SD and HD video camera reviews

Compare test results, features and functions to find the best SD or HD camcorder
 
Learn more
 
 
 
 
 
  • Updated:25 Jul 2009
 

01 .Introduction

sony video camera

Choose the right video camera

No need to rely on a salesperson. Use this report to decide:

  • Whether a high definition or standard definition camcorder is best for you.
  • What connections you'll need.
  • What features you need and what you can do without.

See our latest review of camcorders.

Please note: this information was current as of July 2009 but is still a useful guide to today's market. 


CHOICE bought 6 of the latest high definition (HD) and 8 standard definition (SD) video cameras and our testers scrutinised every function and feature. Through our rigorous testing we reveal which camcorder:

  • Has the best picture and sound quality.
  • Is the easiest to use.
  • Has the longest battery life.

Video camera brands tested

Standard definition

  • Canon FS10
  • Canon FS100
  • Flip video ultra series
  • JVC GZ-MG630
  • JVC GZ-MG680
  • JVC GZ-MS120
  • Panasonic NV-GS330
  • Panasonic SDR-S26

High definition

  • Canon HF10
  • Canon HF100
  • Canon HV30
  • Panasonic HDR-SD20
  • Sony HDR-HC9
  • Sony HDR-XR200
 
 

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What to buy

Standard definition

  • Panasonic NV-GS330 - $989
  • Canon FS10 - $699
  • Canon FS100 - $699

High definition

  • Sony HDR-HC9 - $1599
  • Canon HF10 - $1699
  • Canon HF100 - $1499

Results tables - standard definiton

Performance
Cost
MakeModel Overall Score (%) Picture quality score (%) Ease of use score (%) Audio Score (%) Versatility score (%) Still photo score (%) Battery score (%) Recording time (minutes) Price $
Panasonic NV-GS330
www.panasonic.com.au
53 57 56 47 43 62 37 77 989
Canon FS10
www.canon.com.au
51 46 59 46 38 45 100 163 699
Canon FS100
www.canon.com.au
50 46 59 46 35 45 100 149 699
JVC GZ-MG680
www.jvc.com.au
48 39 53 49 50 44 91 131 949
JVC GZ-MG630
www.jvc.com.au
47 39 52 49 41 44 91 131 849
JVC GZ-MS120
www.jvc.com.au
46 37 58 45 38 38 100 167 579
Panasonic SDR-S26
www.panasonic.com.au
34 25 57 37 32 27 31 71 549
Flip video Ultra series
www.edsoft.com.au
27 20 53 22 4 0 100 201 237
 


 
Features
MakeModel Remote control External battery charger Video lamp/Photo flash StillImage primary memory type Image resolution (megapixel) Dolby digital/surround sound HDMI Microphone input
Panasonic NV-GS330
www.panasonic.com.au
-/- SDHC 3.1 -/-
Canon FS10
www.canon.com.au
•/- SDHC 1 •/-
Canon FS100
www.canon.com.au
•/- SDHC 1 •/-
JVC GZ-MG680
www.jvc.com.au
•/• microSD 0.8 •/- mini-socket
JVC GZ-MG630
www.jvc.com.au
-/- microSD 0.8 •/-
JVC GZ-MS120
www.jvc.com.au
-/- SDHC 0.8 •/-
Panasonic SDR-S26
www.panasonic.com.au
-/- SDHC 0.8 -/-
Flip video Ultra series
www.edsoft.com.au
-/- n/a -/-
 


 
Specifications
MakeModel Optical zoom range LCD monitor, screen diagonal size (mm) System Aspect ratio Optical image stabilizer Weight (grams) Dimensions (W x H x D cm)
Panasonic NV-GS330
www.panasonic.com.au
10 68 Mini-DV 16 : 9 510 9 x 8 x 15
Canon FS10
www.canon.com.au
37 67 Memory card / flash 8 MB 16 : 9 310 6.5 x 6 x 12.5
Canon FS100
www.canon.com.au
37 68 MemoryCard 16 : 9 310 5.8 x 6 x 12.4
JVC GZ-MG680
www.jvc.com.au
35 67 HDD 120 GB / memory card 16 : 9 346 5.5 x 7 x 12
JVC GZ-MG630
www.jvc.com.au
35 67 HDD 60 GB / memory card 16 : 9 346 5.5 x 7 x 12
JVC GZ-MS120
www.jvc.com.au
35 67 MemoryCard 16 : 9 288 6 x 6.5 x 12
Panasonic SDR-S26
www.panasonic.com.au
70 68 MemoryCard 16 : 9 257 6.5 x 6.5 x 10.5
Flip video Ultra series
www.edsoft.com.au
1 37 flash 2 GB 16:03 150 5.5 x 11 x 3.5
 

