Digital Focus: How to Buy a Digital CamcorderTips, specs, tricks, gotchas, and product recommedations.
Feature: Choosing a Digital Camcorder
Home-movie cameras have been around for decades. My dad had a Super-8 camera that he used to make grainy, jerky, silent films when I was a little kid in the 60s. In the 80s, VHS and 8mm video cameras became popular, and I made quite a number of home videos myself. But while moviemaking has been around seemingly forever, it was often impractical--and the results are rarely much fun to watch.
The VHS video camera is fast becoming a relic. In its place you'll find the digital camcorder. Sure, it may look a lot like the old analog camcorder collecting dust in your basement, but a digital camcorder records a DVD-like high-resolution signal. These camcorders range in price from about $700 to $1500.
They work much like the VHS video cameras of old, except that a FireWire port makes it easy to transfer freshly shot video to any properly equipped PC for instant editing. Titles, transitions, and soundtracks can be added, then the entire project can be dumped to tape or DVD without losing a pixel of resolution. It's a whole new way of making movies, one that's incomparably better than the tape-to-tape dubbing systems (with their attendant generational loss) common just a few years ago. And believe it or not, the results can actually be fun to watch.
A Plethora of Choices
We have lots of choices when it came to choosing an analog camcorder, including VHS, VHS-C, SVHS-C, 8mm, Hi8--and those are just the most popular ones. Well, just as nature abhors a vacuum, the tech industry abhors a standard. And so we have three popular options for digital camcorders: DV (digital video), Digital8, and DVD.
DV camcorders use Mini-DV tapes to record essentially DVD-quality video (720-by-480-pixel resolution). There are probably more DV camcorders on the market than any other type, since just about every camcorder manufacturer sells at least one model. The biggest downside to DV is the maximum tape length: In standard play, you can record only one hour of video.
Digital8 was created by Sony as a sort of bridge to the future for old Hi8 camcorders. Digital8 camcorders read older 8mm and Hi8 tapes as well as new Digital8 tapes. In addition to better backward compatibility, you can get tapes in longer lengths than DV allows. But there's bad news: There are fewer Digital8 camcorders around, since only Sony and a few other companies sell them.
DVD camcorders record directly to miniature recordable DVDs. These camcorders let you do all sorts of cool stuff--rearranging clips, adding transitions, making complete movies--without a PC. There's no rewinding, and scenes can be randomly accessed from a menu of on-screen thumbnails. Unfortunately, it seems that DVD camcorders aren't quite ready for prime time. Although in theory the PC-free editing tricks sound great, in practice it's cumbersome to do much editing using camcorder controls, and you can't do the really fancy stuff, such as trimming away half of a scene. Worse, the video quality is noticeably inferior to DV or Digital8.
Making the Connection
Except for DVD models, all of today's camcorders use FireWire or IEEE-1394 (which Sony calls i.Link) to transfer video to a PC. Once you take some video, just connect the camcorder to your computer's FireWire connection and dump the data on the hard disk. You'll want a lot of storage space if you want to do serious video editing--plan on dedicating an 80GB hard disk, for instance--but once on the PC you can edit clips, rearrange video sequences, add titles, and create MTV-like special effects. And it's not hard to do: If you can cut and paste in a word processor, you can edit video on a computer. When you're done, you can dump the finished movie back on tape or copy it to a DVD. Computer-based recordable DVD drives have hit about $350, putting them in the realm of affordability. For more information on these drives, see "DVD Burners Hit Prime Time."
Digital camcorders have come a long way in the last few years. When I got my first DV camcorder, its stills were only VGA quality, totally unsuitable for printing--or anything else, for that matter. We still haven't reached the point where you'll want to permanently ditch your digital camera, but many digital camcorders can now capture 1.3-megapixel stills (a resolution of 1280 by 960 pixels) to tape or to a removable memory card. For a short trip on which I'll be shooting a lot of video, I might consider leaving the camera at home and taking still shots with the camcorder.
Camcorders come in all shapes and sizes, quite literally. The Panasonic PV-DC352, for instance, is compact and has a horizontal layout. I found it for around $900 using the PCWorld.com Product Finder. Another favorite, the Canon Optura 200MC, is built vertically and costs around $1000. For the latest prices, check our Product Finder. The Sharp ViewCam VL-MC500U is unique; it doesn't look like a camcorder at all. With a huge LCD viewer on its back, it looks like an oversized digital camera. For pricing, check out our Product Finder.
You'll want to think about how you'll use the camcorder. Do you plan to do a lot of still photography with your camcorder? If so, look for a model with a built-in flash. Like shooting video at night? Then get one with a video light or, even better, a Night mode that makes the CCD hypersensitive to ambient light. Some folks have a large collection of VHS tapes that they hope to someday convert to DVD. If that sounds like you, be sure your camcorder has analog video inputs.
