Full-sized HD camcorders buying guide

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HDTVs are everywhere. Broadcast television now digital. HD movie downloads are becoming more common. And the large, analog cathode-ray tube TVs of old are about as relevant as the Model T. Given our increasingly high-def landscape, is it time to consider an HD camcorder?

In a word, yes. Prices for these camcorders have dropped precipitously-you can now put HD in your pocket for less than $200. Recent Macs have enough horsepower to edit the huge files these cameras can generate. And with each passing day, it’s easier to share the results of your work (in much of its HD glory) with the rest of the world.

How to choose the right HD camcorder? We’ve got some shopping tips if you’re in the market for one this holiday season. And we’ve got a few camcorder recommendations based on what we’ve reviewed over the past year.

[Editor’s note: This Buying Guide is a condensed version of our HD camcorders buying guide that originally posted on April 13, 2009. Read the original guide for deeper detail on the advice offered here.]

Buying advice: Full-sized camcorders

Resolution and frame rate: 1080i, 1080p, 720p-what do these numbers mean? They indicate the number of horizontal pixels and the display format. Specifically, 1080 video offers a resolution of 1920 (vertical) by 1080 (horizontal) pixels; 720 video offers 1280 (vertical) by 720 (horizontal) pixels.

Canon Vixia HF S10
Canon Vixia HF S10

The i and p stand for interlaced and progressive, respectively. With interlaced video, each video frame is displayed in alternate fields, horizontal lines that are painted on the screen from top to bottom. Progressive video (often called Full High Definition Video by manufacturers) draws every line, from top to bottom, in one pass. Progressive video looks cleaner than interlaced video, particularly when there’s a lot of movement in the image.

The goal is to produce 30 frames per second (or darned close to it). Camcorders that shoot 1080i do this by shooting 59.94 interlaced, odd and even frames per second. This is termed 60i. 1080p camcorders shoot 30 (30p) progressive frames per second.

Midpriced full-size camcorders typically shoot in 1080i, whereas more-expensive camcorders offer 1080p video (and some offer additional shooting modes such as 24p). Pocket camcorders, however, shoot only in standard definition or 720p.

Bit rate: This describes the amount of information stored in a unit of time. For example, HDV, which uses the MPEG-2 encoder, offers a maximum bit rate of 25 Mbps (megabits, or millions of bits, per second). AVCHD, which uses the H.264 encoder, maxes out at 24 Mbps. The higher the bit rate, the better the video should look.

You can’t compare the bit rates of different encoders, as each encoder has its own way of processing video. For example, H.264 is a more efficient encoder than MPEG-2, so it produces better-looking video at lower bit rates. When comparing camcorders, you can compare the bit rates of two AVCHD camcorders, for instance, but not of an AVCHD and an HDV camcorder.

Sensor: Most of today’s camcorders use CMOS (complementary metal-oxide semiconductor) sensors. CMOS chips are less expensive, require less power, and can be made smaller than the alternative, CCD (charge-coupled device) sensors. A sensor’s size and makeup can make a difference to your video. The larger a sensor is, the better its low-light performance is likely to be. Also, the more pixel elements a sensor has, the sharper the image usually is.

Storage: Most full-size HD camcorders record video to a hard drive, flash memory chips, MiniDVD discs, or removable memory cards. Camcorders that house a hard drive offer lots of storage space, but they tend to be more expensive and bulkier than those that store data on flash media or media cards.

Video format: Many camcorders record video using the AVCHD (Advanced Video Codec High Definition) format, a high-definition format that uses the MPEG-4 AVC/H.264 codec. When you import these AVCHD files into iMovie ‘09 or Final Cut Pro, they are converted to the Apple Intermediate Codec (AIC). This conversion causes the file size to balloon-a 150MB AVCHD 1080i file converted to AIC weighs in at around 1.1GB. Editing these AIC files requires a fair amount of processing power-you need an Intel-based Core Duo processor or better.

Panasonic HDC-HS300
Panasonic HDC-HS300

Optical zoom: Full-size camcorders have lenses with optical zoom-the kind of zoom controlled by movement of the lens elements. All of today’s full-size consumer camcorders have at least a 10x optical zoom. The image you get from an optical zoom is as crisp and clear as the lens can make it. Digital zoom enlarges the image by making pixels larger, which leads to softer video.

LCD: Full-size camcorders use an LCD to view your video and to access a camcorder’s many recording and playback features. On some camcorders, the LCD also acts as the sole viewfinder.

Image stabilization: To take the resulting shake out of a camcorder’s video, manufacturers include image-stabilization technology in their full-size camcorders. It’s no substitute for a tripod, but it will smooth out the mild shake you commonly get when holding a camera.

Manual control: While camcorders are normally operated as point-and-shoot devices, there will be times when you want greater control over exposure and focus. The ability to select a white-balance setting, adjust exposure, and manually control focus is handy. The more expensive a full-size camcorder is, the greater manual control you’re likely to get.

Media transfer: Today’s camcorders routinely transfer data via a USB 2.0 connection. If a camcorder uses removable memory cards, you can also transfer the video using a card reader.

Our favorite full-sized camcorders

There are lots of HD camcorders to look at as you shop. You can view our slideshow of the hottest new HD camcorders available this holiday season. Here a few of our top-rated HD camcorder we’ve reviewed this year.

The Canon Vixia HF S10 ( ) generates some of the best high-definition video and still images we’ve seen from a HD camcorder. Add the impressively deep and professional manual controls, and you have an excellent camcorder for advanced videographers that will also appeal to many casual users. Read our full review. [$1300 (Get best current price); Canon]

Take one look at the 120GB storage capacity of the Panasonic HDC-HS300 ( ), and you’ll be tempted to shoot like there’s no tomorrow-and with its excellent image quality, you’ll enjoy your footage even more. The camcorder also has a nice set of features, including a time-lapse mode and ways to check if your scene is properly lit. Read our full review. [$1400 (Get best current price); Panasonic]

Sanyo Xacti VPC-FH1
Sanyo Xacti VPC-FH1

The Sanyo Xacti VPC-FH1 ( ) is about half the price of the Panasonic and Canon camcorders mentioned here. The VPC-FH1 isn’t as full-featured, but it produces good-looking video. The camcorder captures1920-by-1080 video at 60 progressive frames per second (60p), 60 interlaced frames per second (60i), or 30 progressive frames per second (30p). Read our full review. [$500 (Get best current price); Sanyo]


[Christopher Breen is a Macworld senior editor. Jim Feeley, Rob Mead, and Roman Loyola also contributed to this guide.]

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