If you’ve been hesitant about retiring your antiquated VHS or Hi8 camcorder and springing for a DV model, now may be a good time to take the leap. We looked at a host of recent offerings that cost less than $1,000: the Canon Optura 40, the Canon ZR-90, the JVC GR-DX97, the Panasonic PV-GS200, the Samsung SC-D6040, and the Sony DCR-PC109. While all offer a menagerie of features (such as in-camera effects and nearly infinitesimal digital zooms), some tout features formerly found only in professional DV camcorders, such as three CCDs (charge-coupled devices—the camera’s image sensors) and 16:9, or wide-screen, mode.
To assess video quality, a Macworld panel of experts judged color (accuracy and brightness) and clarity (sharpness and detail). While we had expected the three-CCD Panasonic to provide the best video quality, we were surprised that the Canon Optura reproduced more-accurate and -saturated color. The Panasonic’s images had a slight blue cast. The Canon ZR-90 and the Sony also did a good job of capturing color, but the Canon ZR-90’s images had a slight green cast and looked a bit grainy. The Canon Optura 40, the JVC, and the Panasonic produced the sharpest images, but the JVC had automatic-exposure problems, with brightness levels that changed noticeably as we panned an afternoon skyline. The Samsung produced the lowest-quality video; its images had a green cast and were grainy, dark, and muddy.
Zoom and Focus
The Canon ZR-90 has the most powerful optical zoom of the lot, at 22x (with a separate wide-angle attachment included), followed by the Canon Optura 40, at 14x. The Samsung offers an impressive-sounding 900x digital zoom, but digital zooms perform their visual legerdemain by zooming in on pixels—not your subject—and result in pixilated images. At higher magnifications, the images are useless.
In addition to autofocus features, all these models offer manual focus. The Sony uses a menu and includes a spot focus; you tap the LCD where you want to focus. The Samsung uses a little focus wheel, and the Canon ZR-90 and the JVC use Set buttons. All four have one thing in common: their focus options are cumbersome to use. We prefer the Canon Optura 40 and the Panasonic, which have focus rings on the lenses, as most professional cameras do.
Lightweight camcorders are tricky to hold steady, especially when you’re using the zoom. The Canon Optura 40, the Panasonic, and the Sony did a good job of smoothing the effects of a shaky grip. The Sony was the steadiest of the group.
Most camcorders perform well in bright light, but you need one with a night mode to shoot candlelit dinners or sleeping babies. While many camcorders use infrared technology to capture video in low-light or no-light conditions (resulting in the telltale “military night vision” green tint), some newer cameras use slower shutter speeds and built-in LEDs to provide enough light to capture color.
We tested these camcorders in total darkness. The Samsung and the Sony, which use infrared technology, captured video with the predictable green tint. We saw colorful, albeit ghostly, images with the other models. The Canons, which rely on built-in LEDs, produced the best results.
If you have a wide-screen TV or just want the filmic letterboxed effect, you’ll need a camcorder that can shoot in 16:9 mode. All these camcorders, with the exception of the Samsung, offer a wide-screen option. The Sony and the Canon ZR-90 achieve the effect by manipulating the image electronically, with some loss of quality. The JVC and the Panasonic insert black bars on the top and bottom of your image, cropping the image. The Canon Optura 40 is the only one with true wide-screen capability, using the entire width of the CCD for high quality.
Two Cameras in One
All of these models let you capture still images to storage media. And one camera that could capture great DV and still photographs would be a winner. Do any of these make the grade?
The Samsung calls itself the DuoCam, takes pictures at a whopping 4.1 megapixels, and has two lenses—one for video and one for stills. Sadly, while the still pictures are impressive, the video quality doesn’t measure up. The Canon Optura 40 comes closest to being the best of both worlds, taking 2.2-megapixel photographs whose quality equals that of comparable digital cameras, as well as producing the best-quality video. The other cameras in this roundup might be fine for an occasional snapshot destined for a Web page or an e-mail message, but you’ll want a separate digital camera for any important shooting.
