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You already know that having a digital-video (DV) camcorder lets you use your Mac to edit high-quality video. But there's more: DV camcorders not only provide excellent image quality and superfast FireWire capabilities, but also offer the advantage of being much smaller than most of their analog counterparts.
We put four of the latest compact, single-CCD DV camcorders through their paces and found that you don't necessarily have to sacrifice features or quality to get a camcorder that fits in a coat pocket or handbag. Although the Canon Optura 200MC, JVC GR-DVM96U, and Sony DCR-PC120BT and DCR-TRV50 are small, they sport lenses, feature sets, and ports similar to their larger siblings'--and produce images of the same quality.
Each of these camcorders has an on-board flash, a removable memory card, and a long list of DV features, and each can take still shots. You do pay a premium for small size, though: the models in our roundup cost between $1,200 and $1,900, almost twice as much as larger-bodied models with comparable features. But if portability is your primary concern, these camcorders are the way to go.
Form and Function
As far as design and no-hassle shooting are concerned, any of these models is a good choice. The Optura 200MC, GR-DVM96U, and DCR-PC120BT have an upright design; the lens is at the top, and a flip-out LCD screen opens from the left side. These camcorders are roughly the size of a portable cassette player but considerably thicker. The DCR-TRV50, with its more traditional, horizontal design, was the largest of the group, while the JVC GR-DVM96U was the smallest. Thanks to their low weight (between one and two pounds), small size, and intuitive control layout, each of these camcorders can be operated with one hand.
The three upright models share other design traits. In addition to their flip-out LCDs, they have traditional eyepiece viewfinders, which are a must for use in bright light or for times when the LCD would suck the remaining life out of low batteries.
Each model has a FireWire port for exporting video to your Mac for digital editing, as well as S-Video and composite connections for attaching the camcorder to monitors, TVs, or other analog-video devices such as cameras and console video decks. All but the GR-DVM96U also provide for analog input, which allows you to dub older analog formats to DV for editing on your computer.
All but the GR-DVM96U offer jacks for an external microphone, and each model sports headphone jacks. The built-in microphones on these camcorders leave much to be desired, so if you intend to record concerts or other performances, you'll want to invest in an external microphone.
As you'd imagine, these camcorders' compact designs make them very comfortable to use. Though they all have their idiosyncrasies--the DCR-TRV50, for example, has a very fast zoom control that makes subtle zooming difficult at first--none are so severe that you can't get past them with a little practice.
All provide separate modes for shooting and playback, so they're easy to learn if you've used other models. However, they also offer modes for recording to the memory card instead of to tape. For shooting still photos or video for the Web, this is a great timesaver, as it eliminates the trouble of using a video-editing program to capture the images from your tape. Instead, you can simply use a USB cable to transfer stills directly to your Mac.
With its larger, more standard design, the DCR-TRV50 is also the heaviest of this bunch--weighing in at 1.75 pounds; therefore, it's not quite as comfortable to hold. If you expect to use a tripod often, then this camera's larger 3.5-inch LCD screen makes it a good choice. Though the other models have nearly identical designs, we like the Canon camcorder for its simple control layout. While both of the Sonys are well designed, their preponderance of features makes them more complicated to use. The JVC lacks some helpful features, such as a jack for an external microphone.
Lens quality is the factor that has the greatest impact on image quality. An inferior lens will affect the camcorder's ability to reproduce color, and it can cause images that aren't sharp; poor-quality lenses also distort images that are zoomed to an extreme. Fortunately, none of these camcorders exhibited serious lens problems. Their lenses fall somewhere in the area of a 40mm400mm zoom lens--plenty of power for most situations. When compared with the other models, the Optura 200MC is particularly weak on the wide-angle end, but it makes up for that with a stronger telephoto capability.
All of these models offer digital-zoom features, which attempt to simulate the effect of a stronger telephoto lens by digitally enlarging and cropping an image. The results, though, are noisy low-resolution images, and you'll be better served by deactivating digital zoom.
The small, slim batteries included with all of these camcorders are short-life batteries that offer less than an hour of power. You may want to invest in extra batteries or higher-capacity batteries, which cost between $80 and $100. Note that longer-life batteries are physically larger and will add a bulky protrusion to a slim camera.
