SD and HD video camera reviews

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

04.What to look for

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.
 

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