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You’ve got a lot of options these days when it comes to shooting video. You can shoot video with a multimedia phone, or you can opt for the convenience and decent image quality of a shoot-and-share camera like the Flip, or you can even shoot video with your digital camera. All of these options are great when you just want to capture a moment and maybe post it quickly to YouTube, but when you want more quality and a few more bells and whistles, your best option is still a handy, compact camcorder.
You can now get several excellent camcorders for under $600, and depending on the features you’re looking for, that price could drop down to as low as $130. When shopping for a camcorder, you might want to start by deciding if you need Full HD, HD or standard-definition video. If you’re mostly going to post videos to the Web, standard definition should be enough, though if you want to connect your camera to an HDTV, it’s best to go with the HD and Full HD models, since lower resolutions just can’t compare to the richness of true 1920 x 1080 high-definition video.
Beyond video quality, you’ll also want to keep in mind what type of recording media is most convenient for you. Ask yourself what sorts of situations you plan on recording. Will there be a lot of action, like at a soccer game or a football game? Will there be enough light on stage or in the dining room? Or will you need a camera that shoots well in low-light situations? Will you have enough recording time on the media you’re using, or will you have to swap out cards and the DVD disc often to keep up with the action? Depending on how you answer these questions, you can narrow your search to a preference for a camera that records to a built-in hard disk drive, or to flash memory cards, or perhaps even to DVDs or mini-DV cassettes. Several of the camcorders offer a hybrid combination of recording options, such as the Sony HXR-XR150, which lets you record to the onboard hard disk drive, or to Sony Memory Sticks and SD/SDHC flash memory cards. Other models keep it simple, by recording directly to a DVD disc that you can quickly and easily finalize and play in your DVD player.
You should also bear in mind whether or not you need your camcorder to stand in as a true digital camera. While all of these camcorders can capture still images, they range from about 3.3MP stills to 14.2MP stills, with varying results in low light and high-speed situations. Some of the other common features to compare among the camcorders you’re interested in are the LCD screen features—some are touch screens, others are not, and some offer the clever and uncanny ability to track subjects by tapping their images on the display screen.
The big players in the camcorder market are Canon, Sony, Panasonic, Samsung, JVC and Sanyo. While some of these companies offer camcorders that definitely compete head-on with one another, they also offer unique options that target your needs differently. While perusing the cameras we’re showcasing below, keep in mind what else you might want from your camcorder. These cameras all offer different takes on common features. Some of the cameras below offer excellent optical zoom magnification, which is what you want to look at first when thinking about zoom, since digital zoom just doesn’t give you the same image quality as optical zoom. If you plan on zooming in a lot on the action you’re recording, you’ll also want to look into the image stabilization features of the camcorders you’re considering.
Canon has a knack for designing camcorders that are comfortable to hold and easy to use, and the VIXIA HF M300 is no exception. The HF M300 uses removable SD/SDHC memory cards and can capture up to 12 hours of video in the LP mode. It’s so easy to shoot great HD video with this camcorder that you’ll be using it long after the holidays have come and gone. If you want to capture a moment with a movie-like feel, you can set the camera to record at 24p, a video magic that used to be impossible to find in an affordable, compact camcorder.
When you combine 24p with the crispness of 1920 x 1080 HD video and the reliability of recording to SD cards, you’ve already got the basics for a great camcorder. Canon adds to this feature-rich video machine with a genuine Canon Canon 15x lens and a 3.89MP 1/4-inch CMOS sensor that delivers precise, stunning colors. If you’re trying to catch a lot of movement while you’re filming—like the kids unwrapping gifts or your soccer star taking to the pitch—the camera’s Dynamic SuperRanger Optical Image Stabilization will keep your shots looking nice and smooth. If you’re recording something to post online, the camera also has a 30p mode that’s ideal for uploading videos to sites like YouTube.
The Vixia HF M300 has a large, 2.7” LCD with a clever Touch & Track feature that lets you focus on a subject just by touching the image on the display panel. Of course, you can also use this camcorder as a digital camera, capturing 3.3MPstills. You can even set the camcorder to capture three to five frames per second, for a series of exciting shots, or pull still images from a video and save them as high-resolution 1920 x 1080 photos.
Sony's HRD-XR150 gives you the option of recording to the on-board 120GB hard disk drive or to solid state Memory Stick Media, SD and SDHC memory cards. The hard disk can hold up to 50 hours of HD in the HD LP mode, which should give you enough time to capture all the excitement, moods and unexpected joys of the holidays. While you’re recording video, you can also take 3MP digital photos, and then transfer the video and images directly from the hard drive to removable media cards to share them through your computer.