When it comes to LCD quality, these camcorders finish in a tie. Each provides an LCD screen that delivers fairly accurate color and good detail. While the Optura 200MC's LCD screen was the most color-accurate, none of these displays are a substitute for a good field monitor if you're serious about color and image quality.
Though a small, light camera is much easier to pack and carry than the big, shoulder-mounted VHS camcorders of old, less is not always more when it comes to shooting. Low weight can make a camcorder difficult to hold steady. To compensate, all of the models offer excellent optical image stabilization. This seemingly magic technology manages to smooth out the slight vibration that comes from holding a camcorder in your hand. Image stabilization is no substitute for a tripod, but it does remove enough jitter to turn otherwise annoyingly shaky handheld footage into stable, easy-on-the-eyes video. Image stabilization is particularly important at long focal lengths where even a little bit of motion is very noticeable. The Optura 200MC's video was just a little steadier than that of the Sony and JVC cameras.
All of these DV camcorders offer automatic-exposure features that yield appropriate exposures for most situations, but there will still be times when you need to take control of the camera to compensate for challenging lighting--such as shooting into bright windows or sunlight--or other difficult shots. Each also offers special preprogrammed modes for backlit scenes, sports photography, sand or snow, and objects illuminated by a spotlight. When shooting in these modes, the camcorder simply prioritizes shutter and aperture settings that are appropriate for these situations.
Image quality should be your main criterion when you select a camcorder, and all of these cameras deliver images that are much better than what you can get from consumer analog formats such as Hi8 or VHS. The good news about DV is that you really can't go wrong when choosing a camcorder. However, the color and overall image quality of the Optura 200MC and DCR-TRV50 make them the standouts in this group. Though the lowest common denominator of image quality in the DV format is pretty high, some cameras do yield better images than others.
All the camcorders in this roundup deliver good color, contrast, and detail in a variety of lighting situations, but each has its own image peculiarities. The DCR-PC120BT, for example, provided slightly oversaturated color, with reds that tended more toward magenta. Surprisingly, the DCR-TRV50, which seems to have an identical lens and almost identical feature set, produced slightly more-accurate and much less saturated images.
The Optura 200MC mirrored the DCR-TRV50 in terms of overall color tone and quality, while the GR-DVM96U displayed slightly more color saturation, though not as much as the DCR-PC120BT. To our eyes, the less saturated images looked better, leading us to favor the Optura 200MC and DCR-TRV50 for color reproduction.
Overall, the GR-DVM96U produced images that were consistently softer than those from the other camcorders. Image detail was not as good, and images were less pleasing overall.
Unfortunately, all of these camcorders suffer from a problem common to single-CCD video camcorders: oversharpening. Like digital still cameras, DV camcorders employ sharpening algorithms to improve their images, and these camcorders all go way too far; they produce images with ugly aliasing patterns that appear when an object, or the camcorder, moves about. We were very disappointed to see that not one of these models offers a choice of sharpening levels. These annoying artifacts noticeably separate this class of cameras from the higher-quality (but larger in size) 3-CCD cameras that fall into this price range. Again, the Optura 200MC wins out over the Sony models for its slightly less aggressive sharpening.
All of these camcorders offer 1-megapixel image sensors for shooting still images. Though these sensors offer no improvement in video quality, they do yield a 1-megapixel still image. To accommodate still shooting, all of these camcorders include a media slot (MemoryStick on the Sony cameras, MultiMedia Card on the others), for storage of still images, and pop-up flash units for low-light still photography.
Though the idea of a single, small device that can shoot high-quality video and still photos is very enticing, it is, unfortunately, just an idea at this point. The still-image quality of these camcorders is far lower than what you could get from a $200 1-megapixel digital still camera. All of these DV camcorders produced noisy stills that lacked detail and were plagued by artifacts; in a pinch, they might be acceptable for simple snapshots and a few other types of still photos.
Macworld's Buying Advice
Each of the four DV camcorders we tested performed some tasks better than others. But we highly recommend the Canon Optura 200MC as the best overall value. Though it suffers from some oversharpening, its overall image quality, satisfactory feature set, and extraordinary image stabilization make it an excellent buy if you need a small, capable DV camcorder.
Compact DV Camcorders Compared
- Easy to learn and use
- Very good rendering quality
- Cool 3-D features
- Tedious interface
- Limited control for modeling and fine-tuning effects