On the face of it, it sounds like a stupid question, but it really isn't. That's because, today, there are many portable devices, from mobile phones and digital cameras to MP3 players, that will happily shoot digital video, but can't be classed as a camcorder. While, for the most part, we won't be directly addressing these types of video taking devices, many of the things mentioned in this feature and its future sections will be applicable to them.
The word camcorder is a fusion of camera and recorder and it applies to any compact, hand-held device whose primary purpose in life is to shoot video. At the time of writing (late 2009), all consumer grade camcorders store video in a digital format, even those that record to tape.Camcorders versus other video devices
If you're only ever going to shoot the occasional video, say your chance encounter with a celebrity, then a device such as a mobile phone or digital camera will be probably sufficient. These devices produce video that's suitable for viewing on the device or posting to YouTube.
Should you be lumped with the task of filming a work function, or want to capture baby's first steps/words/Spelling Bee challenge, or document the family trek through the wilds of Africa, then a dedicated device will produce far better results. For instance, the shape of a camcorder is better suited to being held aloft and pointed in one direction than a digital still camera or a mobile phone.High versus standard definition
HD will give you a higher resolution, crisper image, especially desirable for editing and playback. (Credit: CBS Interactive)
Ignoring formats and shapes, there are two classes of camcorder: high definition and standard definition. Standard-def units start from around AU$500, while high-def models kick off from around AU$1000, but better, more fully featured models cost from around AU$1400 to north of AU$2000. So, clearly if your budget doesn't stretch beyond a grand, standard definition is the only way to go.
If you do have a choice, we'd go with an HD camera every time. A standard-def camcorder will produce output that's perfectly fine for old CRT or rear-projection televisions. On highdefinition flat s-creen TVs, however, they'll look pretty dire — substantially worse than a standard-definition TV broadcast does, in fact.
Planning on editing your high-definition footage later in a video editing suite, like Adobe Premiere or Apple Final Cut Pro? It's best to select a camcorder that records in the AVCHD format. Some camcorders, like select models in the JVC range, record in a proprietary format that isn't widely supported by third-party editing tools.Zoom
The difference is huge
Camcorder makers will generally quote two figures for zoom: one for optical zoom and one for the digital kind. As we explain in the following video, it's best to ignore the latter figure.
It's one of those great paradoxes, the cheaper and more basic a camcorder, the more likely it is to sport an ultra-long zoom lens. Although it sounds sexy holding a camera with 45x or 80x optical zoom, in reality it's pretty useless. Most of us can't hand hold a camera steadily at much past 3x or 4x zoom, so what chance have we got at 80x? At those magnifications, even the age old trick of affixing the camcorder to a tripod is rendered pointless at the merest breeze or tremor in the ground.
Hand holding a video camera is an arduous task and no matter how hard we try there will always be a small amount of shake. Image stabilisation (IS) is designed to counteract this. There are two forms of IS: optical and digital. Optical IS makes minor corrections with the lens and is by far the preferred option. More often than not manufacturers will advertise camcorders with digital image stabilisation as having just image stabilisation — it's not until you dig into the specification sheets that you find out that it's digital.