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Consumer Camcorder Buyer's Guide

By Megan Iverson

You may have noticed these days that consumer camcorders are not one-size–fits-all devices. They can be as simple as point-and-shoot or they can be complex with numerous features and functions that boarder on the professional. If you're trying to decide which camcorder is right for you, or that extra someone special on your gift-giving list, you'll no doubt have many questions. The first one being, "Where do I start?"

This buyer's guide is broken up into sections starting with entry-level pocket cams and walking you all the way through high-end HD models. Along the way you'll see links to various articles which offer a more in-depth look at various models or camcorder genres should you feel the need to further explore. Links to each camcorder and other associated items are nestled in as well to give you a comprehensive, all angles look at each model discussed. So, get ready, we're about to explore the ever-expanding world of the consumer camcorder.

Budget-Friendly Pocket Camcorders

Pocket camcorders are quickly becoming the most popular way to record and share everything about your world via social networking sites. If you have a FaceBook page or peruse YouTube on a daily basis you're probably already well aware of this fact. Simple and uncomplicated, free from menus, settings, or extraneous functions, these cameras are unassuming, fun, and as economical as camcorders get. And as the name suggests, they're the most compact camcorders on the market, often times smaller than a smart phone. We'll take a brief look at a few of the best selling pocket camcorders out there today. If you desire a more involved look at a number of these point-and-shoot cams, please check out this article, solely devoted to the genre.

Flip Video's Mino captures up to 60 minutes of 640 x 480 standard definition video to a 2GB internal flash memory. While the camera is a point-and-shoot it also has a 2x digital zoom for minor adjustments. It features a 1.5" LCD display for composing and watching your footage and uncomplicated controls for operation. Created by the company that pioneered the pocket camcorder craze, the Mino uses the same built-in FlipShare editing software that all Flip Video cameras use. FlipShare lets you edit and instantly post your video clips to sites such as YouTube, and is both Mac and PC compatible.

Another camcorder from Flip Video, the UltraHD, is fighting for the top spot of most popular pocket cam. While slightly taller and thicker than the Mino, the UltraHD is definitely compact enough to fit in your pocket. It records 1280 x 720p high definition video and holds up to 120 minutes of content to its 8GB internal memory. It has a slightly bigger 2" anti-glare LCD, but like the Mino, has an incredibly uncomplicated set of controls and a 2x digital zoom, in addition to the flip-out USB arm, and FlipShare software.

Note: The UltraHD is powered by the Flip Video rechargeable battery pack but works with other 'AA' batteries as well.

Samsung's HMX-U10 Ultra Compact Camcorder captures 1920 x 1080 HD video, along with 10MP stills to SD/SDHC memory cards. The HMX-U10 features the pocket-friendly form-factor of the genre, but with an ergonomic twist. Its seven-degree design lessens strain on your hand and wrist, to enable longer and more comfortable recording.

The HMX-U10 offers up features like time-lapse recording, animated thumbnails for quick retrieval of video clips, and backlight compensation. The camera is powered by a rechargeable lithium-ion battery and can be charged via the USB or included AC adapter. Samsung's built-in Intelli-Studio software, which is Windows Compatible, allows for in-camera editing of your footage and instant uploading to YouTube.

The fourth and final budget-friendly pocket cam we'll look at is the Zoom Q3 Handy Video Recorder The Q3 captures MPEG-4 640 x 480 standard def video that's more than adequate for posting to social media sites. It features the same point-and-shoot ease as the rest of the genre and has a 2.4" LCD for composition and playback of video. However, the Q3 really shines when it comes to audio recording. Made with the same pro-quality microphones used in the company's H4n professional field recorder, the Q3 was specifically designed for recording music – whether that be your band, shows, recitals, or whatever. You can switch between recording audio only, or recording video and audio together. There's also a headphone out, and a composite A/V out, in addition to the standard USB interface of the genre. Perhaps best of all, the Q3's editing software is both Mac and PC compatible.

Note: To learn more about the Handy Video Recorder please check out this article by Sam Mallery, which provides a more detailed look at the Q3.

