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How to pick the perfect camcorder

HansImGluck

Standard Member
I am in the process of finding the ideal consumer/amateur enthusiast camcorder and given how brilliantly useful the AV Forums have been to me over the years I decided to come out of the lurking closet and share my findings with everyone who is in the same boat. And there seem to be quite a few of us probably because the market is so confusingly diverse.

I have done a fair bit of research but as I am writing this I still have not chosen ‘the one’. So what follows could be useful guidance to fellow cam-seekers as well as allowing me to sort my thoughts and arrive at the best conclusion.

Here goes:
1. My budget is between £350 and £700. As usual, I started low and then got salivating over the more expensive models…wife/earnings constraints will keep me in check. I hope.

2. The big question: What do I want this cam for? I try and list the situations I can think of: Filming..
  • ..at weddings, parties, get-togethers, picnics
  • ..the offspring doing all the things they do
  • ..people dancing at clubs / at parties
  • ..on city breaks: architecture/city tours (from bus?)
  • ..me play racket games
  • ..of product installations / maintenance (business)
  • ..of product demonstrations (business)
So a great deal of indoor filming but outdoor is just as important. There will be filming of fast-moving objects. I am a consumer who wants to create really enjoyable films for friends and family so no need for professional gear. Apart from that I am not sure how the above list helps me narrow down the field.

3. The main brands Sony, Canon, Panasonic, JVC are of most interest. My completely subjective brand preference is Panasonic - JVC I associate with quality problems, Sony to me is about highly desirable gear that hence tends to be overpriced and Canon annoyed me massively as I had the displeasure of relying on the MV600 recently (see long, long incredibly useful and comforting thread on this forum) which decided to die on me – yes, it was the CCD failure - the day before a rather important wedding. Still, I will try and keep an open mind although in a competitive market place I do tend to eschew the market leaders (in this case Sony, Canon) in favour of a hungry, eager competitor that cannot afford to rest on its laurels. In this case: Panasonic. JVC strikes me as a company that hasn’t set the world alight because it just isn’t as good as the other three. That’s my fancy theory anyway, we’ll see whether I stick to it in my purchase decision!

4. As far as I can tell the future belongs to HDD (built-in hardrive) cams that can record HDV (High-definition Video) for HDTV-enabled tellies. However, the quality of the currently mature technologies – neither HDD nor HDV can be described as mature in terms of price of all equipment needed or quality/per £ - is very sufficient for my needs and I don’t expect that to change in the next 3-5 years. Conclusion: miniDV or DVD format is for me.

5. Capturing footage on a DVD-cam seems to be perfect for consumers who do NOT want to edit their movies extensively on a computer. I DO want to transfer the footage via Firewire to the high-spec lappy and eventually do very sexy things with it using commercial Movie Editing software (at the moment I am using the free Windows Moviemaker app which is installed as standard on XP, it’s sufficient for creating a decent home movie). Conclusion: miniDV as the video and audio quality is best for consumers and you still get better value-for-money cams compared to DVD-cams.

6. I hate shaky camera footage. Conclusion: Need a tripod (got one) and hence the camcorder really should not be bottom-loading to allow quick tape changes and I want the best possible optical (not electronic) picture stabilisation.

7. I do want to create films that I can watch on a widescreen TV. Conclusion: True 16:9, please.

8. I mentioned that filming indoors will be hugely important to me and that’s where I am not happy with the information I have found so far. The verdict on just about all camcorders under £500 is that they are not particularly good indoors. Not sure what ‘not good’ means, though, it might be perfectly acceptable for my purposes. Seeing as there doesn’t seem to be a specific spec aspect of the camera (maybe ‘Lux’?) that relates to indoor performance I am stuck with the subjective verdicts I have found in myriad reviews. What would be perfect is a table of indoor performance of all camcorders under £500 / £800.

9. Manual controls / Automatic settings. Very subjective, reading lots of reviews and playing with units in store helps get a feel. As far as I can tell most camcorders in my budget range are user-friendly although I am looking for a unit that allows me to do manual adjustments easily. This criterion is quite hard to quantify, similar to 8., bit of a leap of faith.

