MiniDV vs. DVD Camcorders, Optical Image Stabilization

Week of June 26, 2005

Q: Don, I would appreciate advice on camcorders. It is time to upgrade the old analog VHS system we got as a wedding gift 10 years ago. I really don’t understand, nor do I have the time to fight through all the rhetoric that is out there. (A long way of saying that I trust your advice.) The models we have been looking at cost around $900. What should I look for when purchasing a camcorder?
-Kim Wilson, Wichita, KS

A: Camcorders have changed quite a bit in the ten years since you received your analog camcorder. The two biggest changes are the advent of digital formats and camcorders becoming increasingly smaller, little bigger than a digital camera in many cases.

In years past, the predominant formats were VHS, 8mm, and Hi8. 8mm and Hi8 use the same sized tape, but Hi8 produced a noticeably better picture. Currently the dominant formats are DVD and MiniDV, two digital formats that operate quite differently. DVD and MiniDV camcorders (particularly MiniDV) produce incredible picture quality that rivals broadcast television when used in good lighting conditions.

DVD camcorders offer convenience because you can take the small DVD directly from the camcorder and put it in your DVD player for playback, but after a few weeks of experimenting with it I am not a big fan of the format. The tiny DVDs are expensive and can only record 30 minutes of full-quality video, and they do not offer the editing flexibility of tape formats. For that reason, I strongly recommend MiniDV models to anyone looking for a new camcorder.

MiniDV camcorders use a compact tape that can record one hour of video- but it does not stop there. MiniDV camcorders make computer editing and moviemaking extremely easy. Just connect your camcorder to your computer with a Firewire connection and video can be downloaded to your computer’s hard drive for editing. With a few clicks of the mouse you can remove bad footage, rearrange the order of the video clips, and add titles, transitions, and special effects. When you are done editing you can put a fresh tape in your camcorder and upload the video back to tape. The camcorder is then used to play back the video on your TV. You can also make email-sized videos to send to friends or family, and if you have a CD or DVD burner you can create video discs complete with interactive menus and slideshows- just like commercially produced DVD movies. That’s a far cry from your old VHS unit! MiniDV camcorders are available for $299 and up, and even inexpensive models will produce beautiful image quality. Editing kits including a Firewire card for your computer and editing software are available for under $35. MiniDV camcorders can also be used to transfer your analog videotapes to your computer for editing and DVD burning, as well.

Most MiniDV camcorders are just a little bit bigger than a digital camera. This makes it very hard to hold them steady, especially compared to the shoulder-mounted camcorders of years ago. Most home videos taken with tiny camcorders look like they were taken on the deck of a swaying ship. This leads to a key camcorder feature I strongly recommend to anyone with the means to afford it: an optical image stabilizer.

Most tiny camcorders offer image stabilization of some sort, but they are digital systems that use computer processing to remove shake. The processing can degrade image quality but most importantly, these systems really don’t work very well.

An optical stabilizer uses a lens element with gyroscopically-driven gears to compensate for hand movements. Optical stabilizers do not degrade picture quality and work incredibly well. My own small camcorder has an optical stabilizer and after experiencing the difference I would never buy a camcorder without one.

The downside is expense. Most models with optical stabilizers cost around $1,000. Canon’s Optura 50 offers optical stabilization at a list price of $799, and I have seen it selling for as low as $606. It’s my five-star top pick for a sub-$1,000 camcorder. If anyone out there has a $400 budget, save another $206 and get the Optura 50- the difference of the optical stabilizer cannot be overstated.

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