Camcorder Short List

Trust the Digital Camcorder Academician

Last Update: 13 July 2004


This is a non-commercial, informational site. Nothing is sold on this site. No advertising is accepted. Camcorders are accepted for testing purposes only.


Introduction

I put this web site together while shopping for a new camcorder. After being out of the loop for five years, I was not happy with all the decontenting that had taken place since the last time I bought a Mini-DV camcorder.

This is not a site that compares a hundred different camcorders, it simply makes recommendations as to the best values in each segment, and advises about vital, "no-compromise" features.


Features


CCD size

In general, bigger is better. CCD size is expressed as a fraction. For consumer camcorders, with one CCD, low end is 1/6". mid-range is 1/4.5" to 1/5.0". High end is 1/3.6" to 1/3". The larger the CCD, the better the low-light capability. The table below shows the total sensor size for a variety of popular camcorders, and includes the percentage differences between different sensor sizes.

Sensor 1/6" 1/3.6" 1/3.4" 1/6.0" x 3 1/4.7" x 3 1/4.0" x 3 1/3.0" x 3
Total Sensor Size (square inches) 0.17 0.28 0.29 0.50 0.64 0.75 1.00
1/6" 100% 167% 176% 300% 383% 450% 600%
1/3.6" 60% 100% 106% 180% 230% 270% 360%
1/3.4" 57% 94% 100% 170% 217% 255% 340%
1/6 x 3 33% 56% 59% 100% 128% 150% 200%
1/4.7" x 3 26% 44% 46% 78% 100% 118% 157%
1/4.0 x 3 22% 37% 39% 67% 85% 100% 133%
1/3.0" x 3 17% 28% 29% 50% 64% 75% 100%

CCD Megapixels

More is better, though unless you want to take still pictures, there's no need to go over 1.3 megapixels for home videos . Low end consumer is 680K, mid-range consumer is 1.3 M, high end consumer is 2M, very high end consumer is 3M. There are disadvantages to increased pixel count as well (for video).

Some people wonder why there is any need for more than about 360K pixels for NTSC video, since each frame is 720 lines x 480 pixels/line. First of all, the camcorder manufacturer uses the same CCD for both PAL and NTSC, which bumps the minimum number of pixels up to 414K (720 lines x 576 pixels/line). Second, Electronic Image Stabilization requires additional pixels to implement. Third, higher end camcorders, such as the Canon Optura Xi, will use multiple sensor pixels to make up each outputted pixel. Fourth, since many people want decent digital photos from their camcorder, the sensor needs to be higher resolution.


Image stabilization

Optical Image Stabilization (OIS) is much better than Electronic Image Stabilization (EIS). OIS is available on a few high end models from Canon, Panasonic, and Sony.  Optical image stabilization is an expensive feature to implement; this means that you will likely end up with EIS unless you go to the prosumer models, or the top-of-the-line consumer models.

Electronic Image Stabilization is sometimes referred to as Digital Image Stabilization.

Unless you're going to spend nearly $1000, you're going to end up with EIS.

There is an excellent description of image stabilization at: http://www.adamwilt.com/DV-FAQ-etc.html


LCD size

2.5" is sufficient, but 3.5" is found on many  higher end units, and a few lower end units. There is a down side to the larger LCD panels, they use more power.


Low light capability

The ability to shoot in low light is often important. Single CCD models (with a larger CCD) have better low light capability than 3 CCD models (with three smaller CCDs and a prism). However there are newer, high end (over $1000), three CCD models, that have larger CCDs that result in good low light performance.


IR Illumination for Very Low Light

Canon is behind here, as they don't have infrared night capability. Sony and Samsung have IR night capability. But practically speaking, the IR low light feature is a gimmick, not something that many people will find useful, since the video quality is horrible. Initially, with Sony's IR feature, if you turned it on in bright light, it would nominally see through some fabrics, though I fail to see the usefulness of this, since much better nude images are freely available.

I would not make IR illumination a deciding factor.


MPEG4 Compression.

On some newer units with MPEG4 capability, you only get this for video recorded to the memory card, not to the tape. I.e. on the Canon Xi and Samsung SC-D107, you can take MPEG4 video and store it on the SD card, but you can't store much on an SD card, even compressed.


Hot Shoe/Cold Shoe

Allows the use of a video light, and can hold some external microphones. A cold shoe is just the slot into which you put a self-powered video light, a hot shoe can power the light (and sometimes a microphone). Most non-mini models have at least a cold shoe.

Unless the camcorder has a built-in video light, I would not buy a camcorder that lacked at least a cold shoe.


Microphone Jack

The built in microphones on camcorders are often poor, and they tend to pick up motor noise. You may want to plug in an external microphone on occasion. I.e., I find when video-taping my kid's school performances from the back of a room, the audio quality isn't great (this is with an older Canon Ultura).

Most of the lower end camcorders have dropped the microphone jack, though some have kept it, i.e. the Samsung SC-D107 still has it. This is one feature that is very useful even on lower end models, even where top quality video isn't necessary.

I would not buy a camcorder that lacked a microphone jack.