10. Accessory shoe is definitely needed as I would like to attach a microphone to the cam.

11. What I will ignore: digital zoom, picture taking capability + memory card + USB connection, on-board light, special effect menu (no need – PC software will take care of that), digital picture stabiliser, size/quality of LCD screen (I have found that due to need to conserve battery I rarely use it during shooting), touchscreen LCD screen and other proprietary gimmicks, DV-in and all other connections apart from DV out (Firewire), more than 10 x optical zoom.

12. Advanced features that I like a lot but will sacrifice for price: Manual focus ring, 3 CCDs, flexible colour viewfinder that can be extended/raised, QuickStart button.

All I have to do now is find the camcorder that ticks all the boxes and for that extensive research on- and offline seems to be the only way. My sources so far:
a) Magazines such as ‘What Digital Camcorder’ and those advising on editing of digital movies although the latter obviously have a different focus. I tend to take all reviews/comments with a large pinch of salt as the journalists writing the reviews can sound like kids in a candy store who don’t want to upset the candy store owners (as it were) too much.
b) AV Forums. There are US equivalents but in the camcorder market it’s better to stick to UK advice when it comes to specific Models.
c) For general camcorder info, however, there are two very good US advice websites called http://www.easycamcorders.com/ and http://www.camcorderinfo.com/.
d) Other useful websites I found: http://www.whatprice.co.uk/how-I/camcorder-buying-advice.html and http://www.cameras.co.uk/html/camcorders.cfm.

I will post again once I have created my table of contenders!
In the meantime, feel free to rip into my assessment of things and I would be very grateful for comments re point 8.
 

HansImGluck

Standard Member
So far the Panasonic GS-250 seems to be the winner.
However: I will check the Sony HC-94 and the Cannon MVX450 first.
The search was easier than I thought..:clap:
 

MarkE19

Moderator
re point 8

Basically all digital camcorders are fairly poor in low light conditions. Where as old analogue cams were rated as working in less than 1 lux, DV cams seem to be 5+ lux. The new HD cams are even worse in low light, so perhaps not the best option for 'family' recordings (and also not an option in your price range I think).
What is poor low light though? Well as you say it is very subjective as some say they are more than happy with a specific model, but others are not. I think the only way you will know if it is good enough for you is to get your hands on a cam and try it.
The best way to make sure you get the best possible low light recording is to get a cam with a bigger physical lens size as this will let more light into the camcorder. Also a bigger CCD (or CMOS on some models) will be able to pick up more light - single CCD cams are often better in low light than 3 CCD models, but in good lighting the 3 CCD models should give much better colour reproduction.

I hope the above ramblings are of some help in the decision making process. If I get a chance (as I'm currently at work) I'll read through the rest of your post and see if there is anything more I can add to help.

Good luck with the hunting for the perfect cam,
Mark.
 

shoehorn

Active Member
HansImGluck said:
What I will ignore: .....DV-in.....
Although not a necessity, as you say you're going to create DVD's via your computer, you might want to consider this so that you can archive your finished projects onto the best quality format.
Then if the DVD you've created gets damaged or lost, you'll easilly be able to replace it, without having to do all the editing again.
Mini DV tapes are more than cheap enough now to do this.
For example, I keep all my original tapes having used them only once.
After I've edited the master tape, I record the edited piece back to a different tape and also burn to DVD.
I do seem to have rambled a bit, so I hope you see what I'm saying....
Great post by the way - something that I think a lot of people will find of benefit.....
 

HansImGluck

Standard Member
MarkE19, it was very helpful to read your views on this as I thought maybe I am missing something here due to lack of experience. What strikes me as odd is that none of the manufacturers have focused on this feature, spent serious research Yen on it and built a camcorder that was marketed as the ‘indoor filming machine’ for the consumer market. Surely, a profitable and rather large niche to be exploited there!

The only way to really crack this problem seems to be to upgrade and buy a mid-range model. The Canon MVx45i got heaps of praise about its low-light performance in one recent review but other reviews have said the exact opposite – subjective indeed!
My educated guess is that for an amateur like myself low-light performance of any mid-range model will actually be just fine.

