Inexpensive MiniDV camcorders, optical image stabilization, plasma and LCD TVs

Week of July 9, 2006

Q:   My son & I want to buy a fairly cheap ($400 tops) digital MiniDV camcorder so we can play around with making movies using iMovie (we both have Mac’s).   What would you recommend and why?
-Geoff Sirc, Minneapolis, MN

A:   Without question, I very strongly recommend the Canon Optura 50.   The big reason is the optical image stabilization system, and it provides excellent video quality as well.   The Optura 50 can be found for $400 if you shop around.   My research found it at www.bhphotovideo.com for $399.

Readers have seen me discuss image stabilization (also called shake reduction) in the column recently and it is even more important for a camcorder than a digital camera.   Years ago when everyone had shoulder-mounted VHS camcorders, home moviemakers were rewarded with a stable, professional-looking image on their TV.   Today’s small camcorders are much more convenient and offer better image quality, but they are pretty much impossible for anyone to hold absolutely still.   Try holding a glass of water in front of you at eye level and watch the water jiggle as you hold it.   These small hand movements are very apparent when using a camcorder (especially when zoomed in on your subject) because it is recording continuously.   This image shake is very distracting when watching the videos on   TV, and I have even had some people report it can induce queasiness in those who get motion sickness.
Pretty much all camcorders have image stabilization of some sort these days- but in most cases, it is digital image stabilization, which cuts down on picture quality and occasionally on low-light capability as well. What is worse, the digital systems are really not all that effective.   I have turned it off on a few of the camcorders I have owned because I couldn’t tell the difference in image shake, though I did see image quality go down when recording indoors.

For those of you will a bigger budget, the Panasonic PV-GS500 recommended a few columns ago would be a considerable upgrade.   It offers optical image stabilization as well as better color rendition and better low-light capability by virtue of its three-chip design.   It sells for between $600 and $700.   If you already have a small camcorder and are experiencing image shake, check out the Sima VideoProp SVP-3.   It’s a monopod/harness combo that goes around your neck and will greatly steady your videos.   It retails for $29.99.

Q:   I want a wall-mount TV above our gas fireplace in our family room.   The room has many windows creating huge glare.   Should I get LCD or plasma TV?   What brand & model?   I would like 42 to 50″.

-Sylvia Markert, Manahawkin, NJ

A:   I usually prefer plasma because I find the picture quality more natural than LCD, though LCD has improved greatly the past few years and I can easily recommend it.   Despite my typical plasma preference, in your case I recommend a LCD TV.   Plasmas have glossy glass screens that will pick up all that glare in your room.   LCDs have matte screens and are not nearly as reflective, making the glare much less of an issue. Check out models from Samsung, Sony, and Westinghouse.   The Westinghouse LCD TVs have a nice picture and are a particularly good value.     The Sony and Samsung products are better, but you will pay a lot more for them.   Let your budget and your eyes be your guide.

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