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Digital Camcorders - Buyer's Guide, UK

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Digital Camcorders Buyer's Guide

Advantages of Digital Camcorders over Analogue Camcorders

Digital camcorders have the following advantages over the analogue format:

  • Recordings in digital format are easier to transfer to a PC, via a USB or Firewire cable. You can then use software packages such as Pinnacle or Ulead Video Studio to edit your recordings, perhaps removing scenes you don't like or adding background music, and then burn them to DVD.
  • Some digital camcorders can also be used as digital cameras, taking still images and storing them on a memory card.
  • Digital camcorders are smaller than analogue as the digital tapes (or other digital format - see later) are smaller.

What formats are available for recording with digital camcorders?

Up until recently, the majority of digital camcorders used videotape in a format called MiniDV (other formats are available but are less commonly used). However, some of the more recent models record directly to DVD (using the DVD-RAM format), to removeable memory cards and / or to an inbuilt hard drive.

The advantage of recording to a memory card is that you can have the smallest possible camcorder which is solid state, and the recording can be transferred directly to your computer as the memory card will appear as a removeable hard drive in "My Computer". However, a 1GB memory card will only record about half an hour of high quality video, so you would need to have a lot of memory cards or record the video at a lower quality. Memory cards are currently very expensive when compare to tapes, but as prices come down and capacities go up this will likely be a format of the future.

An inbuilt hard drive means that you will be able to store movies and stills on the internal memory without the need to buy additional media such as tapes or memory cards. For example, the JVC GZ-MG50 (currently £599 from Comet) has a built in internal 30 GB hard drive which will give you 15 hours of high quality video recording.

What should I look for and compare when buying?

Apart from the format, discussed above, you should consider:

  • The LCD Screen
    A larger screen lets you see more easily what you are actually recording. Some screens are also touch sensitive allowing you to rewind the tape etc. Note that in bright light it can be difficult to see the LCD screen so you will need to use the viewfinder instead.
  • The Lens
    Check what the optical zoom of the lens is - you should look for around a 10x optical zoom. Do not get confused with digital zoom - digital zoom effectively just crops your picture, can lead to pixelated images and should be avoided. If you really want to crop your pictures you can do it via your computer.
  • The Battery Life
    Make sure this is at least 2 hours, or you will need to purchase a higher capacity battery.
  • Low Light
    If you are likely to want to make movies in low light settings, look out for a model with this facility.
  • Outputs
    USB and Firewire allow you to download your video to your PC (the USB should use USB 2 or higher technology - USB 1.1 is too slow). S-Video in/out and composite video in/out allow you to record to and from other video formats such as analogue camcorders.
  • CCD
    CCD stands for Charged Coupled Devices. CCDs are used to convert light into electrical signals. Most domestic models have one CCD, but top quality ones can have three. In general, the more CCDs, the better the colour quality.
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