Shoehorn, I hadn’t thought of that, thanks, will take it on board! I am at a stage where archiving my past projects has not been a priority issue but, you are right, maybe it should be.

A couple more comments on the points I made in my first post:

3. Just because the MV600 let me down it would be silly to ignore Canon. The above mentioned MVx45i seems worth a second look and the new camcorders that Sony and Canon are releasing this Spring might be worth the wait.

7. I relegate true 16:9 to a nice-to-have as the ‘virtual’ 16:9 machines are said to do a decent job of making the footage seem widescreen.

9. For manual controls the Panasonic joystick appears to be the way forward. Sony is particularly good for point&shoot i.e. automatic settings but not great for making manual changes, ditto Canon. The big question is whether I am going to be actually ambitious enough to learn how to exploit the Panny’s manual capability or am I kidding myself here? If I end up just using the automatic settings a Sony cam might be the better choice – the HC-94 is getting more and more tempting.

What I need now is an in-depth review of the HC-94 which means I might have to wait until next month. Or improve my French - www.magazinevideo.com is really very useful and has reviews of models that are not out in the UK yet. Like the HC-94/6.
 

MarkE19

Moderator
HansImGluck said:
3. Just because the MV600 let me down it would be silly to ignore Canon. The above mentioned MVx45i seems worth a second look and the new camcorders that Sony and Canon are releasing this Spring might be worth the wait.
but the problem was with a batch of CCD's that were made by Sony! These CCD's were put into many makes of camcorders and even digital still cameras, and they all had a large failure rate. AFAIK there have been no such problems with any Canon cams (or other makes for that matter) since the effected batch of CCD's were replaced with new.
HansImGluck said:
7. I relegate true 16:9 to a nice-to-have as the ‘virtual’ 16:9 machines are said to do a decent job of making the footage seem widescreen.
Funny enough it seems that most camcorders are now true widescreen, except for the very bottom of the range models and even in this case mainly on Panasonic cams. If you have a plasma or even a PJ then the difference in quality could be noticeable, but unlikely on a 28" CRT TV.
HansImGluck said:
9. For manual controls the Panasonic joystick appears to be the way forward. Sony is particularly good for point&shoot i.e. automatic settings but not great for making manual changes, ditto Canon. The big question is whether I am going to be actually ambitious enough to learn how to exploit the Panny’s manual capability or am I kidding myself here? If I end up just using the automatic settings a Sony cam might be the better choice – the HC-94 is getting more and more tempting.
Sony cams tend to also have good manual features. The later models tend to have the touch LCD screen so you can get at them easily and IIRC can even set up your own menus for direct access to the controls you use most. People have commented that the touch screen takes a bit of getting used to, but once you do it is very easy to use.

As always I hope the above ramblings are of some help in the decision making :)

Mark.
 

HansImGluck

Standard Member
Mark, I agree with your first two points but with regard to your positive comments on the touchscreen LCD: How do you reconcile the need to conserve battery time with the necessity to use the LCD every time you want to change a setting in manual mode? Do the Sonys have excellent battery life?
Maybe I have misunderstood this: What about the Panny - does the user still need to open the LCD when changing settings on the GS-250/150? I thought not – am I wrong?
 

HansImGluck

Standard Member
Alors, mes amis: Despite my rudimentary grasp of French I have battled my way through some of their very thorough tests and it has been worth the effort, I think.
It was certainly useful to find out that the MVx45i is apparently the Optura 60 in the US. The positive reviews of the Optura 60 would reinforce my good impression of the MVx45i. I was unfortunately wrong on the HC-94 front: they only have the tech spec but no review.

Emboldened by that I then downloaded a report by the German equivalent to ‘Which’. They tested 40-odd camcorders in November 2005 and their verdict was: ‘Changing of the guards’, that is Sony camcorders are no longer leading the pack. In the miniDV category their tests (teutonically thorough as ever – they even had a little test rig for image stabiliser testing) established the Panny GS-150 and GS-250 as the top machines with the best video performance of all. They were only testing mid-range and some entry-level models, of course. I was glad to find that the MVx45i and the HC-90 were also in the top 5 – looks like I am on the right track.

