What storage should I get in my camcorder?

There are many types of camcorders on the market, and all take different types of storage. We look into what's available, so you can decide what's best for you.

How much storage do I need?

It's a complex question. When things were recorded in analog, five hours meant five hours. Long play meant roughly double that. But with digital, everything can vary depending on the quality you set and compression used in the chosen codec for your camera.

Buyer beware: how much time are you really getting?
Manufacturers versus reality

Camcorder manufacturers are an optimistic lot, they often quote the number of hours a camcorder to hold based on a quality setting and often a resolution that's less than the maximum. To help you out, we've compiled a more accurate estimate of how many hours of video you can store in a given amount of space.

Storage Standard-def High-def
8GB 2h 1h
16GB 4h 2h 10m
32GB 8h 4h
60GB 14h 40m 8h 20m
120GB 29h 40m 16h 40m
240GB 59h 15m 33h 20m

What type of storage should I get?

There are many types of camcorders on the market, and all take different types of storage. Let's take a look into what's available, so you can decide what's best for you.

Hard disk
  • Good: Best value per GB • Great for space hungry HD camcorders
  • Bad: Slight chance of data corruption • Heavier than memory-only cameras • May be too weighty for some
  • Bottom line: If space is what you want and you like the extra heft that they bring, nothing can beat hard disk-based camcorders.

(Hard disk image by Ilker, Royalty Free)

The beauty of hard-disk camcorders, especially in this age of high-definition video is that nothing else offers the same value per gigabyte. Most of the current hard drive models available also allow you to record to removable media — so if you run out of space during a year-long round-the-world trip, you can top up storage capacity by gorging yourself on SD or Memory Stick cards.

Hard disk capacities on standard-definition cameras generally range between 60 and 120 gigabytes — at maximum quality (about 9Mbps) — is good for around 15 hours and 30 hours respectively. Meanwhile, high-def hard-disk cameras usually boast between 60 and 240 gigabytes. At "full HD" (1920x1080i) and the usual recording rate of 16Mbps, this should be good for between eight hours and 33 hours respectively. Some high-definition cameras, notably those from JVC, can record at up to 26Mbps, significantly cutting down the number of hours that can be stored.

The great fear with all portable hard-disk devices is that the disk will get scratched by sudden movements and drops, but all modern camera hard drives have enough protection, buffering and smarts to withstand all but the most severe of falls.

Most high-end camcorders nowadays are hard drive units, so if you want features like a hotshoe, headphone and microphone jacks, and a viewfinder, you'll have to stump up the big bickies.

Flash memory
  • Good: Capacities are rising as prices fall • Compact and power efficient
  • Bad: Lower capacity than hard disks • May be too light for some
  • Bottom line: Small size and reasonable prices make flash memory camcorders rather compelling, even in HD models.

(Credit: Online Memory)

Quite often camcorders that record primarily to hard disks, mini-DVDs or tape, will also allow you to record to a memory card, either SD card or Memory Stick.

Today's trend, however, are for camcorders that record only to flash memory. These camcorders may come with either built-in memory and a card slot, or just a card slot. In the past, memory-based camcorders weren't suitable for high-definition recording, but that's changed in the last year or so, with prices heading south while capacities are still on the increase.

Because memory chips and card slots take up much less room than a hard disk or a drive for either mini-DVD or tapes, flash memory-only camcorders are smaller and lighter than their siblings. It has also allowed designers to create camcorders that deviate from the generally accepted shape, such as the upright Sony Handycam HDR-TG5.

Some may find the petite dimensions to their advantage — space-deprived travellers, for instance — but there are a few downsides. Generally we've found that these smaller, lighter cameras are harder to hand hold, especially for extended durations.

Keep in mind too that not all memory cards are created equal. To keep up with data being saved to it, SD/SDHC cards used with camcorders should be rated 40x (6MBps) or above.

  • Good: There's a rustic charm to them
  • Bad: No non-linear searching • Bulky, cumbersome
  • Bottom line: We can't think of genuinely good reason to recommend tape.

(Mini DV Cassette image by Craig Jewell, royalty free)

Like dinosaurs, tape-based camcorders once ruled the Earth, but unlike those massive lizards they're not quite extinct ... yet. There's only one or two models on sale now and, honestly, there's no real reason to get a tape camcorder nowadays, unless you've already got an editing work flow set up around tape — in which case, why on Earth are you reading a basics primer?

If you're curious, however, each MiniDV tape holds a fixed amount of footage, say 60 minutes of standard-def footage. Pop that same tape into an HDV camera and, via the magic of more compression technology, you'll be able to record 60 minutes of high-definition video. This is good news for anyone sitting on an Aladdin's cave of MiniDV tapes and wanting to step up to high-def.

A thing to remember about tape is that transferring footage to your computer for editing requires a FireWire connection — something that most PCs lack out of the box — and that video upload happens in real time, that is, a 60-minute tape will take 60 minutes to transfer across. Also the linear nature of tape precludes you from deleting a random scene, say one of you burping the national anthem, from a tape, unless it's the very last thing you've recorded.

  • Good: Burn a copy for Uncle Jack straight away
  • Bad: Minuscule capacity • Bulky, cumbersome and prone to skipping
  • Bottom line: If you've got a mini-DVD-only camcorder and plan to do some serious recording with it, we'd recommend upgrading to a new flash memory model.

(DVD and mini-DVD side-by-side image by Disde, CC 3.0)

As the name suggests, these camcorders record onto a small DVD disc — 8cm versus a regular DVD's 12cm diameter. The great — and some would say, the only — advantage of DVD camcorders is the ability to burn a copy of your masterpiece straightaway. However, while the reduced disc size ensures that these cameras aren't built only for giants, it greatly reduces storage capacity. A full-sized single-sided, single-layer DVD holds 4.7GB, whereas a similar mini-DVD only holds 1.4GB. That means you'll only be able to cram in a paltry 20 minutes of standard-def footage, or 10 minutes of high-def, at high quality.

Since the advent of affordable hard disk and flash memory camcorders we've been loathe to recommend mini-DVD models. Like tape-based models, mini-DVD camcorders are heading the way of the dinosaurs — there aren't many on sale now, and those that are haven't been updated in quite a while.

About the author

Derek loves nothing more than punching a remote location into a GPS, queuing up some music and heading out on a long drive, so it's a good thing he's in charge of CNET Australia's Car Tech channel.


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