Get the best digital video camera to meet your needs, whether you're just getting started in video or upgrading from your old Hi-8 camcorder. Use this handy guide to make an informed camcorder decision.
You need to know three things: (1) How do you plan to use the camcorder? (2) What are the camera's basic specifications? and (3) What features do you need?
With so many choices for capturing digital video, narrow them down by deciding what you want to do with your digital video camera recorder. If you just want to record moving pictures, nearly anything will work, including your cell phone or digital camera. If you want to take hi-def movies that will look great on your 54 plasma screen, you'll want something better.
Basically, the further you get down the list, the better the equipment you're going to want. If you're bucking for an Oscar, you'll want the best digital video camera you can afford.
On the other hand, if you're just doing video chats with the relatives, you probably don't need a high-definition professional digital video camera.
Another thing to consider: Is small size and portability important? A mini digital video camera is a lot handier than a professional camcorder.
The better the equipment, the bigger and bulkier it is, so try to imagine if you're willing to lug around the bags and boxes that come with making really good video. If you want the best, you'll just have to do it, but don't buy something because "it's the best" and then never use it because "it's just too big."
If you already have something that takes digital video (webcam, cell phone or digital camera), or if you have an analog camcorder, play around with what you've got before you buy something else — see what you like and don't like about it. That will help you decide what's important so you can buy the best digital video camera for your needs.
When you go shopping for a digital camera, the salesperson will probably try to sell you on the bells and whistles. You, however, will know that you need to find out about the basic specs of the camera first.
If you really want the best digital video camera you can buy, you'll be concerned about the quality of your actual video (the picture part). It all boils down to light — seeing the light, converting the light, and storing the light. These three are the essentials if you care about image quality:
1. See the light: How big is the camcorder lens? Assuming the optic quality is the same, bigger is better. Measurements are given as diameter, in millimeters (mm). There may be two numbers, one for the glass, the other for the ring that takes filters and such. You care about the glass.
2. Convert the light: How big is the image sensor (usually called the CCD or CMOS), and how many are there (1 or 3)? No surprise: bigger is better (at least 1/4 inch for CCDs), and 3 are better than one.
3. Store the light: This gets more complicated. It's all stored digitally these days, but generally MiniDV tape is better than DVD, more pixels are better (Hi-Def vs. VGA), and less compression is better than more compression. Storing to an internal hard drive or memory card can be good or bad, depending on what compression the camera uses. (More compression means the movie takes less space, but doesn't look as good.)
If you always shoot outside in bright sunlight, then the basics won't be as important. However, to get good results when shooting indoors, you need better basics. If you shoot at night or in other low-light situations, the camera's light handling is even more important.
As with everything, basic specs get better as you increase in price. However, there are some good bargains, such as budget camcorders with 3 CCDs (Panasonic makes one), and different size lenses on similarly priced video cameras. Pay attention to the basics first, then figure out the features so you can get the best digital video camera for you.
To read about critical camcorder features, continue on the next page, "Buy Digital Video Camera Features You Need".
You might also check the Top 10 Video Equipment list.