I think it’s time to go offline in search of more opportunities to play with the cams
 

shoehorn

Active Member
HansImGluck said:
I think it’s time to go offline in search of more opportunities to play with the cams
That's something very impotant to consider!
Once you get to a point where there are 2 or 3 that fit the bill go and play with them.
One might feel more comfortable to hold and use - the button layout might suit you better....
It could be enough to push you to pick it over others, even though it might be lacking one of the functions you wanted..... :rolleyes:
 

HansImGluck

Standard Member
Definitely, shoehorn. I am particularly interested to see how well the zoom slider works on various models as over-sensitivity seems to be an issue on quite a few cams.
It should also confirm what I have read on the manual controls of the GS-250: you can change most things using the joystick without opening the battery-draining LCD.

On the blasted low-light front I seem to have found the daddy of the mid-range: HC-90 gets glowing references alround. That’s why I am hunting for HC-94 reviews to check whether the 2006 successor model has retained the low-light strength as well as having being improved in general.

One more potentially crucial item to add to point no 2:
The camcorder should be user-friendly enough to be handled by the wife / a non-expert friend if needs be.
 

MarkE19

Moderator
HansImGluck said:
Mark, I agree with your first two points but with regard to your positive comments on the touchscreen LCD: How do you reconcile the need to conserve battery time with the necessity to use the LCD every time you want to change a setting in manual mode? Do the Sonys have excellent battery life?
My comments on useing the LCD touchscreen are only bassed on other members reports, as I have never used one of these cams.
As for battery life, well Sony along with about all makes I can think of will give you a battery with the cam that will last about 1 hour constant recording without the use of the LCD. Sony do however sell spare batteries that have a far longer life. IIRC the additional battery I have for my TRV-900e lasts around 3 hours (and I think there are longer life ones available) with regular use of the LCD - just be prepaired to take out a mortgage to pay for the longest life batteries as they are far from cheap :rolleyes:

Mark.
 

HansImGluck

Standard Member
So far I haven’t managed to get my hands on the Panny but I did test the HC-94. First impression: Perfect point&shoot consumer camera as incredibly small, very light and prominent LCD display. Minuses: No real editing software nor external battery charger included.
Hence, cost-wise the HC-94 and the GS-250 seem to be pretty much head to head.
That’s where the MVx45i falls down: It seems at least £150-200 more expensive than the competition.

It all comes down to one question: Will I really want to take advantage of all the manual controls of the Panny or will I just end up shooting fun video (mainly indoors) and putting it together using a £25 editor??

At the weekend I might be able to get the HC-94 for about £400 which would conclude my search. If not next week I will visit a Panny retailer to get a demonstration of the GS-250.
If still no joy, I wait until the 2006 camcorder range has been properly reviewed.
 

MarkE19

Moderator
HansImGluck said:
HC-94 Minuses: No real editing software nor external battery charger included.
Do any camcorders get supplied with editing software of any worth? IMO you are better off downloading the many trial versions of editing software and trying the m out to see which one(s) you like the workflow of best. then just pay the ~£40 for it and away you go. A 'what editing software' search of this forum should bring up all the required sites for the downloads, and opinions on what is the best software out there.
The lack of separate battey charger is a bit of a pain when you have a couple of spare batteries you want to put on charge while out with the camcorder. But a third party charger doesn't work out too expensive if you want the option of charging batteries while useing the cam.

Mark.
 

Yorks man

Standard Member
Hi Hans

Just like you, ive been researching the market for the last 3-4 weeks. For the £ 400 budget, the Panny GS 300 looks good. It is cheaper and video is apparently better in low light, but at the cost of loosing the headphone jack, focus ring.. which I am not too bothered about.

The problem is that I couldnt find it in any UK sites. It retails in US for $ 600.00 Here is the link to the review

http://www.camcorderinfo.com/content/Panasonic-PV-GS300-Camcorder-Review.htm

Id appreciate the thoughts of you and other members

Thanks

YM
 

Yorks man

Standard Member
Hi all

I am planning a trip later this month to the US. Any disadvantages in buying in the US. It certainly is cheaper!.

