Budget shopping tips: Camcorders

CNET Reviews Senior Editor Josh Goldman gives some tips on buying the right camcorder at the best price.

JVC's Everio MS120 is a decent standard-def camcorder with expandable memory up to 64GB.

There are plenty of devices for capturing video these days, including cell phones, laptops, and digital cameras. But, for the time being at least, you'll get the best results from a dedicated camcorder. Of course, those aren't all created equal either.

The biggest decision you'll have to make before starting your search is whether to go standard definition or high definition. Standard-def camcorders are a cost-effective way to get good video for Web-sharing sites and for viewing on standard-definition TVs, and it's less demanding for playback and editing on computers.

However, you can get a good HD camcorder at a price only $100-$200 more than some SD camcorders. Obviously you may not have that extra cash, but if you're looking toward integrating your movies into a future high-def home theater experience, you'll want to think long and hard before buying a standard-definition camcorder.

Not sure where you fall? Visit our camcorder buying guide so you know what features you'll need to avoid making a disappointing purchase. If you already know what you want from a camcorder, here are some tips for further refining your choices to get the best possible deal.

Choose your medium
Prices vary depending on what the camcorder is recording video to. Recording to MiniDV tape and DVDs is the cheapest. Models with hard drives or those using only removable flash media cards are in the middle. The most expensive models--at least in terms of cost per gigabyte--are generally those with internal flash memory. Our preference is for removable flash memory simply for convenience and it makes for a smaller camcorder.

Also, it's tempting to fall for large storage amounts. Unless you're frequently recording hours of video, you're better off with smaller storage sizes. It's too easy to leave recordings on camcorders with lots of storage, and if it breaks or gets lost or stolen, that video is gone for good. Save some money, get a smaller storage capacity, and get in the habit of backing up your movies regularly.

Lose the storage
Internal storage, regardless of format, adds to the cost of a camcorder--sometimes significantly depending on the type and capacity. Remove that storage by opting for models relying solely on removable media such as SD/SDHC cards and your price is instantly lower. Yes, you'll have to buy media, but a lower up-front cost may be easier to swallow. Plus, in the case of flash memory, prices continue to fall and card capacities continue to grow.

Go pocket size
It's no surprise pocket video cameras in both SD and HD resolutions are popular. They're inexpensive, capture good video for Web sharing, and are very simple to use. They also don't have a lot of internal memory if any at all, battery life can be short, and they usually have no optical zoom or optical image stabilization. Still, if these things don't bother you, minicamcorders are certainly worth considering.

Before you rush out to buy one though, recent digital camera models have similar movie capabilities. You may not need to buy anything to capture the type of video you want.

Drop the inputs and outputs
If you never intend to connect an external microphone or use an accessory shoe for an add-on light or mic, nix these features and save some coin.

This goes for outputs, too. Don't pay extra for something that has an HDMI connector built into it, if you don't have anything to connect it to or will never hook up directly to a monitor or TV. It might be better to find a model that is slightly less expensive, but has an accessory dock option you can purchase at a later date for expanding its connection opportunities.

Don't overbuy on features
This goes back to knowing what type of user you are. If you're the type to keep things in automatic all the time, you don't need to pay for a camcorder with a lot of manual controls.

Similarly, the big, eye-grabbing spec on SD camcorders is zoom range. However, a 25x or longer optical zoom is only really useful if you're mounted on a tripod or the camcorder has optical image stabilization. Handheld shooting of video at that range can lead to a truly nauseating viewing experience. So if you don't think you'll ever use a tripod, you're better off putting your money into a model with higher resolution but a shorter zoom.

 

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