Headphone Jack

It is often useful to listen to what is being recorded, as well as seeing what is being recorded. The headphone jack has been dropped from many lower end camcorders.

I would not buy a camcorder that lacked a headphone jack.


Memory card.

For still pictures you'll want a memory card. It's usually SD except on Sony where it's the less desirable Memory Stick.


Analog Input

While every consumer camcorder has analog output, if you want to transfer VHS tapes to your Mini-DV camcorder, or record from the television, analog input is necessary. Many higher end models, and a few lower end models (i.e. Samsung SC-D107) have analog input. This is also useful as a pass-through to convert VHS tapes to DVDs on the computer. You may want a Macrovision eliminator if making DVDs of your VHS movies.

Analog input is a good feature if you have a need for it. There are other way to transfer VHS to DVD as well, but if it's built into the camcorder then that's one less gadget to buy.


DV-In

Some models only have DV Out. So if you transfer the video to your computer, and edit it, you can't send it back to the tape. This was never an issue in the U.S., but DV-In used to be disabled on some European models.


Optical Zoom Range

Don't get carried away here. 10x optical zoom is more than enough. However when the camera is mounted on a tripod, the longer optical zoom range may occasionally be useful.


3 CCD versus 1 CCD

Some higher end camcorders use three smaller CCDs, as opposed to one larger CCD. They use one CCD for green, one for red, one for blue, and split the light beam with a prism.

There are both advantages and disadvantages to this approach. The advantage of three CCDs is slightly better color rendition. The disadvantage, assuming the same total sensor area, is poorer low-light performance.

A high resolution 1 CCD camcorder, with a large area CCD and a primary RGB color filter, will be almost as good in terms of color, as a lower end 3 CCD model, without sacrificing low light performance. The camcorder will use multiple photodetectors on the CCD to make up each outputted pixel, increasing the color accuracy.

Unless you expect to always be shooting in bright to medium light, then go for a three CCD model only if you get one of the higher end models (see below) which uses the larger CCDs (1/4.7"). If you expect to be shooting things like school plays, and are going to be doing mostly indoor shooting, then go for a one CCD model (with a larger CCD), if you don't want to spend $1200 or so.

There are two new, very high end, 3CCD models coming from Panasonic and Sony. Retailing for $1200-$1500 at their introduction, they promise excellent low light performance AND the best color rendition. If money is no object, they are well worth a look.

What you want to avoid, is the low-end 3CCD models, such as the Panasonic PV-GS120 and PV-GS200, which use three 1/6" CCDs. You're much better off with a Canon Optura 30, which is only $100 more than the Panasonic PV-GS120.

Prosumer models ($2000-$2500) all have three CCDs.

Note that the poor low light performance of the low cost 3CCD models is not a flaw of 3CCD technology, it results from the desire by the manufacturer to have 3CCD model at a low price point, which necessitates the use of small sensors.


Primary RGB Color Filter versus Complementary Color Filter

On some of its higher end models, Canon has something called a "Primary RGB Color Filter," which comes very close in color quality to a 3-CCD camcorder, without the loss of luminance inherent in a 3-CCD design. In the mid price range, you're better off with Canon's Optura 30 or Optura 40, with a  Primary RGB Color Filter, than you are with a cheap 3-CCD model (such as the Panasonic PV-GS120). See: http://www.dvinfo.net/canonoptura/articles/optura40elura70-2.php for a good description.


Physical Size

While the tiny camcorders are appealing, they offer poorer performance than the larger models. A larger model, that you can hold with both hands, is often preferable. You'll also get a larger LCD, better lens, and longer battery life, on the larger models.


Accessory availability

Sony and Canon have the best selection of accessories, both OEM, and after-market. Panasonic has a slightly smaller collection.


Digital zoom capability

You'll almost never want to use it, but it's there on almost every consumer model.


Tape Loading

Some models load the tape from the side (preferred), some load the tape from the bottom. The problem with bottom loading is that if the camcorder is on a tripod then it needs to be removed from the tripod to change the tape.


Manufacturers

Stick with the top 3, Canon, Panasonic, and Sony. Occasionally, another manufacturer will have a worthwhile product, but it's rare.


Where to Buy

Buy on-line from a reliable retailer. These include bhphoto.com, adorama.com, buydig.com, amazon.com, and onecall.com. Prices vary a lot between vendors, buydig.com seems to have the best Canon pricing. Amazon.com sometimes has very good deals, but the deals often disappear quickly. For example, Amazon had the Canon Optura Xi for $899, with a $200 rebate and a $50 Amazon credit, plus you can get an extra 3% rebate on the base price of $899 by paying with an Amazon Visa card. But this deal disappeared the day after I ordered.


Recommendations
by the Digital Camcorder Academician


Low End ($400 or less)

Units in this price range will have a single, small, CCD, and will usually lack one or more important features (the manufacturer needs a way to get you to move up to a more expensive model!).

Samsung SC-D107. For an entry level camcorder, the Samsung SC-D107 is pretty impressive. It has a built-in video light, microphone input, analog in/out, a 3.5" LCD, and "NitePix" similar to what Sony offers with "Night Vision." It sells for $400. It doesn't have a cold shoe or hot shoe. No headphone jack. Check Circuit City.