One thing I am worried about is the format. NTSC/PAL

Do all camcorders in the US operate only on the NTSC format. Sorry for such a dumb question. Im just learning. If you guys think its okay to buy in the US, then I might get the PV GS 300 and save a few bob!!

All Panny's have the prefix PV in the US and NV in UK. Wonder what the significance is?


Cheers

YM

YM
 

HansImGluck

Standard Member
Mark, on the software front I do agree with you now: Having looked at what the Panny editing software offers I rate it on the same level as Movie Maker 2 so no value-added there.
If anyone else can point out differences I am happy to revise my opinion!

As regards the need for a separate battery charger, I disagree though:
A quick browse online brought up offers around the £50 mark but I am not sure about the 3rd party products.
The fact that one would be tied into the whole Sony proprietary nonsense makes it looks less of a good deal.
It's a legitimate business strategy, of course, and Sony even go as far as ‘helpfully' putting stickers on the HC-94 box advertising their extra battery charger kit and the high-powered battery.
As a consumer it is equally legitimate to take issue with that.
I am particularly concerned that the extra battery and the microphone will end up costing me a lot more if I go down the Sony route. There are massive Sony battery threads on some German camcorder forums detailing the problems people had who used 3rd party batteries.
Maybe I am being harsh to Sony but I just can't be bothered to figure out which 3rd party accessory is fine to use and which isn't.

Btw, this is my list of accessories I plan on purchasing with the cam:
wide angle converter (doubt I will be able to use my Canon MV600 set),
external microphone,
powerful 2nd battery,
battery charger (if Sony..),
editing software (MM2 for the time being),
bag, tapes, tripod, (got those)
skylight filter:

MarkE19 said:
I agree that use of filters for special effects is a waiste if editing on a PC, BUT I always have a skylight filter on all my video and still camera lenses simply for protection. It is far cheaper to replace a £20 filter than a complete lens, or in the case of a camcorder the whole thing.

Mark.

The last item is strictly in homage to Mark as I have no clear idea how important it is but I will look into it anyway.
 

HansImGluck

Standard Member
Yorks man, welcome to the jungle. And I am not exaggerating: Before you came along with your innocuous little post I thought I had finally figured out where I was going - the choice was between HC-94 and GS-250. Now that you (and Panasonic) have thrust the GS-300 and the 500 in my face I am lost again. Particularly as there are no European reviews for the 300 out yet. I have to agree the 300 seems just as suited to what we want to do as the 250 but at a more attractive price point. In fact, why not save the extra £40 and go for the 280? Although that would be ignoring shoehorn’s long-term advice as the only difference between 280 and 300 is the extra DV-in on the 300.

How come you couldn’t find the 300 in the UK? There are tons of e-tailers offering it – google the full description and select the kelkoo/pricerunner etc links.

As regards the US question, I hope Mark’s links have cleared up the issue. The difference between PV and NV is simply the former denoting NTSC and the latter PAL. NTSC is meant to be significantly inferior to PAL which is one of the reasons the Americans have been enthusiastically piling into High-Def gear (LCD TVs, camcorders etc) whereas PAL is of sufficient quality to keep the Europeans content with the status quo while waiting for HD to establish itself properly.
So, inferior quality, compatibility issues and problems with warranty/support if anything goes wrong (see the MV600 thread for what happens when your cam ‘goes bad’) - I would not recommend buying the camcorder in the US. I also wonder whether the big price differences that you find online will actually materialise when you walk into a US shop. Unless you are there long enough to order it online and have it delivered to the hotel!
I like your thinking, though. Two of my colleagues are currently on the Continent and I asked them to have a nose through German electronics shops. Alas (but unsurprisingly), the shop prices are much higher than online, roughly the same as online here.

In the world of camcorders rip-off Britain is alive and well as prices on the continent seem to be around 20% lower than here. Is it because UK camcorders are held from the other side..? :rolleyes: Shurely shome mishtake.

The search goes on…I am very curious what you are going to go for in the end!
 
