Shoot `n Share Camcorders
You wouldn't want to use any of these pocket-size devices as your primary camcorder to record a major event like a wedding. But if your priority is to get the couple's vows posted to YouTube before the first dance, you can't go wrong with one of these point-and-shooters. They seamlessly integrate software for sharing your videos with the global community.
We looked at five models: the minoHD from Flip Video; the DXG-579V HD from DXG; the Zx1 from Kodak; the Webbie HD MHS-PM1 from Sony; and the A-HD from Aiptek. All of these cameras save video either to flash memory embedded in the device itself, a memory card, or both. They include software that makes it relatively easy to transfer video from the camera to your computer and upload it to popular sites or attach it to email. While the models in this group lack the multitude of features found in more expensive camcorders, they're all optimized for simple video capture. What they have in common is the ability to record high-def as well as standard-def video and take still images. They all offer digital zoom; none have optical zoom. They all contain
LCD screens and tripod sockets, and each one can fit into a shirt pocket. Yet despite the similarities, these cameras vary widely in style, usability, and performance.
In 2007 Pure Digital lowered the bar for home video making with release of the Flip Ultra. The stripped-down camcorder with pop-out USB arm was so successful that the network equipment giant Cisco bought the company earlier this year. The latest model is the cigarette case-like Flip Video minoHD in chrome or black. It is the smallest and lightest camcorder in our group and, despite the chrome model's proclivity to smudges and fun house reflections, the minoHD is the most elegant looking. (Flip Video includes a carrying pouch that doubles as a polishing cloth.) The minoHD turned out to be the most intuitive to use without reading the instructions. That user-friendliness extended to my getting videos posted to YouTube (MySpace, too) once I attached the device to a computer. The application software is stored in the camera for upload to a computer, so you don't have to worry about misplacing a disc.
Much like Apple's original iPod, the minoHD sacrifices rich features in order to keep the device thin. First, it is the only one in our group with embedded power, so packing a spare battery isn't an option. Also, if you want to recharge it more quickly through an electrical outlet instead of a USB port, you'll need an optional power adapter. (You can get up to two hours of camera juice between charges.) Similarly, it's the only one in our bunch without a card slot. That means you'll have to dump content to a computer (or delete some scenes) if you expect to keep shooting once you fill up the minoHD's 4 GB of internal memory. For sure, 4 gigs will capture about 60 minutes of high-def video (averaging 9 megabits per second), which should be plenty for the type of short-form clips favored by people sporting these types of vid-cams.
Interestingly, the minoHD lets you record at just one resolution (1280 x 720p), but the FlipShare program automatically converts videos to a more compact size, reducing the resolution. If you want viewers to be able to take advantage of YouTube's HD play option, you'll have to upload your files outside of the minoHD application.
At 1.5- inches, the LCD is the smallest screen I've seen, which is not a virtue. Also, the minoHD is the only camcorder in our quintet that can't show high-def content through its A/V output attached to an HDTV set. Its composite video output will have you beating a hasty retreat to your computer and its USB connection to display your videos in high-def. Lastly, though the built-in USB connector dodges the possibility of leaving the cable behind, you still might need an optional cable extender to get around the girth of multiple devices plugged into a cramped port array. Still, the minoHD has some outstanding features including low-light sensitivity and a smooth (2x) digital zoom. Given its terrific ease-of-use and very sleek design, the minoHD is the one to beat.
Twice the size of the minoHD yet small enough to still fit in your pocket, DXG's memory-card camcorder is a design throwback to the Sanyo xacti HD1, the first SD card camcorder with 720p resolution introduced in 2006. The camera is held vertically, and the display flips out and rotates. The DXG-579V uses a 4x digital zoom instead of the HD1's 10x optical zoom, but considering that the 579V is one-eighth the HD1's debut price, this isn't a bad deal for a high-def camcorder. Like the HD1, there's no useful internal memory. You supply your own SD cards. Speaking about pricing, the DXG-579V is half that of the minoHD, yet its 2.4-inch screen provides nearly three times the viewing area. Unique to the DXG-579V is an LED light you can turn on for video or photos, but your subject had better be within a few feet for the illumination to be useful.
Bundled with the DXG-579V is a 3-plug component video cable that attaches to your HDTV set from the camera's one-pin HD output. I watched some footage I shot this summer at the Bermuda Aquarium, and the resolution was a perfect match for my 50-inch 720p plasma TV. Except for the occasional reflections from the Aquarium's glass, a confused auto focus, and image shaking from my unsteady hand, you'd almost think my TV had become a fish tank. The sound of shrieking children, recorded by the camera's built-in microphone, was transmitted to the TV from the camera's single-pin A/V output. (DXG is transitioning 579V production over to HDMI, though without changing the model number. We opened a 579V with an HDMI output that was part of an underwater kit that included an HDMI cable.)
Using the ArcSoft TotalMedia Extreme software that came on CD-ROM in the box, I successfully moved the camera's MOV (H.264) and JPEG files on the SD card to my Windows XP computer. I did some trimming, added titles, and burned the show to a conventional DVD-R complete with an effects-laden slide show. The AVCHD-format disc played in high-def quality on my Sony Blu-ray Disc player at a resolution you don't expect from home video. Keep in mind that AVCHD discs are not compatible with DVD players. I thought I was on my own when it came to getting content up on a video sharing site. However, just as we were going to press, I discovered an update that enabled uploading video to YouTube that was integrated into a new version of the application software. (See Aiptek A-HD below.)
