as YouTube. Many video-editing-software suites also allow you to combine your video with digital stills, graphics, and text.

Most full-size camcorders have at least a 10x optical zoom, although some have more, as much as 50x optical zoom. At maximum zoom, most full-size camcorders will produce jittery video due to some image vibration because of hand shake or other factors. To compensate for that, most models include an image stabilizer, which can do an excellent job at minimizing jittery footage.

One feature found on many full-sized HD camcorders is that they will generally have an HDMI output, which stands for High-Definition Multimedia Interface. This interface is designed to be the best way to connect your camcorder to an HD television.

Action cams

Action cams, such as the GoPro Hero series of camcorders, are designed for people who engage in outdoor sports and activities such as biking, surfing, and snowboarding, and want to have the ability to capture hands-free video. Because of their compact size, they may lack features such as a viewfinder or even an LCD. Although some have a waterproof exterior, most have a rugged and waterproof housing or removable case and mounting brackets for attaching the camcorder to a helmet or other object.

How camcorders store video

In the past, camcorders stored video in a variety of ways. Today, flash memory is the standard storage format. Most camcorders store video on memory cards, such as Secure Digital (SD/SDHC/SDXC), micro Secure Digital (microSD/microSDHC/microSDXC), Memory Stick or Memory Stick Micro memory cards. The amount of video you can record on a camcorder at the highest quality level varies depending on the card's capacity, which can range between 4GB and 128GB or more.

Some camcorders include an internal, nonremovable flash memory chip. Capacity for internal flash storage can range between 8GB and 96GB. Some models include both types of flash memory: memory card and internal flash memory.

No matter what type of camcorder you buy, after you capture your video, you'll need to transfer your video to your computer's hard drive, where you can store or edit it.

Types

Resolution and what's available

Nearly all camcorders introduced in the past few years capture high-definition resolution video. That means even low-end, budget camcorders record high-definition video (at either 1280 x 720 pixels or 1920 x 1080 pixels at various frame rates) and look best when viewed on an HDTV, (A few standard-definition models are still on the market, but we haven't tested or recommended them.) There have also been fewer full-size HD-models introduced because more devices, from SLRs to smart phones and tablets, also capture video in HD resolution. However, a new type of higher resolution HD camcorder, which is called a 4K video camcorder, is beginning to appear in the market place. The major distinction between this new type of 4K camcorder and high-definition camcorders is the resolution they capture:

  • The resolution for a 4K camcorder is 3840 x 2160 pixels
  • The resolution for a high-definition camcorder is 1920 x 1080 pixels or 1280 x 720 pixels
  • The resolution for a standard-definition camcorder is 720 x 480 pixels

However, for now, most 4K camcorders are still too expensive for most consumers, which is why your best bet is to buy an HD camcorder.

Almost all HD models can record video in 1080i, the same high resolution as much HDTV programming. Some can even shoot in 1080p, which is the same format used on Blu-ray discs. Only a few models record in 720p, an alternative HD broadcast format. Note that HD recordings take up much more space than standard-def video, so you'll fit less video in a given amount of storage; 720p files are not quite as large as 1080i, though. Some formats that record in HD, such as AVCHD, need HD-capable hardware, such as a Blu-ray disc player, to play back recordings. Also, you'll find action camcorders that can capture HD-resolution video, some even in 1080i, but will compromise the video quality in other ways, such as lower frame rates. Most are still unable to capture 4K, or ultra-high-definition, video.

You can also connect most camcorders directly to an HDTV via an HDMI cord.

Features


The right camcorder features are important, whether you're considering a high-definition camcorder or a 4K model. Many camcorder features, such as LCD monitors and autofocus, are available on almost all models while other features, such as a built-in light, are less common.

