How To
Choosing a Camcorder: Formats and Features
There are several criteria you should know when shopping for the "perfect" camcorder. Next to budget, the most important choices will be the recording format and options.
Sony DCR-SR220
Sony’s new DCR-SR220 Handycam® has a 60GB hard drive in lieu of the more traditional MiniDV tape.
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February 13, 2008 by Scott Wasser

If toasters were like camcorders, fewer people would be browning bread. Imagine walking into the store to purchase a toaster and having to choose between models using a myriad of different heating elements: metal filaments, radiant glass tubes, ultrasonic vibration, nuclear fusion, or an antimatter warp core powered by dilithium crystals.

That’s exaggerating the camcorder conundrum facing consumers… but not by much. Forget about relatively simple choices like camera size, shape, and zoom lens range. You can even set aside the standard definition-versus-high definition decision for now, since that’s probably going to be determined by your budget.

The most difficult – and arguably important – choice camcorder shoppers face is determining the medium to which their camcorder will record. That’s crucial because there are four distinct and incompatible mediums currently used by camcorders, and they determine maximum recording length, ease of playback and editing, camcorder size/shape, and – to an extent – video quality. Kind of makes you long for the good old days when home camcorder buyers only had to choose between behemoths using Betamax or VHS.

Most of today’s camcorders – whether they’re SD or HD models – record to one of four mediums: MiniDV tape, MiniDVD, flash memory card, or internal hard disc drive. The latter is often listed on spec sheets as HDD, so camcorder shoppers may come across an HD HDD camcorder, an SD HDD camcorder, or an HD MiniDVD camcorder. There also are SD and HD camcorders that record to SD (SecureDigital) memory cards.

Choose Your Media
All of that might make for a good Abbott & Costello routine… if the comedians were still alive and if getting stuck with the wrong format camcorder for your needs was a laughing matter. But run out of recording space on a memory card camcorder without a spare card in sight, or try playing a high-def MiniDVD on an incompatible player and you’ll find that camcorder formats are nothing to joke about. So let’s take a brief look at each one.

MiniDV tape: The first and most popular digital video recording medium, these little tapes are still common in today’s camcorder marketplace. Readily available and very affordable, they use less compression during recording than other formats, so video quality is generally slightly better with tape than any other current recording medium. Starting prices for top quality MiniDV tapes are around $2 for standard tape and $4 for the HD version (standard quality tape generally works fine in most high-def MiniDV camcorders). Standard MiniDV tape cartridges can hold 60 or 80 minutes of best-quality standard- or high-def video (thanks to the latter’s higher compression algorithms). MiniDV HD tape is available in 63- and 85-minute lengths.

MiniDV tape’s major shortcoming is its linear recording and playback. That means finding a particular scene to watch or a blank space on which to record can be a pain. You’ll also need to connect the camcorder to your TV for viewing tapes, and have a FireWire (iEEE 1394) connection on your PC for transferring video to it for editing. Once transferred to a computer, however, MiniDV content is faster, easier to edit, and compatible with more video editing programs than other camcorder format video.

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Media vs. Feature Chart

MiniDV MiniDVD Flash Memory Hard Drive
Media Cost least expensive inexpensive expensive not applicable
Camera Cost least expensive expensive varies expensive
Video Capacity1 60-85 minutes 30 minutes varies by card size varies by drive size
Video Viewing connect to TV DVD player2 connect to TV connect to TV
Video Download connect to PC3 connect to PC4 PC card reader connect to PC5
Video Editing very easy, precise limited varies by format fairly easy, precise

1 - In highest quality mode.
2 - Some MiniDVD discs not compatible with some DVD players.
3 - Typically a Firewire (iEEE1394) connection.
4 - Typically a USB 2.0 connection.
5 - Firewire or USB 2.0 connection.

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