And don't be taken in by a fancy zoom. Just like with a digital camera, a camcorder's digital zoom rating isn't very important: You'll rarely need more than 75X or perhaps 100X. After that, the video becomes a pixely mess.
Finally, be sure to try the different models in a camera store to see which shape is the most comfortable to use, and which control layout works best for you.
Dave's Favorites: Share Your Pictures With PhotoParade
We've all got a hard disk full of digital images. The problem is, what do we do with them? Showing off photos is important--and PhotoParade is a cool little program that makes it a snap to share your favorite images with friends and family.
With PhotoParade you drag and drop any number of photos into a gallery, choose a theme, and then watch the resulting show on your PC. Want to share it? You can load the show onto floppy or send it to others.
That's the basic idea, but the fun is in the details. PhotoParade lets you add titles and captions that appear during the slideshow, crop your photos, remove red eye, and add narration. None of the changes you make affect the original images, which are all preserved safely on your hard disk; only the copies of the photos in your slideshow are changed.
The themes are a blast. There are 46 unique themes available for download from the PhotoParade Web site, all with animation to keep things interesting. The Kitty Playtime theme is best for kids (or perhaps my mom): a cat jumps around the photos as they display. An undersea theme involves fish, scuba divers, and mermaids. Silent Movie displays pictures in sepia on a flickering theater screen. There are also seasonal and holiday themes. You can use the default theme soundtrack or attach your own MP3 track.
It takes just a few minutes to click your way through the slideshow wizard. When you're done, you can save the show to your hard disk, span it across a few floppies, or "e-mail" it. When you choose the e-mail option, you're really uploading the show to a Web server. The program notifies the intended recipient that the show can be downloaded and viewed. To watch it, your friends need to install a small PhotoParade viewer.
It would be nice if PhotoParade had a built-in option to write the slideshow to CD. You can do that yourself with a program like Easy CD Creator, however. The slideshows are fairly compact; a 24-picture show with the default music clocks in around 3MB.
The program comes in three versions: a $19.99 standard edition with four themes, the $29.99 premium version with nine themes, and the complete super version for $39.95.
Q&A: Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About CompactFlash
I recently bought a Fuji FinePix s602. The manual says that the camera accepts SmartMedia, IBM Microdrive, and CompactFlash Type II. Is this "CompactFlash Type II" memory available? If so, where can I find it? I don't want to spend a ton on the Microdrive, so I'd like to try the CompactFlash Type II instead. Can you help?
--Liz Hedge, Charleston, South Carolina
Congratulations, Liz: You've got a great little camera. The FinePix s602 is one of a growing number of cameras that accept more than one kind of expansion memory. I like that since you can choose the cheapest format when you shop for a memory card, and you can even load two memory cards at once for twice the storage.
CompactFlash is one of the most popular formats around. These cards measure 1.65 inches by 1.42 inches and are quite rigid; they're not flexible like the paper-thin SmartMedia card that came with your s602.
They come two thicknesses, known as Type I and Type II. Type I CF cards are 3.3 mm thick, while Type II cards measure 5 mm. Why, you ask? Well, when the format was designed in the late 90s, it was easier to pack more memory into a thicker card--thus was born the two formats. But don't worry--if your camera accepts Type II cards, it'll also take Type I. In other words, you can step into any computer, office supply, or computer store and buy any CompactFlash card, and it'll work just fine. The best buys are almost always on the Internet. Searching PCWorld.com's Product Finder, I found a 128MB card for as little as $40. Prices fluctuate often, so check the site out for yourself.
As an aside, IBM's Microdrive is a tiny hard disk that conforms to the CompactFlash Type II form factor. But since Microdrives draw more power than ordinary CompactFlash memory, not all cameras can use them. Yours specifically states that it is Microdrive-compatible, so that's always an option if you ever want to go that route.
Hot Pic of the Week
Get published, get famous! Each week, we select our favorite reader-submitted photo based on creativity, originality and technique. Every month, the best of the weekly winners gets a prize valued at between $15 and $50.
Here's how to enter: Send us your photograph in JPEG format, at a resolution no higher than 640 by 480 pixels. Entries at higher resolutions will be immediately disqualified. If necessary, use an image editing program to reduce the file size of your image before e-mailing it to us. Include the title of your photo along with a short description and how you photographed it. Don't forget to send your name, e-mail address, and postal address. Before entering please read the full description of the contest rules and regulations.
This week's Hot Pic: "Haut Koenigsbourg," by Alan Tobias, Richmond, Virginia
Alan writes: "I took this photograph in August at the Haut Koenigsbourg castle in the Alsace region of France, using my new Canon A40. I liked the patterns created by all of the different levels and turrets of the castle. Because of the narrowness of the passage, I had to step back into a doorway to get the entire tower in the picture. I think the doorway adds a nice frame to the photograph."
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