Though it's certainly not a dead category, the consumer camcorder market has dropped off considerably over the past few years. In fact, we haven't reviewed more than a handful of 2012 models because the interest hasn't been there from our readers.
The main reason for this is that while it was once necessary to have a camcorder to capture video, there are so many devices that do it now -- from smartphones and tablets to point-and-shoots and digital SLRs -- that for many it hardly seems necessary to have a standalone video camera. However, if you're simply trying decide if your smartphone is enough for your needs, here are some advantages to buying a camcorder:
- Optical zoom and optical image stabilization
- Battery life
- Large, separate storage
- Better autofocus
- More control over results
- Better video quality
- Ability to accessorize with microphones, lights and so on
Small, cheap, and easy
This category all but died when Cisco decided to stop making the category originator, the Flip. There are still some around, though the video quality is generally no better than you'd get from the average smartphone. One of the big reasons they still exist is because they are inexpensive and you can feel comfortable handing it off to someone else, which you might not want to do with a smartphone worth hundreds of dollars.
Also, many of them now are waterproof, dustproof, and shockproof, such as the Samsung HMX-W300, that allows you to do things with it that, again, you may not want to risk doing with a smartphone.
Moderately priced and family friendly
These are traditional camcorders, for shooting stuff like birthday parties, vacations, baby steps, holiday gatherings, and school plays. Though they have more controls than the Flip-style models, you can generally set them on auto for easy use. Entry-level models for this class typically have more zoom range and convenience features to make up for subpar HD video quality. These should run between about $300 and $600.
Full-featured and manually capable
In addition to having more manual controls than their cheaper competitors, these models tend to have better sensors and lenses and produce better video. They also have accessory shoes for mounting options like microphones.
A growing number of the higher end models now support interchangeable lenses as well. You pay for it, though; these cost upwards of $800.
Also called sport and POV (point-of-view) cams, these are tiny mountable video cameras designed for hands-free recording. This is one of the only segments of the camcorder market that's actually growing. The video quality has gotten very good from these little cameras, and new features like built-in Wi-Fi and slow-motion video capture add to their popularity. They can be as little as $100, but the best models are typically around $300 to $400.
Key features to consider
Even the lowest-end camcorders from major manufacturers record HD-resolution video, though several models do allow you to record at standard definition, too.
There are a few key specs associated with HD video: resolution, sensor capture frame rate (frames per second, abbreviated fps), and actual recorded frame rate (indicated by "p" for "progressive" and "i" for interlaced).
Camcorders turn 30fps video into 60i recordings by combining every other line of video from two sequential frames.
The most common options are:
- 1,280x720 at 30fps or 24fps = 720p
- 1,920x1080 at 30fps, 24fps = 1080p or 1080i.
1080p is better than 1080i, but is unsupported by some software. (Note: 1,440x1,080 is an old size, Apple iFrame, that was necessary for software compatibility several years ago.)
This is the type of file recorded by the camcorder.
- MPEG-2: An older but widely supported file type that doesn't compress video as efficiently as MPEG-4 or AVCHD.
- MPEG-4: A standard file type optimized for Web upload and streaming.
- AVCHD: A proprietary flavor of MPEG-4; the same format used by Blu-ray discs. Files recorded using AVCHD 2.0 frame rates aren't necessarily recordable to Blu-ray discs, however; the current Blu-ray format only supports the 3D files of AVCHD 2.0.
A zoom lens allows you to magnify your subject without moving closer. Cheap camcorders either have little to no zoom (up to 5x) or, ironically, too much zoom (greater than 25x or so). It's too much because ultralong telephoto lenses are hard to use, even with good image stabilization, and usually of poor quality.
Zooming via the lens is known as optical zoom. Ignore digital zoom specs; don't use it because it degrades the video quality. You're generally stuck with whatever zoom is offered at your budget, but there's no reason to buy a camcorder with 72x zoom instead of a 60x zoom simply because one is longer, unless you're planning to use a tripod and are a stalker or astrophotographer.
The lens should have a maximum aperture (opening which lets in light) of f2 or lower and an equivalent focal length (which determines how wide the view is) of a maximum of 39mm. Look for a shorter focal length if possible for a wider viewing angle to get more of the scene in the frame.
Image stabilization (IS)
This allows the camcorder to compensate for unwanted camera movement. Optical (performed by shifting the lens) is generally better, though if you're shooting from a moving vehicle, digital (postprocessing) image stabilization can sometimes be more effective. Manufacturers have released updated IS systems with names like hybrid or dynamic designed to better compensate for shooting while walking.
For best quality, effective sensor resolution should be at least twice the video standard's resolution. In other words, for a 720p camcorder the sensor resolution should be at least 1.8 megapixels; for 1080i/p it should be at least 4 megapixels. (And that goes for each chip in 3-chip model.) Higher resolutions will likely not produce better video, though they may result in better still photo quality.
As for types of sensors, most consumer camcorders use CMOS sensors. The latest CMOS sensor technology is BSI (backside illuminated -- not "backlit"), which delivers better low-light performance. Sony is the only company to have branded its BSI sensors (as Exmor R). While most companies have dropped them, Panasonic still offers 3-chip camcorders -- an older method for improving dynamic range and color reproduction.
Unless you hunt down older models, new consumer camcorders only use flash memory memory for storage. If you want to record directly to a built-in hard drive or disc or tape, you're out of luck with rare exception. Manufacturers typically sell versions of the same camcorder with internal flash memory plus an SD card slot or with only a card slot where you supply the storage. When recording to SD card, it is recommended that you use a Class 6 or higher card for HD video.
This usually refers to the bundled software; almost all recent camcorders are compatible with Macs and iMovie.
If you want a device that takes good photos as well as video, don't buy a camcorder. With the exception of a few prosumer models, you're better off going with an ILC, digital SLR, or high-end point-and-shoot.
This is a measure of how sensitive the camcorder is in low-light shooting. It's generally between 5 and 7 lux for consumer models. Lower claims generally reflect special shooting modes, such as infrared or a slow shutter, which produce odd effects.
More and more camcorders are moving to touch-screen operation, but not all touch screens and menu systems work very well. You should definitely try to navigate the menu system and change shooting settings of any model you're considering buying.
An electronic viewfinder is useful for shooting when you can't view the LCD very well (such as in direct sunlight) or if you're used to shooting with a camera up to your eye. Some people also find it easier to hold the camcorder stable when using one or find an EVF less distracting than the LCD. These are usually only available on full-featured and manually capable models.
Headphones come in handy if you shoot in noisy areas -- it's the only way to tell what the microphone is actually picking up.
If you plan to shoot people talking, an add-on directional microphone will give you better sound than the built-in omnidirectional mics in consumer camcorders. These are usually only available on full featured and manually capable or inexpensive and education-targeted models.
This is necessary if you plan to use an add-on microphone or video light. These are usually only available on full-featured and manually capable models.
Manual exposure controls
All camcorders allow you to adjust exposure via an exposure compensation control, but some let you adjust shutter speed and/or iris (aperture). These are usually only available on full-featured and manually capable models.
In an effort to make sharing and backing up your movies "easier," camcorder manufacturers now have models with built-in Wi-Fi. The wireless connection can be used, among other things, to send clips to a mobile-broadband-connected device like a smartphone or tablet for uploading on the go. However, you are typically limited to sending short, low-resolution clips.
Some camcorders offer a built-in GPS for geotagging video. This can be useful, but keep in mind that there's no metadata standard for attaching the geotags to video so it will only be usable in conjunction with the manufacturer's software.