Results tables - high definition

 
Peformance
Cost
MakeModel Overall Score (%) Picture quality score (%) Ease of use score (%) Audio Score (%) Versatility score (%) Still photo score (%) Battery score (%) Recording time (minutes) Price
Sony HDR-HC9
www.sony.com.au
67 79 57 51 66 61 64 104 1599
Canon HF10
www.canon.com.au
66 76 61 52 58 73 52 92 1699
Canon HF100
www.canon.com.au
65 76 61 52 56 72 49 89 1499
Panasonic HDC-SD20
www.panasonic.com.au
62 70 61 54 59 62 36 76 1099
Sony HDR-XR200
www.sony.com.au
55 66 60 35 63 60 74 114 1999
Canon HV30
www.canon.com.au
53 65 58 33 60 61 28 68 1449


 
Features
MakeModel Remote control External battery charger Video lamp/Photo flash StillImage primary memory type Image resolution (megapixel) Dolby digital/surround sound HDMI Accesory shoe Microphone input
Sony HDR-HC9
www.sony.com.au
/• MS Pro Duo 6.1 -/-
Canon HF10
www.canon.com.au
•/• SDHC 3.1 •/- mini-socket
Canon HF100
www.canon.com.au
•/• SDHC 3.1 •/- mini-socket
Panasonic HDC-SD20
www.panasonic.com.au
•/• SDHC 1.2 •/• mini-socket
Sony HDR-XR200
www.sony.com.au
-/- MS Pro Duo 2.4 •/- mini-socket
Canon HV30
www.canon.com.au
•/• miniSD 3.1 -/-
 


 
Specifications
MakeModel Optical zoom range LCD monitor, screen diagonal size (mm) System Aspect ratio Optical image stabilizer Weight (grams) Dimensions (W x H x D cm)
Sony HDR-HC9
www.sony.com.au
10 68 Mini-DV 16 : 9 650 9.5 x 8.5 x 14
Canon HF10
www.canon.com.au
12 67 Memory card 16 : 9 430 8 x 6.5 x 13
Canon HF100
www.canon.com.au
12 67 Memory card / flash 16 MB 16 : 9 430 8 x 6.5 x 13
Panasonic HDC-SD20
www.panasonic.com.au
16 68 MemoryCard 16 : 9 319 7 x 7 x 13.5
Sony HDR-XR200
www.sony.com.au
15 67 HDD 120 GB / memory card 16 : 9 473 8.5 x 7 x 13.5
Canon HV30
www.canon.com.au
10 67 HDV / Mini-DV 16 : 9 610 10 x 8.5 x 14
 

Table notes

Recommended retail, as provided by manufacturers or on websites in June 2009.

1 Overall score
The overall score is a combination of the following:

  • Picture quality: 40%
  • Ease of use: 25%
  • Sound quality: 15%
  • Versatility: 10%
  • Photo recording: 5%
  • Battery: 5%

2 Picture quality score
The main picture quality assessments were:

  • A viewing panel assessed the sharpness, colour and overall image quality of recordings in daylight and artificial light
  • A panel assessed macro recordings, recordings made in low-light conditions and — where applicable — at night
  • Resolution (picture sharpness)
  • On all the tested models you can activate a function that stabilises the picture in situations where you’d otherwise be likely to produce a shaky recording (such as during telephoto recordings and slow pans). We checked how well the function works, and whether the stabilising effect has any negative impact on picture quality
  • The standard-definition camcorders were judged against a good-quality consumer camcorder, while the high-definition camcorders were judged against a broadcast-quality camcorder.

3 Ease of use score
A user panel assessed the instructions, the ease of various recording and playback functions, the quality and functionality of the viewfinder, LCD monitor and remote control, the portability of the camcorder, and data transfer to a computer. We also measured the time delay between switching the recorder on and being able to use it.

4 Sound quality score
A panel assessed the quality of speech and music recorded with the built-in and an external microphone (on models that have a standard connection for one). We also looked at the recorders’ sensitivity to wind noise.

5 Versatility score
We assessed the cameras against a list of about 50 features and functions.

6 Photo recording score
We assessed the quality of photos taken in daylight, the shutter delay, and the transfer speed of still pictures via firewire and/or USB.

7 Battery score
We measured how long the camcorders’ batteries lasted using a recording and playback test cycle simulating typical user behaviour.