GPS Enabled Camcorders

If geotagging is what you or your intended recipient is into then consider these GPS enabled camcorders from Sony. These cameras allow you to tag exactly where in the world you shot your footage and track and play your recordings using Sony's Map Index function. The GPS receiver sets your camcorder's clock to the correct time zone and allows you to see your current location. When you're ready to archive your footage or share it on social networking sites all your footage will have a GPS tag to go along with it for organizing and finding video by location.

If you're looking for something with an emphasis on geotagging and uncomplicated social media posting like a pocket cam, with a polished design and a number of functions, then one to consider is Sony's HDR-TG5V High Definition Handycam. This sleek camcorder features a stylized pocket cam form-factor, but feels more weighted in your hand thanks to its titanium construction.

In addition to the aforementioned GPS functionality, the TG5V records 1920 x 1080i high definition video and 4MP stills to a 16GB embedded flash memory or to optional Memory Stick PRO Duo Media. It has a 1/5" Exmor CMOS sensor with Sony's ClearVid array and BIONZ image processor, which cuts down on image noise and improves response time. Other useful features include SteadyShot Image Stabilization, Smile Shutter, Face Detection, a built-in Intelligent Flash, Highlight Playback, and Sony's Window's compatible Picture Motion Browser (PMB) software for editing and uploading of your footage. Mac users can edit the MPEG-4 AVC/H.264 files using iMovie '08.

Note: To learn more, check out this review solely dedicated to the HDR-TG5V.

Two other popular Sony camcorders with GPS receivers include the HDR-XR500V and HDR-XR520V camcorders. Both have the same GPS features of the HDR-TG5V, including the Map Index function and automatic time set. Where these cameras differ however is with a more traditional form-factor and more storage. The XR500V can store up to 120GB of 1920 x 1080i HD video and 4MP stills to its hard disk drive (HDD), and gives you the option to record to Sony's Memory Stick PRO Duo media. The XR520V records also records 1080 HD video, along with 12.1MP stills to a 240GB hard drive, in addition to Memory Stick storage. Both of these cameras also feature a generous 3.2" touch panel LCD screen, a 1/2.88" Exmor R CMOS sensor and Sony's BIONZ Image Processor for cleaner video with less noise.

Note: To read more about GPS and its many uses check out this informative article on geotagging

Entry-Level Standard Definition

If you want more flexibility than a pocket cam while staying in an entry-level price range, and don't plan on taking up extreme sports anytime soon, consider the Sony DCR-SR47 Handycam. The DCR-SR47 is a basic camcorder that will record your memories and get the job done without major expense or extraneous functions. This camcorder records up to 45 hours of 720 x 480 standard definition video, and 640 x 480 digital stills to a 60GB internal hard drive. And because it features hybrid capture, you can also record to optional Memory Stick Media up to 16GB.

The DCR-SR47 embodies Sony's 1/8" Advanced HAD CCD image sensor, a Carl Zeiss Vario-Tessar Lens, 60x optical zoom, Sony's SteadyShot image stabilization, and a 2.7" touch screen LCD. Other features include automatic Power On, direct connect to an optional DVD burner, one-touch disk burn, Face Index, Film Roll Index, and the Easy Handycam button which locks out most camera functions leaving only those needed for recording. The included editing software is compatible with Windows XP and Vista operating systems.

Note: Optional lenses and filters can be used with the SR47, as well as waterproof housing, a GPS device, and other accessories.

Traditional High Definition

These HD camcorders record high definition video with more options and features than entry-level SD camcorders, while offering up a traditional form-factor, a bevy of user-friendly features, along with the long range compatibility that high definition provides.

Canon's VIXIA HF200 Camcorder records 1920 x 1080i AVCHD video and 3.3MP stills, with the help of a 3.89MP ¼" CMOS sensor, to SD/SDHC memory cards up to 32GB. When shooting in LP mode the camera can record up to 12 hours of video. The HF200 also features a number of Canon's proprietary functions, including the DIGIC DV III image processor, SuperRange Optical Image Stabilization, Face Detection, and Video Snapshot Mode and Dual Shot Mode.

Much like the higher-end Canon cams it provides the 24p Cinema Mode and 30p Progressive Mode for video with a polished film-like appearance. It also has 24Mbps recording for high-quality AVCHD video capture. Other features include a 15x optical zoom HD Video Lens, a Mini Advanced accessory shoe, microphone and headphone connections, an HDMI out, and a remote control. A number of accessories, including spare batteries, filters, lenses, lights, microphones, and tripods are available for the HF200 as well.

