A camcorder can come with many features, but you should just buy digital video camera features that you need (once you've reviewed "How to Buy the Best Digital Video Camera for You.")
Just like regular cameras, many video camcorders are designed to be "point and shoot" simple: Just turn it on, hit "record," and you're off and running. Most consumer-level or "prosumer" digital video cameras do this really well.
If you want to review a shot or adjust the picture, some cameras make it a lot easier for you than others. If you want to make some manual adjustments for more difficult situations or to get more professional results, there can be a lot of differences. Do a careful digital video camera comparison before you buy.
You shouldn't have to pull out a manual to figure out the basic operations of a consumer digital video camera. (Professional digital video cameras are another story.) If the designers have done their job, you should be able to figure out even the more complicated functions without a manual. This becomes most important when you miss a critical shot because you're trying to get some feature turned on or off or changed.
(In a perfect world, you will have prepared enough ahead of time that this would never happen, no matter how hard the camera is to work with but the world is never perfect.)
Each camera is different, but here are some things to look out for when you buy a digital video camera:
Are the basic controls (power, record, zoom) in a good location for easy use? Even if you plan to order online, get to a store so you can put the camcorder in your hands. Check how easy it is for your fingers to reach the required buttons.
If you use a tripod (and you should), what can't be accessed when the camera is mounted? You should definitely be able to change the tape, DVD or memory card without unscrewing the camcorder, but some of them don't let you.
For many years, most digital video cameras used mini-DV tapes for storing the video. The tapes are compact, inexpensive, and they store fairly high-quality video.
However, the days of mini-DV tapes are coming to an end. The latest recording options include:
Nearly all new camcorders, from cheapo solid-state point-and-shoots on up, record in high-definition, or HD. If you're investing for the future, then HD is the way to go.
Why wouldn't you want to go with HD — that is, get a standard-definition (SD) camcorder?
For most people, however, HD makes sense.
Every digital video camera has one these days. Some are easier to see than others, especially when you're out in the bright sun. Also, it's handy to have a screen that can twist around so you can see yourself being filmed, in case you are both the main actor and the film crew.
You just need to know one word: Optical. Zoom is very handy, so if you want to get closer without physically getting closer, look for the best optical zoom you can get. Optical zoom isn't perfect, because optically zooming cuts down on the amount of light coming through the lens (see the "Seeing the light" discussion on the Buy the Best Digital Video Camera page). Cutting down the light means your colors won't be as good. But it does give you a clearer picture.
Digital zoom doesn't make things clearer; it just makes them bigger. If the action was far away and fuzzy, digital zoom will make a small part of it big and fuzzy. You're better off avoiding digital zoom, so just ignore a camcorder's digital zoom claims.
Camcorder microphones are typically sub-optimal, so a mic jack (usually a mini-stereo jack) will let you plug in an external microphone, giving you the option of much better sound. Cheaper camcorders, and some mid-range models, don't have external jacks, but it's a must-have for all but the most casual videographer. Think carefully before you buy a digital video camera without one.
This lets you listen to the sound the way the digital video camera hears it. Pros monitor the sound with headphones all the time, and you'll want that capability. For example, if you're recording outdoors in the wind, the microphone may make it sound like you're next to a jet engine at full blast. Headphones will let you hear that and correct it (by shielding the microphone, moving to a sheltered location, etc.)
This is for the high-speed digital connection between your camcorder and your PC. If your camera uses MiniDV tapes, it's the way to get your movie off the tape and onto your computer for editing. Macs have had Firewire ports for a long time, and many newer PCs have them as well.
If your PC doesn't have a firewire connection, you can often buy a card with a firewire port to put in your PC (which means taking the cover off and hooking up a couple of things). Firewire also needs a special cable.
Remember these tips before you buy. The features on your digital video camera features should be the ones you will use, so shop around, compare the specifications, and try out a few camcorders in a store. You'll want to buy a digital video camera that will do what you want it to do, and do it well.
For other video equipment advice, go to the Top 10 Video Equipment page.