8 Recording time
The camcorders were set to full-auto recording mode, with the monitor, autofocus and image stabiliser switched on. Every five minutes the zoom was operated three times across the whole range and back, until the battery was empty and the camcorder switched off. Most batteries only lasted for 1–1.5 hours of recording, so you may want to buy a second one.

Product profiles - what to buy

The top models in both standard and high definition are profiled in rank order. Prices are recommended retail, as provided by manufacturers in June 2009.

Standard definition models

Panasonic NV-GS330

Price: $989
miniDV system

Good points

  • Good picture quality for video and good optical image stabiliser.
  • Very good start up time.
  • Best audio performance.
  • 143 minutes recording time.
  • External battery charger.

Bad points

  • Small optical zoom range.
  • No video lamp or photo flash.

Canon FS10

Price: $699
Memory card system

Good points

  • Good picture quality for video and good optical image stabiliser.
  • Excellent battery performance.
  • Easy to use.
  • Good set of video applications.

Bad points

  • Poor autofocus performance in low light.

Canon FS100

Price: $699
Memory card system

Good points

  • Good picture quality for video and good optical image stabiliser.
  • Excellent battery performance.
  • Easy to use.

Bad points

  • Poor autofocus performance in low light.

High definition models

Sony HDR-HC9

Price: $1599
miniDV system

Good points

  • Very good image quality.
  • Very effective optical image stabiliser.
  • Very good start up time.
  • Full size HDMI connection.

Bad points

  • Wind filter not very effective.
  • Slow to start up in still photo mode.

Canon HF10

Price: $1,699
Memory card system

Good points

  • Good picture quality for video when optical image stabiliser is used.
  • Very good start up time.
  • Quiet operation with very little motor drive noise.

Bad points

  • Poor wind filter efficiency.

Canon HF100

Price: $1,499
Memory card system

Good points

  • Good picture quality for video when optical image stabiliser is used.
  • Very effective optical image stabiliser.
  • Quiet operation with very little motor drive noise.

Bad points

  • Significant shutter delay in still image mode.

Product profiles - the rest

Standard definition models

JVC GZ-MG630

Price: $237
HDD system

Good points

  • Very good start up time in still image mode.
  • Excellent battery performance.
  • Quiet operation with very little motor drive noise.

Bad points

  • No optical image stabiliser.
  • Poor autofocus quality when panning in wide angle.

JVC GZ-MS120


Price: $237
Flash memory system

Good points

  • Excellent battery performance.
  • Very good start up time.
  • Quiet operation with very little motor drive noise.

Bad points

  • No optical image stabiliser.
  • Poor autofocus quality when panning in wide angle.

Panasonic SDR-S26

Price: $237
Flash memory system

Good points

  • Very good start up time.
  • Quiet operation with very little motor drive noise.

Bad points

  • Poor autofocus quality when panning in wide angle.
  • Zoom operation noise is noticable.

Flip Video ultra series

Price: $237
Flash memory system

Good points

  • Excellent battery performance.
  • Very good start up time in video mode.
  • Very good autofocus in low light.
  • Good video applications built into the model.
  • Quiet operation with very little motor drive noise.

Bad points

  • No optical zoom.
  • No optical image stabiliser.
  • No still photo mode.
  • Poor image quality indoors and outdoors.

High definition models

Panasonic HDC-SD20

Price: $1499
Memory card system

Good points

  • Good picture quality for video when optical image stabiliser is used.
  • Very good start up time.
  • Quiet operation with very little motor drive noise.

Bad points

  • Poor wind filter efficiency.
  • No mic input.

Sony HDR-XR200

Price: $1499
Memory card system

Good points

  • Good picture quality for video when optical image stabiliser is used.
  • Very good start up time in video mode.
  • Quiet operation with very little motor drive noise.

Bad points

  • Significant shutter delay in still image mode.
  • No mic input.

Canon HV30

Price: $1499
Memory card system

Good points

  • Good picture quality for video when optical image stabiliser is used.
  • Very good start up time.
  • Quiet operation with very little motor drive noise.

Bad points

  • Significant shutter delay in still image mode.
  • Zoom operation sound is noticable.

If you think a digital camcorder is for you, consider the following before you buy:

  • Which system do you want?
  • Go to a shop and try out the models you’re interested in, especially if you’re left-handed — most models are designed for right-hand use.
  • If you own a Mac computer, make sure the video camera you want to buy is compatible before you make the purchase.
  • An external microphone usually provides better sound quality than a built-in one. So if good audio quality is important to you, make sure the camcorder you’re interested in allows you to connect one
  • A wind filter improves sound quality in windy conditions.
  • If you’re planning to film a lot, you may prefer a camcorder that allows you to remove the battery and charge it in an external charger while you carry on filming with another battery, rather than having to hook up the whole camcorder to the power supply. That’s particularly true for models with relatively short battery operating times.

