Buyer's Guide 2009: HD Camcorders

Though the nationwide transition from analog to pure digital TV has again been delayed (sigh!), analog is dead, and not even an act of Congress can resuscitate it. If you’ve been waiting for prices to come down to go high-def with your home movies, we’re pleased to tell you that you easily can get started with full HD video recording for well under $1,000. Even a step up to more sophisticated models with hefty built-in storage won’t break the bank.

As with digital photography, there’s a lot of jargon that you’ll want to decipher before you make a buying decision. Here’s a look at the most important terms with which to be familiar, and a sampling of some of the latest, hottest cameras for home videographers.

Recording Media

The trend in digital camcorders today is toward removable flash media—SDHC, specifically—as the primary recording medium. In many cameras, this is augmented with built-in storage in the form of either a hard drive or flash memory. The advantage to using removable SDHC cards is that you can carry several with you and expand your recording time as needed. They’re small, and relatively inexpensive, with the price-per-gigabyte dropping. All of the models we’ll look at here incorporate removable media as a recording option.

Other models feature recording directly to discs such as DVD and Blu-ray. Others still use digital MiniDV tape, an older technology that remains in the marketplace for consumers who are comfortable with tape and want to keep copies of the raw footage on a shelf rather than on their computer’s hard drive.

Canon Vixia HF20/Vixia HF200

Video Resolution: 1920×1080
Frame Rate(s): 60i, 24p, 30p
Video Format: MPEG4/H.264
Still Image Resolution: 2304×1296
Lens (35mm equiv.): 15x (39.5-592.5mm)
Recording Media: SDHC, 32 GB internal (HF20 only)
Digital Output: USB, HDMI
Dimensions: 2.8×2.4×4.9 inches
Weight: 14.1 ounces
List Price: $999 (HF20); $849 (HF200)

Hitachi DZ-BD10HA

Video Resolution: 1920×1080
Frame Rate(s): N/A
Video Format: MPEG4/H.264
Still Image Resolution: 2400×1800
Lens (35mm equiv.): 10x (47-470mm)
Recording Media: SDHC, 30 GB internal, Blu-ray Disc
Digital Output: USB, HDMI
Dimensions: 3.4×3.2×6.5 inches
Weight: 22.3 ounces
List Price: $1,099

Resolution

The letters “HD” are pretty powerful marketing mojo, but beware the specs! Everything “HD” isn’t necessarily created equal. There are two resolutions in consumer video that are commonly referred to as HD: 720 and 1080. These numbers represent the pixel count in the vertical dimension of the image. True HD is generally considered to be 1080, with 720 being higher resolution than standard definition, but not “full” HD. All of the camcorders featured here are “full” HD, with video resolutions of 1920×1080 pixels.

Frame Rate

Classic film movies were usually recorded at 24 frames per second. In the digital age, faster frame rates are possible, though many people, accustomed to film, like the “look” of 24 frames per second. So, you’ll find many cameras that offer this frame rate. However, it’s usually the result of downsampling from a faster frame rate of 60 frames per second. A few cameras do include a native 24 frames-per-second mode.

Also intertwined with the frame rate is the method in which frames are captured: interlaced or progressive, denoted by the letter “i” or “p” following either the resolution or the frame rate (1080i, 24p, etc.). Interlaced frames don’t capture the entire scene at once; instead, the scene is broken into horizontal lines, and each frame captures half of the alternating lines. The subsequent frame captures the other half of the lines. During playback, our brains weave the two together, and this all happens so fast that we don’t notice it. In progressive capture, the entire scene is recorded in each frame. Progressive capture therefore offers better image quality overall and is of critical importance when you want to snag a still image from your video footage.

Also intertwined with the frame rate is the method in which frames are captured: interlaced or progressive, denoted by the letter “i” or “p” following either the resolution or the frame rate (1080i, 24p, etc.). Interlaced frames don’t capture the entire scene at once; instead, the scene is broken into horizontal lines, and each frame captures half of the alternating lines. The subsequent frame captures the other half of the lines. During playback, our brains weave the two together, and this all happens so fast that we don’t notice it. In progressive capture, the entire scene is recorded in each frame. Progressive capture therefore offers better image quality overall and is of critical importance when you want to snag a still image from your video footage.