Note: The HF200 uses Canon's Pixel ImageMixer 3SE editing software, which is compatible with Windows XP and Vista operating systems.

Panasonic offers two HD camcorders that get you into the high def world of recording and provide plenty of extras. The HDC-HS250 is a mid-priced HD cam, while the HDC-SD10 is an entry-level HD cam.Both camcorders capture 1920 x 1080i HD video – the HS250 to a 120GB hard disk drive or to optional SD/SDHC memory cards, and the SD10 to SD/SDHC memory cards only.

Both capture digital stills – the HS250 providing 10.6MP stills and the SD10 offering up 2.1MP stills. Both also have a 2.7" touchscreen LCD, Panasonic's Advanced Optical Image Stabilization, a built-in video light and flash, and an HDMI connection for hook up to your HDTV. Where they differ, however, sets these two camcorders apart not only in features, but price-point. The CMOS in the SD10 is a 1/6" sensor that captures in the MPEG-4 AVC/H.264 format. The HS250 has an enhanced (3 x 1/ 4.1") CMOS sensor, called "3MOS" by Panasonic. This sensor provides 3 x 3.05MP for a total of 9.15MP MPEG-4 AVC/H.264 files. The HS250 also features a Leica Dicomar Lens with 12x optical zoom, while the SD10 has 16x optical zoom.

Sony's HDR-CX100 camcorder captures 1920 x 1080i MPEG-4 AVC/H.264 video and captures 4MP digital stills with the help of the 1/5" Exmor CMOS sensor with ClearVid array and the BIONZ image processor. The CX100 features hybrid recording to either the 8GB embedded flash memory or to optional Memory Stick PRO Duo Media. The camera has Sony's SteadyShot Image Stabilization, 10x optical zoom, a 2.7" touch panel LCD, a Carl ZeissVario-Tessar lens, and Sony's x.v. Color techonology for expanded color capture. Additional features include Face Detection, Smile Shutter, Dual Record for simultaneous still and video capture, and an HDMI output.

High-End HD Camcorders

These high-end consumer cams provide high definition recording in addition to numerous functions and features, significantly upping the production value of your recordings. With headphone, microphone, and light connections, accessory shoes, and more, these camcorders offer more flexibility for the amateur filmmaker who wants to expand their vision. They also provide a more affordable option for students or other filmmakers who want to practice their craft without the major expense of a pro cam.

Canon's HDV VIXIA HV40 captures 1920 x 1080i high def video and captures 3.1MP still photos. It features a 1/ 2.7" 2.96MP CMOS sensor, Canon's DIGIC DV II image processor, SuperRange Optical Image Stabilization, and a 10x optical zoom HD Video Lens. In addition to recording video to miniDV tape, still images can be stored on optional miniSD cards as well. The camera can record in film-like frame rates of 24p and 30p, as well as 60i.

The HV40 features Canon's Advanced Accessory Shoe for attaching external microphones and lights, while another important feature – the headphone connection - allows you to check your audio levels while recording or to playback footage without distraction. Other features of the camera include a 2.7" LCD, a built-in light and flash, an HDMI output, and a remote control.

Another Canon super-star, the AVCHD VIXIA HF S11 Dual Flash Memory Camcorder presents a number of options for the budding filmmaker, or anyone who wants to up their production value while remaining in the consumer camcorder genre. The HF S11 captures 1920 x 1080i video and 8MP stills to its Dual Flash Memory: a 64GB internal memory and an SD/SDHC expansion slot. It utilizes a 1/ 2.6" 8.59MP CMOS sensor, a Canon10x HD Video Lens, and Canon's Dynamic SuperRange Optical Image Stabilization. Like the HV40 it also offers the option to record in the film-like 24p or 30p, as well as 60i. The HF S11 likewise has a 2.7" LCD, a video light and flash, microphone and headphone connections, a mini accessory hot shoe, and component and composite and HDMI connections. It has a number of the proprietary Canon features as well, including: DIGIC DV III, Face Detection and Video Snapshot Mode.

Note: The HF S11 comes bundled with Canon's Window's compatible Pixela ImageMixer 3 SE Video Editing software.

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