Accessories

Most have:

  • Instruction manual
  • Lens protector
  • Rechargeable lithium-ion battery and charger
  • AV cable
  • USB 2.0 connection
  • Memory card slot to record photos and (sometimes) video clips on a memory card

Some have:

  • External battery charger: Allows you to recharge one battery while recording with another, and is particularly handy for models with a shorter recording time.
  • Remote control: Remotes let you do most playback functions plus additional functions, some of which may be available via the remote only
  • Accessory shoe: Allows you to attach things like an external microphone or a video lamp to the camera
  • Video lamp/photo flash: These allow you to film or take still photos in low-light conditions.

Camcorder systems

Mini DV: A standard tape can store 60 minutes of high-quality video, and you can also get 80-minute tapes. Now hard to find affordable models.

Hard-disc: Nearly half the models in this test record on a hard disc, with the ability to hold over seven hours of high-quality video. You need to use the software that comes with the camcorder to edit your recordings on a computer. All of these models can also record video and still images to a removable memory card.

Built-in memory/memory card: Some of the most significant improvements have been made with removable memory, with up to 32GB of storage now availabe in a postage stamp sized card. The most popular memory card option is SD, with a faster performance and higher capacity version of the card also available called SDHC. MicroSD and miniSD are even smaller variations of the SD format. Sony camcorders use a proprietary card based on the Sony Memory Stick called MS Duo.

DVD: DVD models use an 8cm DVD-RAM, DVD-RW/DVD+RW or DVD-R/DVD+R to record video and photos. All but the DVD-R/DVD+R can be recorded on many times. The DVD-RAM can store 36 minutes of video on the best-quality setting (18 minutes on each side, and you have to turn the disc), the others only 20 minutes.

Displays

Most have:

  • LCD colour monitor with adjustable brightness. They can all be swivelled to face forward, so you can easily film yourself.

Some have:

  • Colour viewfinder: Using the viewfinder rather than the LCD monitor when recording saves battery power. A few viewfinders could be black-and-white, while some models (usually the very small and light designs) don’t have one at all. A viewfinder may be awkward to use if you’re wearing glasses. However, most models are diopter-adjustable to your eyesight (similar to binoculars), so most people will be able to use it without glasses.

Recording functions

Most have:

  • Volume-adjustable built-in stereo speaker.
  • Motor zoom with variable speed, so you can zoom in and out at varying speeds by pressing a button.
  • Full auto recording: Point-and-shoot function where you don’t have to worry about setting anything manually.
  • Autofocus and manual focus.
  • Image stabilisation: Stabilises the picture in situations where you’d otherwise be likely to produce a shaky recording (such as during telephoto recordings and slow pans).
  • Automatic fading: This function gradually fades out picture and sound, allowing better-quality editing.
  • Automatic and manual exposure setting: The manual function gives you more control over the amount of light entering the lens, and therefore more scope for creativity.
  • Automatic shutter speed setting for photo recordings.
  • Automatic and manual white balance setting: This function adjusts the camcorder to the colour ‘temperature’ of the environment you’re filming in (for example, natural or artificial light) in order to obtain a natural colour balance. You’re likely to use the manual setting only in extreme lighting situations.
  • Long-play mode: This lets you record at reduced speed so you can fit more on a tape. However, the picture quality won’t be as good.
  • Date/time code: This feature gives each picture frame an invisible digital marking that allows you to edit very accurately.
  • Self-timer: Allows you to start recording after a certain time — for example, if you want to film yourself.
  • Still photo recording onto memory card and/or tape/disc.
  • Low-light recording: Most models achieve fairly good picture quality even in quite poor light conditions. Some models have an infrared lamp that allows you to make recordings even in complete darkness. However, this only works well with objects less than about 3m away, and produces a monochrome (black-and-white or black-and-green) picture.

Some have:

  • A charge-coupled device (CCD) is a chip that turns pictures into digital signals. Some models have three — one for each primary colour.
  • Manual shutter speed setting allows more creativity than automatic settings (which all models have) when taking photos.
  • Automatic exposure programs: include settings such as sports or portrait photo. The camcorder will pick a suitable aperture and shutter speed for the selected standard situation.
  • Digital picture effects: include black-and-white, sepia, negative or 16:9 cinema recording.

Playback modes

  • Play, fast forward, rewind, stop, pause, search.

