Review roundup: Pocket HD camcorders

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Pocket HD camcorders
Sony's Webbie HD MHS-PM1 (right) and Pure Digital's Flip MinoHD (left).

What’s missing

If pocket camcorders provided all the bells and whistles of a full-size camcorder, the larger camcorders wouldn’t have a reason to exist. Compactness usually requires these compromises.

Image stabilization A feature that’s built into a camcorder to compensate for camera shake—image stabilization—is absent in nearly all of these cameras. The exceptions are the G-Shot and the Xacti, which have digital image stabilization.

Optical zoom Most of these cameras offer digital zoom only (usually 2x). The exceptions are the Xacti, which includes a 5x optical zoom, and the Webbie, which has a 4x optical zoom.

Digital zoom magnifies pixels to give the illusion that you’re closer to your subject. This makes the resulting video grainy and soft. You’ll get better results by moving closer to your subject.

It’s bad enough that you’re stuck with digital zoom, but it’s worse when that zoom stutters. Unfortunately, that’s the case with the Vado HD, G-Shot, Zx1, and Webbie. The Zi6 and both Flip camcorders zoom smoothly, and the Xacti offers the best zoom of the bunch.

External microphone port The quality and range of each camera’s built-in microphone is important because none of these cameras includes a port for connecting an external microphone.

Enhanced shooting modes In most cases, these are truly point-and-shoot camcorders, offering no means of controlling exposure, white balance, or ISO.

The exception is the Xacti, which allows you to adjust exposure, white balance, ISO, and focus settings. It also includes a variety of scene selections—Sports, Portrait, and Lamp, for example—and lets you choose from a variety of still resolutions, from 640 by 480 on up to 4,000 by 3,000. And it has a macro still mode. This versatility is nice to have, but it does mean you may need to dash to a menu to adjust the camera, which defeats the purpose of a pocket camcorder—to offer a quick and easy way to shoot video.

A grip on the interface

Most of the candy bar–style pocket camcorders feature the “Obvious Red Button” control. On the back of the camera is a red button that initiates recording when pushed. Press it again to stop recording. To play back video you’ve shot, press a play button. These cameras also have a button with a trash-can icon—the one to push when you wish to delete a clip.

Nearly all of these cameras offer a four-position switch or four buttons arrayed around the record button. To zoom in and out, push the switch or the buttons up and down while recording. To adjust volume, push the same controls up and down while playing clips. On the Flip camcorders and the Vado HD, the left and right switches do nothing while you’re recording. When you’re playing video, they let you move between recorded clips. On the Zi6 and Zx1 camcorders, you use the left and right positions of the joystick (Zi6) or buttons (Zx1) to select shooting modes. During playback, they work similarly to those on the other cameras, moving you through clips.

All the candy bar–style cameras except for the Flip MinoHD use buttons or switches you have to physically push. The touch-sensitive buttons on the back of the Flip MinoHD (save the record one) activate too easily if you’re not careful about where you place your thumb.

The Webbie offers a different sort of interface, with a movie button and a photo button. Below those is a joystick button that allows you to navigate clips and pictures and adjust volume. A separate zoom toggle sits between the photo and movie buttons.

I prefer the buttons to a joystick because you can be very exacting about which button you push—it’s too easy to push a controller in the wrong direction. If you’ve used a traditional camcorder with a flip-out screen, you’ll feel at home with the Xacti. Video and photo buttons appear on the back of the camera, with a zoom switch between the two. A play button sits below the video button, a set joystick button next to it, and a menu button below those items. To configure the camera’s functions, you use the menu button and simply march through menus displayed on the LCD.

The G-Shot camera’s interface, however, lacks genius. To shoot video, you press a record trigger on the front of the camera—easy enough. But to zoom, you have to move a switch on the right side of the camera, which is clumsy. The Flash button and the Landscape/Macro toggle aren’t as vital to impromptu shooting as zoom is, but their locations on the camcorder still seem oddly awkward. The LCD-based menu system, which you access by pressing a menu button, is reasonably easy to navigate, but its commands aren’t intuitive.

Picture show

It’s important to understand that every one of these camcorders is a study in compromise. They all have small, inexpensive lenses and tiny sensors (the electronic elements that capture images). None of them performs perfectly. To find out how they compared, I shot video outside in bright sunlight, inside in a sunlit room, and inside at night under lamplight, and I checked skin tones by filming a human subject.

Skin tones differ with each camcorder. The Flip UltraHD (top left) is a little blue, the Kodak Zi6 (top right) is a little yellow, the Creative Vado HD (bottom left) is very blue, and the Sanyo Xacti (bottom right) is over-saturated. Click the image to see larger samples.
There are variations among manufacturers. The Flip MinoHD (top left) is a little noisier and darker than the Flip UltraHD (top right). The Kodak Zi6 (bottom left) is less noisy than the Zx1 (bottom right). Click the image to see larger samples.
Shooting under lamp light presents problems for all pocket camcorders. Some, like the Flip UltraHD (top middle) handle it better than cameras such as the Sony MHS-PH1 and Kodak Zx1 (bottom row). Click the image to see larger samples.

Disappointingly, the Webbie and G-Shot were consistently poor performers in our video tests. The Webbie’s video was lifeless—colors were washed out and indoor skin tones had a sickly green hue. The G-Shot produced very nice indoor skin tones and good detail, but outdoors under bright sunlight the videos had too much contrast, with blown-out whites and murky shadows. The G-Shot’s clips were jaggy.

In the middle of the pack were the Zx1, Vado HD, and Flip MinoHD. Overall, the Zx1 has a too-blue tone outdoors and a too-yellow tone indoors, and in lamplight its images look terrible. Also, the Zx1’s video doesn’t present a lot of detail. The Vado HD’s video is too bright under all conditions, and its indoor skin tones are very blue. The Flip MinoHD has decent outdoor video under good light, but it creates a yellow cast when shooting indoors under lamplight.

The better-performing cameras were the Zi6, Flip UltraHD, and Xacti. Of these, the Xacti is clearly the most versatile, but its video is oversaturated under all conditions, and its auto settings produce indoor video that’s a little dark. You can deal with some of these issues by playing with the camera’s ISO, white balance, and scene settings, but doing so means fiddling with the camcorder every time you shoot. The Zi6 produces decent color in all but extreme lighting conditions, but its video doesn’t have the level of detail and the depth of field you get from the Flip UltraHD. The Flip UltraHD performs well in most lighting conditions, though indoor shots had a slightly blue cast. It does the best of this group in low light.

Macworld’s buying advice

Overall, Pure Digital’s Flip UltraHD is our pick. With its 8GB of storage (which holds about two hours of HD video), ease of use, nice LCD, reasonably balanced color, decent microphone, and ability to capture watchable video in almost all lighting conditions, it’s a great choice for a pint-size camcorder.

[Christopher Breen is a senior editor for Macworld. Product photos by Peter Belanger.]

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At a Glance
  • Pros

    • Good general color reproduction
    • Three shooting modes

    Cons

    • Yellow cast in video shot with typical indoor lighting
    • Outdoor shots have blue cast
    • Zoom stutters
    • Poor video quality in lamplight
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