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Apple gave us iMovie, Final Cut Pro, and FireWire jacks, but that's only half of a DV filmmaking setup. Buying the last component-a digital camcorder-is up to you.
Fortunately, the current crop of camcorders is positively droolworthy-sleeker and more compact than ever. All of them capture life with breathtaking color fidelity and twice the resolution of VHS tape, and all take commands from a FireWire-equipped Mac without a whimper.
For this roundup, we looked at the most recent entry-level mini-DV camcorders from several top manufacturers: Canon, Panasonic, Sharp, and Sony. These competing models have more similarities than differences.
The Feature Bandwagon
The most welcome 2000-model development is that, on every model except the Panasonic PV-DV200, the camera is now the battery charger. The power cord runs the camcorder when it's on and charges the battery (which stays on the camcorder) when the unit is off. This arrangement may seem obvious-Mac laptops have worked that way for years-but it sure beats the take-the-battery-off-to-charge-it scheme of previous models.
Most of these models come with a remote control, handy for filming yourself or for playing footage on TV. Each offers an LP mode that ekes out an extra 30 minutes from each 60-minute DV tape, a stabilizing feature that irons out small handheld jiggles, and a color LCD screen. Every model also has an array of special-effects and superimposed-text features, which you should avoid at all cost; not only do they permanently mar your perfectly good footage, but they also look Neanderthal next to the gorgeous effects and titling features of iMovie and its ilk.
The ads gush about these camcorders' still-photo features, but it's hard to understand why; in most cases, the Photo button simply freezes the frame for six seconds on the tape. If you've got iMovie, you don't care; it can capture any frame, even from moving footage. Worse, when transferred to your Mac, the images have feeble resolution-640 by 480 pixels, tops-and produce the telltale striped effect of standard TV's interlaced video signal. (Canon's Optura Pi at least offers a feature called progressive scan that eliminates this unfortunate banding.) Even the cheapest digital still camera takes better pictures than the best digital camcorder we reviewed.
The Sharp ViewCam VL-SD20U looks like the Sharp ViewCams that came before it: a swiveling two-part box. It lacks an optical viewfinder, so while filming you're forced to watch the 3-inch LCD that fills the back panel. This quirk makes you more aware of your framing, lighting, and other aspects; on the other hand, you worry about scratching that exposed LCD.
The ViewCam offers the biggest, most conveniently placed controls of any camcorder in this roundup. And the price-$700 on the street-is among the lowest of all DV camcorders. Unfortunately, Mac fans may grow annoyed at the slim black band that shows up at the bottom of the footage when it's transferred to iMovie; they may also miss an analog input, which lets you transfer your old VHS, 8mm, and Hi-8 footage to a DV tape and from there into the Mac.
The Canon ZR10 has its own radical design feature: at 2 by 3 by 5 inches, it's delightfully tiny. (Note, however, that tininess limits a camcorder's zoom capacity and LCD size.) Surprisingly, it's also inexpensive (about $750 street) and rich with features, including VCR controls on the side opposite your hand, a crisp-sounding speaker, and analog input.
Canon's Optura Pi ($1,300 street) is a larger, more expensive, state-of-the-art machine. It offers Canon's exclusive optical image stabilization, which uses a prism arrangement instead of electronics. (The two approaches are nearly indistinguishable, but electronic stabilization can add twitches to very still scenes that have strong horizontal elements.)
You can outfit the Optura with a broad array of add-on lenses, filters, lights, and microphones. Its sole design gaffe: you have to open the LCD to get at the VCR controls.
Top and Bottom
The surprising laggard of our sample was the Panasonic PV-DV200. It's inexpensive ($720 street), but the features are so 1999: a tiny 2.5-inch LCD, a battery that must be attached to the AC adapter for recharging, no analog input, and a black-and-white eyepiece. (Another $100 or so buys you the PV-DV400, which at least has a 3-inch LCD and a color viewfinder.) You do get an 8MB, proprietary multimedia card for still images, but the transfer software is for Windows only.
At the opposite extreme is Sony's DCR-TRV11 ($1,100 street). Unfortunately, it uses a Memory Stick to hold low-res digital pictures-a feature that's of little value to Mac DV fans. Otherwise, it's beautifully designed and offers most of the juicy specs of its rival, the Optura Pi. The killer difference: the analog input on this year's Sony models. It performs real-time conversion of the signal from your older analog camcorder or VCR, pouring DV directly into your Mac-no need to copy it to DV tape first. This breakthrough feature saves Mac moviemakers hours and hours of dubbing time, not to mention the $400 cost of a Sony Media Converter.
Macworld's Buying Advice
Choose your version of heaven: at the low end, the tiny, inexpensive Canon ZR10 is nearly irresistible. With their superior pictures and much higher prices, the Canon Optura Pi and the Sony DCR-TRV11 are in a different class. If you have old footage to reincarnate as DV, the Sony's analog converter gives it a substantial edge; if not, go for the Optura Pi's stunning color and noninterlaced stills. Then hook up the FireWire cable -- and be glad you're alive to see the dawn of the DV revolution.