Flip-out LCD

This type of viewer is common on all full-size camcorders, but few action cams. Some come in a wider aspect ratio (16:9), often called a wide-screen LCD, that is similar to the ratio found on many HDTVs. (You'll also find that some higher-priced camcorders include touch-screen LCDs.) LCDs are also useful for reviewing video that you've shot and can be easier to use than an eyepiece viewfinder. Some LCDs are hard to use in sunlight, a drawback of models that have only a display and no eyepiece.

Screens vary from 2½ to 4 inches measured diagonally, with a larger screen offered as a step-up feature on higher-priced models. Because an LCD viewer uses batteries faster than an eyepiece viewfinder does, you don't have as much recording time when the LCD is in use.

Image stabilizer

This camcorder feature automatically reduces most of the shaking that occurs while you hold the camcorder as you record a scene. Most stabilizers are either electronic or optical, although some models have both. Either type can be effective; though mounting the camcorder on a tripod is the surest way to get steady images. If you're not using a tripod, try holding the camcorder with both hands and bracing both elbows against your body.

Full-auto switch

This control, which goes by different names depending on the manufacturer, provides you with point-and-shoot simplicity. The camcorder automatically adjusts the color balance, shutter speed, focus, and aperture (also called the "iris" or "f-stop" with camcorders).

Autofocus

This camcorder feature adjusts for maximum sharpness. Some models include a manual-focus override that can be helpful in problem situations, such as low light.

Zoom

This is typically a finger control--press one way to zoom in, the other to widen the view. The rate at which the zoom changes depends on how hard you press the switch.

Optical Zoom

Typical optical-zoom ratios range from 10:1 to about 50:1--or are described in the specifications as having 10x optical zoom or 50x optical zoom. The zoom relies on optical lenses, just like a film camera (hence the term "optical zoom").

Digital Zoom

Many camcorders also include a digital zoom to extend the range to 400:1 or more, but at a lower picture quality than optical zoom gives.

3D capability

Some camcorders can capture 3D photos or 3D video, or both. In order to do this, the camcorder may capture two different images (or use software to create them), representing the different perspectives of the left and right eye. The differences between those two images create a sense of depth. Your brain combines the two images into one seamless 3D image when you wear special glasses, which are capable of presenting each eye with its own separate view, or when you view them on a special 3D LCD that uses applied "parallax barrier technology."

Built-in projectors

Some models include built-in projectors (also known as pico projectors). The feature is now incorporated into some high-def camcorder models from Sony. Each includes a tiny projector embedded on the back of the flip-out LCD, which Sony claims will be able to project a 60-inch diagonal image.

Viewfinder

Although most camcorders now do not include this feature, some higher priced models still have an electronic viewfinder that allows you to compose a shot without needing to use your display. This can conserve battery power and is helpful in bright light situations that wash out the LCD.

Wi-Fi

Although it's still a niche market, the number of camcorders with Wi-Fi capabilities is growing. It allows you to wirelessly transfer your photos and video to your computer, quickly back them up on a hard-drive, or upload them directly to a social networking website. Some models also allow you to wirelessly connect and transfer video and photos to mobile devices or control the camcorder remotely from an app on a smart phone or tablet. Some camcorders also include NFC (near-field communication), which makes connecting to mobile devices quick and easy.

Built-in USB cord

Some models include a USB cord that is attached to the camcorder's body. It's either stored in the body of the unit, or can be tucked into the camcorder's handle.

Rugged & waterproof

Models that are rugged and waterproof have bodies that claim to resist moisture and withstand falls.

4K

A camcorder with 4K resolution (3840 x 2160 pixels) offers four times the resolution of a full high-definition camcorder (1920 x 1080 pixels). Because of the higher resolution, these new types of camcorders can provide finer detail, but you need an ultra-high-definition television (usually described as "4K") to see that detail.

Brands

Canon arrow  |  GoPro arrow  |  JVC arrow  |  Panasonic arrow  |  Samsung arrow  |  Sony arrow  |  Vivitar arrow

Sony dominates the camcorder market, offering a range of models across all current consumer formats. Other brands include Canon, JVC, Panasonic, Samsung, and Vivitar.