Canon ZR-80.  Feature-wise, this is not as nice as the Samsung, but it is only $319. No microphone jack. See http://buydig.com/shop/product.aspx?sku=CNVZR80

Model

 CCD Size (Qty) Total Pixels Zoom Image
Stabilization
Microphone Input Headphone Jack Analog
In
USB 1394 S-Video Shoe LCD Size Street Price
Samsung SC-D107 1/6" (1) 680K 20x Digital Yes No Yes Yes, not known if 2.0 In/Out Out No 3.5" $400
Canon ZR-80 1/6" (1) 680K 18x Digital No Yes Yes 2.0 Out for still photos only. In/Out No Cold 2.5" $319

Lower Mid-Range ($401-700)

Canon's Optura 30 uses a Primary RGB Color Filter, and the same large sensor as the high end Optura Xi. It lacks Optical Image Stabilization, but no camcorders in this price range have OIS. See: http://buydig.com/shop/product.aspx?sku=CNVOPT30.

The Optura 40 is very similar. It adds a 14x optical zoom, and manual control of audio level. See: http://buydig.com/shop/product.aspx?sku=CNVOPT40.

Model

 CCD Size (Qty) Total Pixels Zoom Image
Stabilization
Microphone Input Headphone Jack Analog
In
USB 1394 S-Video Shoe LCD Size Street Price
Canon Optura 30

1/3.4" 2.2 12x Digital Yes Yes Yes Out In/Out In/Out Hot 2.5" $634
Canon Optura 40

1/3.4" 2.2 14x Digital Yes Yes Yes Out In/Out In/Out Hot 2.5" $693

Upper Mid-Range ($701-900)

Sony TRV70. $725. 2 megapixel. A close competitor to the Optura Xi. Slightly better low-light performance than the Optura Xi, but lacks Optical Image Stabilization. Unfortunately, The TRV70, and its 3.5" LCD companion, the TRV80, have been discontinued. The replacement model, the HC85 is not as good, and should be avoided. You can still buy the TRV70, at least for a while. See: http://www.onecall.com/ProductDisplay.mpt?ProductID=18206&FEID=230&PMNID=416.

If you can't get the Sony TRV70, then get the Canon Optura 30 or Optura 40.

Model

 CCD Size (Qty) Total Pixels Zoom Image
Stabilization
Microphone Input Headphone Jack Analog
In
USB 1394 S-Video Shoe LCD Size Street Price
Sony TRV70

1/3.6" (1) 2M 10x Digital Yes Yes Yes Out In/Out In/Out Hot 2.5" $749


High End ($901-1000)

Canon Optura Xi. 2 megapixel. The Optura Xi was an excellent value for a day or so at Amazon, where I bought it for a net cost of $577, but that deal is gone. The best price is now $1160, with a $200 rebate (July 1-September 30, 2004). This is the lowest priced camcorder with optical image stabilization.

This is the best sub-$1000 camcorder on the market. If the new 3CCD models from Sony and Panasonic fall to around $1100 then the Optura Xi is less appealing.

Canon Optura Xi

1/3.4" (1) 3M 11x Optical Yes Yes Yes Out In/Out In/Out Hot 3.5" $960 (after $200 rebate)

Very High End ($1001-2000)

Panasonic PV-GS400

Sony DCR-HC1000

These two models promise to combine the better color rendition of three CCD camcorders, with excellent low-light performance by virtue of the larger sensor. They bring the price of decent 3CCD camcorders down to a more reasonable level.

These two models are not yet available, they are expected by the end of the summer 2004. It is worth waiting for them, since they have better features, and are lower priced, than the models that they replace.

Model

 CCD Size (Qty) Total Pixels Zoom Image
Stabilization
Microphone Input Headphone Jack Analog In USB 1394 S-Video Shoe LCD Size Street Price
Panasonic PV-GS400 1/4.7" (3) 3M 12x Optical Yes Yes Yes Out In/Out In/Out Hot 3.5" $1300
Sony DCR-HC1000 1/4.7" (3) 3M 12x Optical Yes Yes Yes Out In/Out In/Out Hot 2.5" $1500

Looks like a battle is shaping up between Panasonic and Sony for the very high end consumer models. Expect the two new models to fall to around a street price of $1100-1200.

Canon is conspicuously absent from this segment of the market, which is rather surprising considering how they dominate the high end consumer digital camera market.


Prosumer ($2001+)

No real competition here, the Sony VX2100 blows away the competition in video quality, and has larger CCDs.

Model

 CCD Size (Qty) Total Pixels Zoom Image
Stabilization
Microphone Input Headphone Jack Analog In USB 1394 S-Video Shoe LCD Size Street Price
Panasonic AG-DVC30 1/4" (3) 1.23M 16x Optical Yes Yes Yes Out In/Out In/Out Hot 3.5" $2075
Canon GL2 1/4" (3) 1.14M 20x Optical Yes Yes Yes Out In/Out In/Out Hot 2.5" $2000

Sony VX2100

1/3" (3) 1.14M 12x Optical Yes Yes Yes Out In/Out In/Out Hot 2.5" $2350

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