HD camcorders: Buyer's guide

Camcorder types

HD camcorders come in different sizes and prices—some are small enough to fit in a pocket and can be had for around $200; then there are full-size 1,080p wonders that will set you back a thousand dollars or more.

Pocket camcorders The poster child for the pocket camcorders is Pure Digital Technologies’ $230 Flip MinoHD ( ). But the Flip isn’t the only pint-size and inexpensive HD camcorder. You can also put HD in your pocket with Kodak’s $180 Zi6 ( ) and Creative Technologies’ $230 Vado HD ( ).

Vado_HD
Pocket camcorders such as Creative's Vado HD let you take HD with you wherever you go.
These camcorders are dead simple to operate, have a small LCD display for viewing your subject and the movies you’ve shot, connect to a computer via a built-in USB connector, and shoot in either standard definition or high-definition 720p. The Flip MinoHD and Vado HD use an internal rechargeable battery (the Vado’s is removable), while the Kodak Zi6 runs off two AA batteries. Having removable batteries is handy when your battery runs dry and you don’t have access to a powered USB 2.0 port for recharging the camera.

The Kodak Zi6 also includes an SD/SDHC media slot, so you can load the camera with up to 32GB of storage. (The Flip MinoHD has 4GB of built-in memory, and the Vado has 8GB of memory.) You can connect all three camcorders to a television via a video-output port. The Flip HD supports composite video-out, the Kodak Zi6 can use composite and component video, and the Vado HD works with composite and HDMI connections.

goingwide
Shooting from the same distance, the Vado HD’s wider lens (left) lets you capture more of the scene than the Flip MinoHD (right) or the Kodak Zi6.
Each camcorder’s display is a different size. The Flip MinoHD’s display is the smallest, at 1.5 inches. The Vado HD’s screen is 2.0 inches. And the larger Kodak Zi6 has a 2.4-inch screen. Their lenses are also different. The Vado HD’s lens captures a wider image—so from the same distance, you’ll capture more of a scene on the Vado HD than you can with either the Flip or the Kodak camcorder.

All three come with editing software, but only the Flip MinoHD has Mac-compatible software. Given that most Mac users edit video with iMovie, however, the lack of Mac software for the Creative and Kodak cameras isn’t a huge concern. (You must install the free Perian open-source QuickTime component to work with the Vado HD’s AVI files.)

Convenient and affordable though these pocket camcorders are, they’re limited in important ways. As mentioned earlier, they include only a digital zoom and lack image stabilization. The CMOS sensors and lenses aren’t of the highest quality, and white-balance settings aren’t adjustable. Each of them has color and light quirks. The MinoHD’s video shot under indoor lighting is very warm (yellow). The Vado HD’s outdoor shots tend to be a little oversaturated. The Kodak Zi6 will blow out yellows, reds, and oranges under certain kinds of direct sunlight (sunsets, for example). And low-light performance is bad across the board.

Even with these limitations, pocket camcorders offer some advantages. Primarily, because they’re so portable, you’re far likelier to be able to use them spontaneously. Also, their 720p nature—the progressive video that looks good on a computer monitor—makes these the perfect camcorders for shooting quick and dirty video you’ll post to a video-sharing service such as YouTube (see “Sharing Your Videos” for more on online hosting).

VPC-HD1010
Sanyo’s Xacti VPC-HD1010 has elements of both pocket and full-size camcorders

In between Nestled between the small, 720p pocket cameras and the full-size camcorders is Sanyo’s $710 Xacti VPC-HD1010 ( ). With its 10x optical zoom, its ability to record 1080p video, its 2.7-inch LCD, and its full complement of ports, it’s similar to larger camcorders in terms of its feature set. But with its compact, pistol-grip form factor and its light weight (less than 11 ounces), it resembles a pocket camcorder.

Full-size camcorders Over the past several years, the world of full-size HD consumer camcorders has been very confusing. HDV or AVCHD? Tape or tapeless (and which tapeless—MiniDVD, hard drive, or flash)? Progressive or interlaced? 720 or 1080? CCD or CMOS? Thankfully, some order is starting to come to this world.

Tape-based HD camcorders are on their way out—AVCHD is the future (if not the present). But tape isn’t dead yet: for some people, HDV’s quality trumps AVCHD’s convenience. Canon’s Vixia HV30 MiniDV HD ( ) is a highly regarded camcorder that offers 1080p resolution and a 24p Cinema Mode, sports a load of ports (including HDMI, microphone, FireWire, USB, and analog video), and is available online for less than $600. A newer version of this camcorder, the Vixia HV40 HD, should be available by the time you read this. Sony hasn’t completely abandoned tape-based HD cameras either. Its HDR-HC9 MiniDV HD Handycam is still available for around $850 online.