Canon


A key player in the camcorder market. Canon's Vixia high-definition camcorders, which record to media cards and flash memory, consistently offer good to very good performance.  It's models offer Wi-Fi connectivity and are compatible with Eye-Fi SD memory cards. 

GoPro

GoPro offers a range of sports-oriented high definition waterproof and shockproof HD Hero video cameras. Available accessories allow mounting to various flat or curved surfaces, bicycle helmets, surfboards, etc.  Additional accessories include a 3D kit and a Wi-Fi backpack.

JVC

JVC’s varied Everio line of high-definiton compact camcorders record to internal flash memory and media cards.  Models include built-in Wi-Fi, which allows easy uploading, and Live Monitoring using a smart phone.  JVC also offers a line of compact waterproof Adixxion action camcorders.

Panasonic

Panasonic offers a wide range of Wi-Fi compatible high-definition camcorders that record to media cards and flash memory. The brand consistently produces good to very good models that tend to be very easy to use.  Additionally, Panasonic offers a high-end model that can record full-HD in 3D, and an unusual POV (point-of-view) waterproof action camcorder that has a separate lens. 

Samsung

Samsung offers a limited variety of high-definition low-to-midpriced camcorders that record to SD-format memory cards and that offer easy one-touch uploads to YouTube.

Sony

Sony is the leading camcorder brand and offers the widest range of high-definition models, some that have recently topped our Ratings. Sony's model line includes a very high end newly-introduced professional/consumer 4K camcorder, a high-end full-HD 3D-capable camcorder, and a variety  of low-to-midpriced high-definition Handycam camcorders that record to internal memory and memory cards —some with integrated projectors capable of projecting content from external devices. Sony also offers a line of sports-oriented Wi-Fi-capable action camcorders.

Vivitar

  
Vivitar offers a wide range of inexpensive standard-definition and high-definition pocket camcorders that record to flash memory or SD memory cards. Included in its line are waterproof models, 3D-capable models, and Wi-Fi-capable models.

Shopping tips

Check the type, size, weight, controls and features

First, decide on the type of HD camcorder you want to buy. If you want better quality and more options, consider a full-size model. If you need a smaller, more portable model or if you're an athlete or adventurer who loves to capture footage of yourself, then consider an action cam. These models are about half the size of regular pocket camcorders, are easily affixed to sports clothing or gear, but often lack an LCD or electronic viewfinder.

In the store, try different camcorders to make sure they fit your hand and are comfortable to use. Most camcorders are designed so that the most frequently used controls--the switch to zoom in and out, the record button, and the button for still photos--are readily at hand. Make sure that the controls are convenient and that you can change recording media and remove the battery without any trouble. More models are also including Wi-Fi features. So, check for this if it's important to you.

Check the LCD

Most measure about 3 inches on the diagonal but some are larger. However, few action cams have any type of display. Some displays on full-size models suffer from too much glare, making them difficult to use outdoors in bright sun. Check the display in the store to make sure you're satisfied with the usability of any model you're considering. But note that most LCDs look fine indoors. In full, midday sunlight, viewing performance will vary greatly from model to model.

Think about the lighting

Chances are you won't always be shooting in bright light. In our tests using the default mode, we found models varied in quality when shooting in dim light. Most full-sized HD camcorders captured at least good quality video in low light, but some had excellent quality. You should note that many camcorders have settings that can improve performance but can be a challenge to use.

Consider audio quality

In our camcorder tests, we also consider how accurately the built-in microphone records and whether or not the sound file is free from noise or hiss. Action models often lack decent audio quality. A few advanced models include a jack for using an external microphone, which can improve your video's sound quality and offers an alternative to using the model's built-in microphone.

Decide which recording format suits you best

The recording format you choose determines not only how much you'll be spending for memory media (most often, a memory card), but also how much recording time you'll get. Most models offer a few recording formats and several resolution options. But there's generally a tradeoff: Better quality formats and higher resolution settings give you shorter recording times.

   

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