How to Buy a Camcorder
This page includes a list of things to look for when considering a camcorder to buy.
Note: Specifications are only one part of the story—they don't tell you everything about the camera and they can even be misleading, but specs are as good a place to start as anywhere. The main thing is to know which specs are important to you and which can be ignored.
Make sure you understand the recording format you are buying into. These days most consumer camcorders record to a hard drive or removable memory stick, in a common format such as MPEG4-AVC/H.264. If it's a hard drive camcorder, you'll need to connect it to your computer in order to store and do things with the video. If it's a memory stick you may be able to remove the stick and plug it into a slot on your computer.
If you're in the second-hand market, MiniDV is still a viable option but be aware that it's standard definition and probably won't be widescreen. HDV is higher resolution and would be better. We do not recommend DVD camcorders. Older analog formats such as VHS and 8mm should be avoided unless that's really all you can get your hands on.
It pays to make sure the camcorder uses the same standard as the country you will be using it in, e.g. NTSC for the USA, PAL for Europe, etc. Don't buy a cheap camcorder in a foreign country and find you can't use it at home. Many camcorders can change their frame rates—if yours does this, make sure you have it on the correct setting.
See video formats for more information.
There are two types of zoom: digital and optical. They are very different. Basically, digital zoom means nothing and you can ignore it. Optical zoom is what counts. As a side note, if a salesperson tries to impress you with a big digital zoom, find another salesperson because this one cannot be trusted.
You should expect at least a 10x optical zoom. Most people will not need more than this but it can't hurt. 20x is about as powerful as optical zooms get on consumer cameras.
Note: Some cameras offer the full suite of manual functions but not all at the same time. For example, you might be able to select manual focus or manual iris, but not both simultaneously. Also, these controls can be so small and fiddly that they're not actually practical to use (see below).
Viewfinder / LCD Screen
Bigger LCD screens are preferable. Go for at least 2.5 inches. Check the screen in outside conditions as well—some LCDs are hard to see in sunlight.
Ease of Use
A big problem with small camcorders is that the controls are often tiny and difficult to use. In some cases manual controls such as iris and shutter are completely impractical and you're forced to use the auto-functions. Try to get a hands-on trial if possible.
Some camcorders use menus to access manual functions such as iris. This doesn't work well—buttons or dials are usually quicker and easier.
Outputs / Connectivity
Make sure you can connect the camera to your computer, TV or other equipment as required. Analog outputs are handy for connecting to older TVs and VCRs. Computers and modern TVs use digital connections such as USB and Firewire, as well as removable memory sticks.
For some people, audio/video inputs are also important. This can allow you to record from an external source onto the camcorder, or use the camcorder as an analog/digital converter.
If you are even half-serious about good video, you will want good audio. Stereo or multi-channel (e.g. 5.1) should be standard. An external mic input is highly recommended.
- Weight. Not usually an issue since most camcorders are very light, but consider how it will feel after several hours carrying around.
- Storage capacity. Not usually a problem but worth considering.
- Still image capture.
- Number of CCDs. All other things being equal, three CCDs are better than one. The size and resolution of the CCD is also important—bigger is better.
- Add-on filters. If you want to add these, make sure the camera can take them.
- Special effects. Although it is preferable to add effects in post-production, you might be interested in having the option to add them in-camera.
- Time lapse.
- Night-vision mode.