Audio
Most have:

  • Volume adjustable speaker.
  • Stereo microphone.
  • Wind filter.

Some have:

  • Stereo audio tracks: Two stereo tracks allow you to record music and/or narration in addition to the original sound recordings.

05.Connections: what is HD?

 

Depending on how you want to use your camcorder, you need the following connections

Television

Playing back your recordings on most TVs requires the digital video to be translated into analogue signals, which means a loss of quality. However if you have a HD camcorder with a HDMI connection, you will enjoy the best possible digital audio and video with no loss of quality. But you need a HDMI connection on your TV and/or home theatre system to enjoy the benefits.

All the camcorders have a standard audio/video (AV) output and come with an AV cable you can connect to your TV. Some also have a higher-quality S-video output. But to use this you need a TV or VCR with S-video input, and a special S-video cable.
If the camcorder has AV or S-video inputs, you can use it to record TV programs or digitise your analogue VCR recordings (for example, if you want to edit them digitally, or for safer storage).

Computer

You can transfer your recordings digitally to your computer without loss of quality. Only the camcorders that use MiniDV tape have a digital video (DV or ‘firewire’) output. You need a fairly powerful computer and special software (provided with almost all the camcorders) to transfer video recordings. MiniDV camcorders are becoming increasingly difficult to find, particularly for an SD videocamera.

On models with a DV input, you can also transfer your edited recordings from the computer back onto tape without loss of quality.

In the past, USB transfers were much slower as the the older USB1.1 standard was used. But most new camcorders now use the much faster USB 2.0 standard which delivers similar performance to Firewire when moviing video data from camcorder to the PC.
Apple Mac owners should confirm that the camcorder is supported before making a purchase.

What is HD?

The HD camcorders CHOICE tested can record video at a resolution of 1920 x 1080 pixels, also known as 1080i, which can be shown at full quality on most new and recently purchased plasma and LCD TVs. None of the models we tested can capture video at 1080p resolution, which is considered the highest resolution currently available on a camcorder and not generally available outside a professional broadcast camera.

Statements such as ‘full HD’, ‘1080p’ or ‘1080i’ indicate support for the highest resolution video your camcorder can record and display. All the HD camcorders tested will play both digital video and audio through a High Definition Multimedia Interface (HDMI) which provides the best possible audio and picture quality. However, you need a HDMI connection on your TV and/or home theatre system to enjoy the benefits. Some of the HD camcorders use a mini HDMI connection, so if you don't get the cable with the camera, factor around $50 extra into the overall price.

Saving your memories

In the past, almost all video cameras recorded to tape – even as we we moved into the digital video (DV) age. But these days, most camcorders record video either to removable storage cards or onto an internal hard drive.

However, purchasing extra cards each time you want to record more video can be expensive and in the case of hard drive based camcorders, the video has to be moved off the camcorder once the internal drive is full and onto a computer’s hard drive or disc. While no solution is foolproof, some form of protection, such as backing up your video to an external hard drive or DV disc will free up your camcorder and provide peace of mind.

For more information on external backup drives and keeping your data safe, check out our External hard drives article. If you don’t have a computer, another option could be to record your footage on to a DV disc using a DVD recorder.

If you enjoy editing movies on your PC, why not share them online? That way you can ensure that a copy of your work is kept safe in cyberspace and you can show off your latest productions at the same time. Sites such as Vimeo allow you a certain amount of space to upload a movie, while YouTube is proving to be an extremely popular option for anyone wanting to share movies online either for everyone to see or just for a select few.

06.The Flip video ultra series

 

The Flip video ultra series

Price: $237
Flash memory system

Website www.edsoft.com.au or www.itmadesimple.com

It's not a HD camcorder, can't capture video in widescreen (16:9) mode and does not have an optical zoom lens.It only has a 2GB internal memory with no expansion and can't take still photos at all. It also scored worse than any of the models CHOICE tested. For full results, see the table. However, this hasn’t stopped it from becoming one of the most popular video cameras worldwide.

Good points

  • Excellent battery performance.
  • Very good start up time.
  • Very good autofocus in low light.
  • Good video applications built into the model.
  • Quiet operation with very little motor drive noise.

Bad points

  • No optical zoom.
  • No optical image stabiliser.
  • No still photo mode.
  • Poor image quality indoors and outdoors.

CHOICE Verdict

Proving that sometimes quality is not the most important aspect to success, the Flip ultra is tiny at only 150 grams and can easily fit in a shirt pocket. It is simple to use and with a USB plug integrated into the camera it’s easy to download video to a PC and share movies on the Internet via YouTube. At only $237 it's also the most affordable video camera in the test.