Full-Size HD Camcorders Compared

Company Product Format Media Type Optical Zoom List Price (A) Manual Controls Ports Shooting Modes (B) Image Stabilization
Canon Vixia HG20 AVCHD 60GB hard drive, SDHC card 12x $899 exposure, shutter speed, white balance USB, composite out, component out, HDMI, microphone, headphone 1,080p (60i, 30p, 24p) optical
Canon Vixia HG21 AVCHD 120GB hard drive, SDHC card 12x $1,299 exposure, shutter speed, white balance USB, composite out, component out, HDMI, microphone, headphone 1,080p (60i, 30p, 24p) optical
Canon Vixia HF11 AVCHD 32GB flash memory, SDHC card 12x $1,199 exposure, shutter speed, white balance USB, composite out, component out, HDMI, microphone, headphone 1,080p (60i, 30p, 24p) optical
Canon Vixia HF20 AVCHD 32GB flash memory, SDHC card 15x $900 exposure, shutter speed, white balance USB, composite out, component out, HDMI, microphone, headphone 1,080p (60i, 30p, 24p) optical
Canon Vixia HF200 AVCHD SDHC card (not included) 15x $750 exposure, shutter speed, white balance USB, composite out, component out, HDMI, microphone, headphone 1,080p (60i, 30p, 24p) Optical
Canon Vixia HV30 HDV MiniDV tape 10x $899 exposure, shutter speed, white balance FireWire, USB, composite out, component out, HDMI, microphone, headphone 1,080p (60i, 30p, 24p) optical
Canon Vixia HV40 HDV MiniDV tape 10x $1,000 exposure, shutter speed, white balance FireWire, USB, composite out, component out, HDMI, microphone, headphone 1,080p (60i, 30p, 24p) optical
JVC Everio GZ-HD40 AVCHD, MPEG-2 120GB hard drive, micro SDHC card 10x $1,399 exposure, shutter speed, white balance FireWire, USB, composite out, component out, HDMI, microphone, headphone 1,080i digital
JVC Everio GZ-HD320 AVCHD 120GB hard drive 20x $800 exposure, shutter speed, white balance USB, composite out, HDMI 1,080i (60p up-conversion) digital
JVC Everio GZ-HM200 AVCHD dual SD cards (not included) 20x $580 exposure, shutter speed, white balance USB, composite out, HDMI 1,080i (60p up-conversion) digital
Panasonic HDC-HS100 AVCHD 60GB hard drive, SDHC card 12x $1,200 aperture, shutter speed, white balance USB, composite out, component out, HDMI, microphone, headphone 1,080i (60i, 24p) optical
Panasonic HDC-SD100 AVCHD SDHC card (8GB included) 12x $1,100 exposure, shutter speed, white balance USB, composite out, component out, HDMI, microphone, headphone 1,080i (60i, 24p) optical
Sony HDR-HC9 HDV MiniDV tape 10x $1,200 exposure, shutter speed, white balance FireWire, USB, composite out, component out, HDMI, microphone, headphone 1,080i (1440 by 1080) optical
Sony HDR-SR12 AVCHD 120GB hard drive, Memory Stick Pro Duo 12x $1,500 exposure, white balance USB, composite out, component out, HDMI, microphone, headphone 1,080i optical
Sony HDR-CX12 AVCHD Memory Stick Pro Duo (not included) 12x $900 exposure, white balance USB, composite out, component out, HDMI 1,080i optical

[A] Many camcoders are available online for significantly less than the list price. [B] All camcoders listed shoot at 1,920 by 1,080 pixels unless otherwise stated.

Among AVCHD camcorders, the main players are Canon, JVC, Panasonic, and Sony (see “Full-Size HD Camcorders Compared” for details on several current and soon-to-be-released models). All the cameras listed are compatible with iMovie ’09, with some restrictions (see Apple’s iMovie ’09: Camcorder Support page for more information).

Each camcorder has a CMOS sensor—and iMovie ’09’s image stabilization doesn’t work that well with these sensors: according to Apple, applying image stabilization can introduce warping in videos. And for iMovie to work natively with the JVC and Sony camcorders’ AVCHD video, you must have an Intel Mac. Also, while the JVC and Sony camcorders can use both the MPEG-2 and AVCHD formats, iMovie doesn’t support the MPEG-2 files produced by these cameras. You can import them into your Mac, but you must convert them to another format (DV or MPEG-4, for example) to work with them in iMovie.

As mentioned, the size of a sensor can influence low-light performance, and that’s the case here. The Canon and Sony camcorders, with their approximately 1/3-inch sensors, produce better low-light results and detail than camcorders with smaller sensors. And a multitude of sensors doesn’t seem to help. The Panasonic camcorders, for example, have three 1/6-inch CMOS sensors (one each for red, green, and blue), and these cameras’ low-light results aren’t as good as what you get from the Canon and Sony models.

Of these cameras, only the Canon models offer 1,080p video—the others shoot at 1,080i—but both the Canon and the Panasonic cameras allow you to shoot in 24p. Both the Canon and the JVC camcorders offer a bit rate as high as 24 Mbps, and this shows in the clarity of the video these cameras produce. Optical zoom ranges from 10x, for the tape-based models here and the JVC HD40, to 20x, for JVC’s HD320 and HM200. Most fall in the 12x to 15x range. All the cameras include HDMI and USB 2.0 ports. Microphone and headphone ports, which for video podcasters and broadcasters are an absolute necessity, aren’t on all these cameras—JVC’s HD320 and HM200 and Sony’s CX12 lack them.

All these camcorders provide some way to manually control focus—but, regrettably, the easiest method, a manual focus ring, is less common than it once was. The Panasonic and Sony camcorders allow you to adjust focus with such a ring. The other camcorders rely on dials, touch-screen controls, or joysticks, all of which are more difficult to use when you’re fine-tuning. As for manually controlling other functions—aperture, shutter speed, and white balance, for example—the Panasonic cameras lead the pack.

[Senior Editor Christopher Breen began producing videocasts nearly a decade ago in Macworld’s Breen’s Bungalow videos.]

[Updated at 11AM pacific to correct statement about the Canon HV40 lacking a FireWire port.]

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