JVC GZ-HD320/GZ-HD300

Video Resolution: 1920×1080
Frame Rate(s): 60i
Video Format: AVCHD
Still Image Resolution: 1920×1080
Lens (35mm equiv.): 20x (41.4-828mm)
Recording Media: SDHC, 120 GB internal (HD320),
60 GB internal (HD300)
Digital Output: USB, HDMI
Dimensions: 2.1×2.7×4.5 inches
Weight: 13.1 ounces
List Price: $799 (GZ-HD320); $699 (GZ-HD300)

Panasonic HDC-HS100

Video Resolution: 1920×1080
Frame Rate(s): 60i, 24p
Video Format: AVCHD
Still Image Resolution: 1920×1080
Lens (35mm equiv.): 12x (42.1-505mm)
Recording Media: SDHC, 60 GB internal
Digital Output: USB, HDMI
Dimensions: 2.9×2.9×5.4 inches
Weight: 14.7 ounces
List Price: $1,199

Still Image

Speaking of still images, most HD camcorders let you take still photos, too. Some will let you do it on the fly, as you’re recording video. Others require you to switch recording modes. Both are convenient if you don’t want to carry two cameras. However, you won’t get the massive megapixel counts you’re probably used to by now from still cameras. So, if you’re looking for stills that can be used for big prints, you may want to bring your SLR along after all.

File Format

Newer HD camcorders use some variety of MPEG4/H.264 compression. This industry-standard codec was developed to provide maximum picture quality while reducing file size, ma
king it friendlier for streaming over the web and other applications where bandwidth and storage constraints are a concern. AVCHD is a particular flavor of MPEG4/H.264. Digging in to the technical details of this technology would require an article unto itself and be a pretty dry read. Suffice it to say that your next HD camcorder should use some variety of this codec for compressing video. All of the cameras in this article do.

Connections

Once you have your footage, you’ll want to play and share it. Digital connections are the best way to display HD content, so you’ll want a camcorder with HDMI output. The HDMI interface looks like a wider, thinner USB and offers the same plug-and-play convenience. It also carries sound in addition to video—just connect your camcorder to your HDTV and you’re ready for playback. To connect to older, standard-definition screens and devices, many camcorders also offer composite and/or component video output, but this isn’t generally recommended, as you won’t be taking full advantage of your HD content.

For the best results from your digital video, you’ll also want to do some editing with software. The good news is that today’s video-editing applications couldn’t be easier to use. With software like Apple iMovie or Adobe Premiere Elements, you can go from raw footage to a polished final cut on a Sunday afternoon. To get the footage from your camcorder to your computer, you’ll likely use a standard USB 2.0 connection. All current consumer HD camcorder models include this connection.

Samsung SC-HMX20C

Video Resolution: 1920×1080
Frame Rate(s): 60i, 30p
Video Format: MPEG4/H.264
Still Image Resolution: 2304×1728
Lens (35mm equiv.): 10x (50-500mm)
Recording Media: SDHC, 8 GB internal
Digital Output: USB, HDMI
Dimensions: 2.6×2.7×5.5 inches
Weight: 16.2 ounces
List Price: $849

Sanyo Xacti

VPC-HD1010 Video Resolution: 1920×1080
Frame Rate(s): 60i, 30p
Video Format: MPEG4/H.264
Still Image Resolution: 2288×1712
Lens (35mm equiv.): 10x (38-380mm)
Recording Media: SDHC
Digital Output: USB, HDMI
Dimensions: 3.5×2.1×4.4 inches
Weight: 11 ounces
List Price: $699

Sony HDR-XR520V/HDR-XR500V

Video Resolution: 1920×1080
Frame Rate(s): 60i
Video Format: MPEG4/H.264
Still Image Resolution: 4000×3000
Lens (35mm equiv.): 12x (43-516mm)
Recording Media: Memory Stick, 240 GB internal (XR520V),120 GB internal (XR500V)
Digital Output: USB, HDMI
Dimensions: 2.9×3.0x5.5 inches
Weight: 20 ounces
List Price: $1,499 (HDR-XR520V); $1,299 (HDR-XR500V)

Cable Tip

Big-box retailers are notorious for frightening consumers into spending ridiculous amounts of money on “premium” cables. Why? This is a big margin item for them. HDMI cables are no exception. We recently saw a six-foot HDMI cable at a popular retailer priced at $50—that’s $43 more than the equivalent cable we ended up buying at www.mycablemart.com for $7 (plus a few more for tax and shipping). We’ve been using our bargain cable for months now, right alongside a brand-name cable we bought in a moment of weakness for immediate gratification, and if there’s a quality difference, we sure don’t see it.


Resources

Canon
(800) OK-CANON
www.usa.canon.com

Hitachi
(800) HITACHI
www.hitachi.com

JVC
(800) 882-2345
www.jvc.com

Panasonic
(800) 211-PANA
www.panasonic.com

Samsung
(800) SAMSUNG
www.samsungcamerausa.com

Sanyo
(818) 998-7322
www.sanyodigital.com

Sony
(877) 865-SONY
www.sonystyle.com

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