The HRD-XR150 uses a Carl Zeiss Vario-Tessar lens with 25x optical zoom and excellent image stabilization. At the heart of this camcorder is a ¼” Exmor R CMOS Sensor that’s designed specifically to improve the camcorder’s performance in low-light situations. Sony also includes some clever features that let the camcorder do double duty.
While you’re concentrating on your HD video recording, the camcorder’s Face Priority and Smile Shutter features can concentrate on the faces you prioritize, taking still photographs every time a prioritized face smiles, and making sure that your priority subjects get the best of focus, color and exposure. One other smart idea built into this feature-rich camcorder is that all you have to do to turn it on is open the swing-away LCD and you’re ready to shoot.
Panasonic was the first company to introduce 3MOS Image Sensors in their HD camcorders, and the HDC-SD600K continues to build on the excellent image quality of its Full HD camcorders. The HDC-SD600K uses a Leica Dicomar wide-angle lens that feeds high-contrast, clear images to the sensor without ghosting or fading. This camcorder records 1920 x 1080/60p video to SD, SDHC and SDCX Memory Cards, and can snap detail-rich 14.2MP digital photographs.
Some of the HDC-SD600K’s distinctive features include an 18x Intelligent Zoom and a large, 3” LCD touch screen that puts all of the camcorder’s functions at your fingertips. In addition to shooting high-definition video at 60 images per second, you can also switch to the 1080/24p Digital Cinema Mode and get the film-like video that Panasonic camcorders are known for in the prosumer world. Panasonic also includes editing software that makes it easy to convert files to the Internet-friendly MPEG-2 format and upload and share your videos on YouTube.
If you’re looking for a nice gift for someone new to HD camcorders, you may want to put the Panasonic HDC-SD60 at the top of your list. The HDC-SD60 works wonderfully in the most common situations that people love to record, such as sporting events, stage shows, weddings and parties. The 25X optical zoom is excellent for capturing fast-paced action on the field, or to record beautiful videos of animals in the wild. If you need to get even closer you'll appreciate 35X Intelligent Optical Zoom, which uses digital wizardry to keep the image vivid and clear. The HDC-SD60 uses a ¼ 1”CMOS sensor and records 1920 x 1080i high-definition video to SD, SDHC and SDXC memory cards. It has a wide-angle, 35.7mm Panasonic lens, an LED Light/Flash, and a 2.7” LCD screen. When you want to freeze an image, you can use the HDC-SD60 to snap 5MP still photos.
This camcorder has several other user-friendly features that help make it easier for anyone to shoot like a pro. The Power Optical Image Stabilization (O.I.S.) does a great job of keeping the camcorder steady, even when your heart is racing and maybe your hands are a little more jittery than you expected they would be at the play or on the sideline. It also features Face Recognition that you can use to track up to six special people in a crowd, focusing in on them automatically, and making sure that the camcorder’s sensors are optimized to make your priority subjects look their best. The HDC-SD60 is available in black or silver finishes.
Samsung’s HMX-H200 is the least expensive Full HD flash memory camcorder B&H offers. This compact camcorder is just slightly wider than its 2.7” touch-screen LCD panel and boasts a number of features that make it a fantastic deal at this price point. The HMX-H200 records 1920 x 1080i and 1280 x 720 high-definition video to SD and SDHC memory cards and has a ¼ 1”3MP BSI CMOS image sensor that helps deliver vivid color and contrasts even in low-light conditions.
Optical Image Stabilization helps keep the camera steady and cuts down on shakiness even when you’re taking advantage of the 20x optical zoom. You can also use the HMX-H200 as a stand-in for your regular digital photo camera and take 4.7MP still photos while recording HD video at the same time.
When you're ready to see your footage, you can connect the camcorder directly to your HDTV through the HDMI output, or connect it to your PC via a USB cable. When used with a USB cable, the camcorder’s onboard Intelli-studio software automatically loads on the computer and makes it easy to transfer videos and photographs to your computer and then share them with friends and family on YouTube, Flickr or Facebook.
Samsung’s SMX-F40 combines standard-definition recording with the convenience and reliability of flash memory recording. You can use up to 32GB SD and SDHC memory cards to capture 720 x 480 standard-definition videos or to store 1600 x 1200 resolution digital still images. The SMX-F40 has a 1/6”680K CCD sensor, and uses the h.264 compression codec, so it’s easy to upload your videos to sites like Facebook and YouTube.
