Those who don't own a digital-video camcorder are missing out on one of the best reasons to own a Mac. All of Apple's Mac models, even the least-expensive iMac, have built-in FireWire ports and iMovie software, making the creation of professional-looking videos for business, home, and school projects very easy.
Until now, digital-camcorder prices were prohibitively high, and the lower-priced models had only the most-basic features. But as with all technology advancements, camcorders' best features have migrated down to the latest entry-level models. We compared three of those models--the Canon ZR25 MC, the Panasonic PV-DV101, and the Sony DCR-TRV17--that can be had for less than $1,200.
All the camcorders we tested use MiniDV tapes, tiny cassettes that store 60 minutes of high-quality digital video in standard-play mode or 90 minutes in long-play mode. Once you record your video, you can upload it to your Mac via a FireWire cable (sold separately) and edit it using either Apple's iMovie or a higher-end program such as Apple's Final Cut Pro or Adobe Premiere.
The DV format--used by DV, MiniDV, and Digital 8 cassettes--stores video at more than twice the resolution of standard VHS or 8mm tapes, and it stores 25 percent more information than S-VHS or Hi8 tapes. Color fidelity and noise immunity are also markedly better on DV tapes than on analog tapes, resulting in breathtaking video quality. And because the recorded video is digital, you can upload it to your Mac or copy it to another DV tape without any loss of quality.
How They Feel
The Panasonic PV-DV101 was the most affordable model we looked at but also the lightest on features. Although it's a bit bulky, resembling a standard 8mm camcorder, its size allows for a 20* optical zoom lens. Two notable features also make it easier to use: the intuitive zoom control and the simple tape-loading mechanism. The zoom control on the PV-DV101 consists of two buttons operated with one finger each. The other two camcorders have a smaller, up-and-down lever that's operated with a single finger.
The PV-DV101's simple tape-loading slot pops open and allows cassettes to be loaded from the top. In contrast, the more-compact camcorders load tapes into a mechanical contraption--with cautionary stickers advising you to press here but not there--that's accessed via clamshell covers on the underside of each camcorder.
How They Work
Although its simplicity allows for a price hundreds of dollars lower than Canon's ZR25 MC and Sony's DCR-TRV17, the PV-DV101 lacks many desirable features. Like the ZR25 MC, it has a 2.5-inch color LCD screen, but its viewfinder is a black-and-white monitor inside a fixed-length tube that extends well past the camcorder housing--presumably to accommodate the optional higher-capacity batteries. In contrast, both the DCR-TRV17 and the ZR25 MC have color viewfinders in an assembly that extends or collapses, depending on the size of your batteries. You can also charge batteries in the DCR-TRV17 and the ZR25 MC, a convenience not offered by the PV-DV101 and many other Panasonic camcorders, which rely on a separate charger module.
And the ZR25 MC offers much more. It can capture still images using progressive scans rather than interlaced scans, which can lead to jagged photographs of moving objects. In addition to tape, you can store still images on MMC (MultimediaCard) or SD (secure digital) cards, although that feature is of little use to Mac users; you need to copy the stills to tape before you can upload them to your Mac. Another annoyance is the absence of a lock on the ZR25 MC's switch for selecting card or tape mode; if it's accidentally bumped into card mode, the camcorder won't record motion video. The DCR-TRV17, which can also record still images to memory cards, has a pop-out lock on its selector switch to prevent this from happening.
The ZR25 MC can shoot in wide-screen mode, with a 16:9 aspect ratio. When shot in this mode, images in the viewfinder will appear somewhat squashed, though they're recorded correctly on tape. The DCR-TRV17 can also shoot video in wide-screen mode, and it letterboxes video in the viewfinder and on its LCD screen, so you see everything in the proper aspect ratio as you're filming. And like the other contenders, the ZR25 MC has a microphone on its front rather than on its top; the result is better sound than that of other compact camcorders. The ZR25 MC's only flaw is that the port covers are flimsy and could break off after extended use.
The Sony DCR-TRV17 falls in the middle in terms of size but not features. It not only feels sturdier and more solid than the PV-DV101 and the ZR25 MC, but also has a 3.5-inch color LCD screen that's markedly clearer than the others' 2.5-inch screens. The DCR-TRV17 can capture still images to Sony's proprietary Memory Stick cards, which mount as a virtual disk on your Mac's desktop. And if you're using Mac OS X, the Image Capture application will load these images automatically. The DCR-TRV17 also includes a USB port and cable for connecting the camcorder to your Mac.
Another handy feature is the DCR-TRV17's Night Shot mode: an infrared transmitter lets you film in total darkness from as far away as ten feet. Images recorded this way are black-and-white with an eerie green tint, but they're surprisingly clear. And the DCR-TRV17 provides a fairly accurate real-time estimate of remaining battery life, based on current usage conditions. Our only beef with the DCR-TRV17 is that you have to swing out its LCD display to access the playback controls.
If you're upgrading from an analog camcorder or have analog footage that you want to convert to or import as digital video, you need a camcorder with analog-video inputs. Both the ZR25 MC and the DCR-TRV17 offer such inputs, allowing you to record analog video to MiniDV tape. However, the DCR-TRV17 can also convert analog video directly to a DV stream that can be imported to your Mac--no tape required.
How They Performed
In our tests, all three camcorders produced high-quality video, though the DCR-TRV17 had an edge on detail and color when recording in less than perfect lighting conditions. And all three worked flawlessly with iMovie on our iBook: they were directly controllable from iMovie, which had no trouble recognizing each camcorder's start-and-stop recording sessions as separate clips.
All three models also offer digital-image stabilization, which eliminates some of the jerkiness in videos filmed without a tripod. The PV-DV101 goes a step further: its dual-image stabilization can also steady movies while you're playing them back.
Macworld's Buying Advice
All three contenders performed well, but we favor the tiny Canon ZR25 MC over the bulky Panasonic PV-DV101--for $200 more, you get a color viewfinder, a built-in battery charger, and wide-screenrecording capability. For another $300, you can get all this and more in the Sony DCR-TRV17, which has enough bells and whistles to quell your camcorder envy for many years to come.mThe Sony DCR-TRV17