Unlike the minoHD, Kodak's sporty Zx1 uses removable memory cards and batteries. Though I managed to store 25-seconds of high-def video using the camera's 128MB of internal memory, I wouldn't leave home without a 2-GB or higher SD card inserted. Two AA-size Ni-MH batteries and a charger are supplied, but you can as easily use alkalines or a lithium CRV3 battery.
Like the minoHD, the Zx1 incorporates a fixed (though larger) LCD and software stored in the camera that installs in your computer upon first connecting it. You use the included USB cable. The ArcSoft MediaImpression for Kodak prompted me that a new version of the software was available, so I downloaded it. Direct access buttons to YouTube, Facebook, and Vimeo appeared on my computer screen. I selected a clip to post on my YouTube account, and the clip uploaded in high-def.
If you'd rather go straight from the camera to your HDTV set, Kodak makes it easy. There's an HDMI port next to the standard A/V output on the camera, and the HDMI cable is included. The Zx1 is the only model in our group with HDMI output. A single plug HDMI connection beats component video because the signal is digital, and you don't need to fuss with three plugs for video and two more for stereo.
Coming in September: the Kodak Zi8 Pocket Video Camera in black, aqua, or raspberry. Improving on the Zx1, the Zi8 lets you record at a maximum resolution of 1080p and take 5MP widescreen still images. It adds an external microphone jack, a larger (2.5-inch) LCD, and a swing-out USB connector. The Zi8 contains a 1/2.5-inch 5MP CMOS sensor, and it has built-in image stabilization and smart face tracking technology.
Though this newest Webbie employs a fixed LCD on back, Sony's design innovation is a lens you can rotate up to 270 degrees from its nested down position. Moving the lens turns on the camera. You can point it straight ahead, up at the ceiling, or towards yourself. Sony makes a big thing about the latter, labeling it Self Recording. (You can point the minoHD at yourself, too, but you can't see yourself recording yourself like you can with the Webbie.)
You can shoot video at 1080p (the best resolution in our group), 720p, or VGA resolution. The latter is recommended for posting to the Web. Disregarding that, I recorded a 42-second clip showing me buying a soda from a vending machine at the maximum resolution (1440 x 1080), producing a 28.3MB file. Upon connecting the included 2-foot USB cable from the camera to my computer, I transferred a portable version of Sony's Picture Motion Browser (PMB) software. (A version that includes manuals is also provided on a CD-ROM.) You're prompted to check the Internet for updates. The PMB software showed me thumbnails of scenes and photos on my Webbie. A slider let me adjust the size and number of thumbnails filling the screen. A column to the side listed sites that are directly supported: YouTube, Dailymotion, Photobucket, Picasa Web Albums, and Shutterfly. Also, there were instructions on how to use Flickr and Photobucket. I uploaded the soda clip to YouTube. It appeared with the high-def play option intact.
The Webbie produced a relatively crisp picture, but I found that the digital zoom stuttered. Incidentally, the Webbie chirps to confirm menu selections. My middle age ears found the sound pleasant enough, but a young woman with more sensitive hearing working some 20-feet away asked me to turn it off. Keep in mind that Sony continues to introduce products using its propriety Memory Stick Pro Duo format even though the world has largely embraced SD cards. For shoppers outside the Sony fold, the Stick could well be a deal breaker.
Aiptek A-HD 720P High Definition Camcorder
With its flip out/rotating screen, the Aiptek A-HD shares many of the same features and bundled software with the DXG-579V HD camcorder. There are some significant features, though, that are unique to the Aiptek. First, unlike all the other cameras, it places the record trigger on the front of the camera, which I found to be a more stable location than the back, especially when stopping the recording. Also, it's the only camera with a strobe for photo flash. The most striking feature of all, though, is that the Aiptek A-HD contains an AV input. I tethered the supplied single pin to composite video/stereo cable to the camera and my cable box, and recorded The CBS Evening News and The Daily Show directly to the SD card in the camera. The next day, I watched the programs in-camera during my commute on the Long Island Railroad. There is a tiny speaker, but I used my own earphones attached to the camera's A/V output.
It seemed to me that the ArcSoft Total Media Extreme CD-ROM that came with the A-HD left it to users to figure out how to upload video from the camcorder to the Internet. This came as a surprise since there was a YouTube logo stuck to the inside of Aiptek's impossible-to-open package that proclaimed "Upload & Share on YouTube." Fortuitously, the next time I launched Total Media Extreme, I was prompted to download a new version of the software. Called ArcSoft TotalMedia Showiz, the application does indeed integrate the ability to upload videos to your YouTube account. Moral of the story: don't rely on the enclosed discs alone.
Aiptek also offers a 1080p-capable model, the Aiptek Action-HD GVS High Definition Camcorder. In addition to capturing video at a higher maximum resolution (1440 x 1080), the camera comes with an optical zoom (5x), a mic jack, a larger LCD (3-inches), and gyroscopic stabilization. The latter helps reduce blur caused by not holding the camera steady.
Finally, in case you hold sound quality in higher esteem than video quality, consider the new Zoom Q3 Handy Video Recorder, which is expected to be available in September. Though its fixed lens produces VGA (640 x 480) resolution at best, this palm-size camcorder builds in pro microphones for recording broadcast WAV and MP3 quality audio. The Q3 features the same recording studio quality stereo condenser microphone capsules used in the Zoom H4n Handy Recorder, an audio-only field recorder.