Some of the features that are surprising to find on a camcorder at this price include the Schneider Kreuznach Lens, an impressive 52x optical zoom and the same kind of clever face detection software found in the HD models. Still another notable feature you’ll appreciate in the SMX-F40 is the convenience of USB battery charging.
Another excellent, affordable option for a standard-definition camcorder is the JVC GZ-MG750 Everio Hard Drive Camera. This camera has a reputation for pleasantly surprising its users. It can record up to 100 hours of video on the built-in 80GB hard drive, and if you need extra space, you can record up to an additional 4 hours and 55 minutes to optional microSD and SDHC memory cards.
The GZ-MG750 has three recording modes that range from Economy to Ultra Fine and can capture still images at 832 x 624 resolution. It has a 1/6”800k CCD Image Sensor and combines Super LoLux technology with a fine Konica Minolta Lens for accurate color rendition, even in low-light situations.
Some other features to look for in the GZ-MG750 include a 45x Dynamic Zoom as well as a smart Auto Record feature that enables the camcorder to capture video when a subject enters the shooting area. The Auto Record feature provides an easy way to capture video of wildlife in the field or to see what your pets are up to while you’re out at a holiday party. This fine, fashionable camcorder is available as part of two kits: there's a basic kit as well as an advanced kit.
This pistol-grip style Sanyo VPC-CG102 shoots both standard- and high-definition video and can capture 14MP still photos. The CG102 records to SD and SDHC memory cards and can also hold up to 64GB of video and photos on newer SDXC memory cards. It has Object Chaser Technology that lets you track a specific subject while you’re recording—which can come in especially handy while recording things like a sports event, a child on a sled or a new puppy running in the snow. The CG102 has a ½ 33”CMOS sensor and records in both MPEG-4 AVC and H.264 formats.
The digital image stabilizer keeps the camera still and steady while you're recording and is even smart enough to sense the difference between being jostled and being moved around intentionally. For long-distance shots, the CG102 offers Advanced 12x Optical Zoom when recording video and 5x optical zoom for digital photos.
Like some of the other models listed here, this Sanyo camcorder also features Face Detection that optimizes both focus and aperture settings while recording video or taking photos of the subjects your prioritize. It also takes advantage of the efficiency of recording to flash memory by starting up and being ready to shoot video in just 1.7 seconds. You can also connect the CG102 directly to your HDTV from the mini-HDMI output, or connect to your PC via USB 2.0. With this camcorder in hand through the holidays, you’ll hardly ever miss a shot.
One of the benefits of recording to a DVD disc is the simple ease of finalizing the disc and watching it instantly on a DVD player. Sony’s DCR-DVD650 DVD Handycam gives you the familiar ease of recording to a variety of different types of DVD formats while also having the option to record to Memory Stick Pro Media. The DVD650 has a 1/8”Advanced HAD CCD sensor and a 30mm Carl Zeiss Vario-Tessar Lens for fine picture quality in both video and still images. In addition to a 2.7” wide touch-panel LCD, this Handycam also still has an optical viewfinder, which seems harder and harder to find on flash and hard-disk camcorders. The DVD650 is comfortable to hold, easy to use and also uses Steady Shot Image Stabilization to help keep your shots clear and focused, even when taking advantage of the camcorder’s eye-popping 60x optical zoom.
A couple of the other noteworthy features you’ll find on the DVD650 include Face Detection and a Face Index Function, which when used together, let you index your videos according to the faces in the scenes. This Handycam also includes Sony’s Picture Motion Browser Software, which makes it easy to upload video to social media sites with just one touch.
Not just for film purists, the Canon ZR960 MiniDV Camcorder is an excellent choice for anyone that wants a camcorder that’s easy to use, reliable and nicely priced. The ZR960 records standard-definition video to miniDV cassettes and has a 1/6”CCD sensor, a generous 37x optical zoom and a 2.7”LCD screen. Professionals have been using miniDV cassettes for more than a decade, with many of them still preferring the kind of natural image you get from uncompressed images on film as opposed to the heavily detailed images of HD media.
The ZR960 is also an excellent camcorder for students who are learning the nuances of filmmaking. It’s one of the few cameras at this price point that has an external microphone jack, which makes it ideal for recording interviews and for aiming the mic right where you want it. The ZR960 also has electronic image stabilization, a viewfinder and a Firewire port that makes it easy to transfer your videos directly to your computer so you can edit and upload them to your favorite social media sites with ease.