Unless you’re shooting a silent movie, a camcorder’s audio quality is just as important as its video quality. All camcorders have a degree of audio noise; for the best audio, you should use an external microphone and then monitor the sound with headphones.
Only the Canon Optura 40, the Panasonic, and the Sony let you plug in a headphone and a microphone simultaneously (the Canon Optura 40 also lets you manually adjust audio levels), narrowing the field for serious audiophiles. Each of these models also has a hot-shoe, which allows you to power attached microphones (and lights) with the camcorder.
The Panasonic also includes an external narration microphone. You can toggle recording, add a voice-over, zoom, or take a still picture. The three-foot cable is just long enough to eliminate noise.
Hollywood in Your Hand
All of these camcorders will fit comfortably in the palm of your hand. The Sony is the lightest, at 13 ounces, but even the Canon Optura 40, at 1.3 pounds, felt nimble. The Sony achieves its compact form by putting the USB and FireWire ports in a docking station, but having another piece of equipment to keep track of hardly seems worth the savings in weight. And we found that the Sony was a bit awkward to hold: its zoom button is toward its front; holding it properly for zooming with your trigger finger takes some getting used to.
Squinting through a tiny viewfinder may be fine for taking snapshots, or for shooting when the sun is too bright, but doing so regularly is tiresome. All these models have LCD screens, which make monitoring your shots and navigating option menus more bearable. With the exception of the JVC, which has a 3-inch monitor, all have 2.5-inch LCD screens. All are bright and easy to read, and we managed to use them even when shooting test video on a very sunny afternoon (we found the Sony the most difficult to view).
Canon’s menus were the easiest to read and navigate. We liked Sony’s touch screen with scrolling menus that magnify the current selection. It displays fewer options at one time, but it also creates shortcuts to your most frequently used settings, which can be a time-saver. The Samsung was the most awkward to navigate.
Macworld’s Buying Advice
The Canon Optura 40 is the standout among these contenders, with excellent video quality, respectable stills, and professional features (such as true 16:9 mode). The Sony and the Panasonic are also good choices, but for the difference in price, we’d splurge on the Optura. If you’re on a shoestring budget, the Canon ZR-90 offers good video quality for its price. In spite of its 4.1-megapixel stills, we can’t recommend the Samsung because of inadequate video quality.
[ Editor’s note: The original review misstated the JVC GR-DX97’s ability to illuminate subjects in night mode. In fact, the camcorder has a built-in LED light for low-light shooting. The text of the review has been edited to reflect this correction. The original rating stands, since only a minimal amount of weight was given to this point. ]
Sidebar: Going Tapeless with the Fisher FVD-C1
The Fisher FVD-C1 is one of a new generation of MPEG-4 video camcorders that eschew tape and record directly to storage media. Like a shapely silver iPod, the lightweight, compact Fisher comes with a docking station, fits contentedly in the palm of your hand, and begs you to play. Flip open the bright, 1.5-inch LCD screen, and a cheerful female voice chimes faintly, “Camera mode.” Though not much bigger than a postage stamp, the menus are easy to navigate with a beadlike joystick that you control with your thumb.
In spite of its small size, the Fisher takes big pictures: still images at 3.2 megapixels, and video at 640 by 480 pixels and 30 frames per second. At the highest-quality settings, you can fit as many as 491 pictures, or about 21 minutes of video, on the supplied 512MB memory card. The still pictures are sharp and vibrant, but video quality is disappointing, with soft edges, banding (blocks of muddy pixels), and pixel artifacts. Lightweight camcorders like this one are difficult to hold steady, and it has no image stabilization. While the audio is sufficiently loud, we heard a whine and occasional clicking as the autofocus tried to keep up, and you can’t use an external microphone.
We’d recommend any of the DV camcorders in our test group over the Fisher for video quality, even if it means hauling around a few extra ounces. And if you’re looking for excellent photographs, you can buy a good 3.2-megapixel camera and a 512MB memory card for about half its price.Canon Optura 40Canon ZR-90JVC GR-DX97Panasonic PV-GS200Samsung SC-D6040Sony DCR-PC109Fisher FVD-C1