K

kylataff

Guest
Hi
sorry to butt in on your discussions I just wanted to ask a simple question. I am very very new to camcorders i.e never had one, but i'm off to Mexico in July and your very informative discussions have convinced me to go for the Panasonic GS 250. Trouble is when seasrching the web it comes up with Panasonic PV-GS250 and a Panasonic NV-GS250. I was wondering what the difference is and which one you are discussing. Thanks very much
Cheers
Kyla
 

HansImGluck

Standard Member
Kyla,
HansImGluck said:
As regards the US question, I hope Mark’s links have cleared up the issue. The difference between PV and NV is simply the former denoting NTSC and the latter PAL.

If you are going down the Panny route have a browse through the Panny section of camcorderinfo.com, lots of excellent advice there.
 

HansImGluck

Standard Member
HansImGluck said:
3. Just because the MV600 let me down it would be silly to ignore Canon. The above mentioned MVx45i seems worth a second look and the new camcorders that Sony and Canon are releasing this Spring might be worth the wait.
MarkE19 said:
but the problem was with a batch of CCD's that were made by Sony! These CCD's were put into many makes of camcorders and even digital still cameras, and they all had a large failure rate. AFAIK there have been no such problems with any Canon cams (or other makes for that matter) since the effected batch of CCD's were replaced with new.

Mark, I have come across more information on the CCD failures that corroborates your point (not that I ever doubted you! ;) ). The link below is from a German electronics magazine and it lists all the different camera manufacturers and models that have been affected by the faulty Sony CCD batch. See table at the bottom of the page.
http://www.chip.de/news/c1_news_16943058.html

What annoys me, though, is that Canon UK have still not acknowledged this problem officially – I certainly couldn’t find anything on their website.
Canon Asia have been less coy:
http://www.canon-asia.com/index.jsp?fuseaction=image-phenomena_notice

Why is this relevant to my camcorder search? Because I have finally managed to find the Canon MVx45i at a similar price point so now it is right up there with the GS-280 and the HC-94.
Well, it would be up there: the way Canon have acted, however, relegates it to third place. My very personal view and decision, subjective and maybe even unfair.
 

Yorks man

Standard Member
Hi

After reading the threads, I think it is too risky to buy in the US.

I am staying long enough to get one by mail order in the US. They do sell PAL versions. But I think I have to resist the temptation of saving a few bucks.

On the subject of low light, I have to say the HC 96 performs really well. Ive seen some footage and is excellent in indoor point and shoot mode.

It is really important to look at the lowlight performance when buying a camcorder especially for the customer was prepared for it and finally returned the camcorder.newbies. I was window shopping in Dixons when one frustrated customer brought his Panny GS27 back. It didnt perform well at home as it did in the shop when he bought it!!. The sales person was trying to blame the customer for faulty usage. It performed well in Dixons- obviously due to the bright lights. But the customer was wise enought to realise this and returned it.

Suddenly I realise the greatness of this forum. I myself am still searching for the holy grail


Cheers

YM
 
K

kylataff

Guest
:thumbsup: Thanks very much that is a brilliant site with loads of excellent info. Just what I was after. Trouble is with so much info I'll never decide which one i like best:confused:
cheers
 

MartinImber

Active Member
The mid range Sonys are always worth looking at.

Mine has been pretty good!
 

MarkE19

Moderator
HansImGluck said:
Mark, I have come across more information on the CCD failures that corroborates your point (not that I ever doubted you! ;) ).
Nor would you want to doubt me - have you ever seen a 'grown man' (and I use this term loosly :D ) sulk! :devil: :rotfl:
HansImGluck said:
What annoys me, though, is that Canon UK have still not acknowledged this problem officially – I certainly couldn’t find anything on their website.
Why is this relevant to my camcorder search? Because I have finally managed to find the Canon MVx45i at a similar price point so now it is right up there with the GS-280 and the HC-94.
Well, it would be up there: the way Canon have acted, however, relegates it to third place. My very personal view and decision, subjective and maybe even unfair.
I think these comments are a little unfair on Canon UK. Have you read the MV600 thread as Canon were at first denying all knowledge of there being a known fault with the CCD's. But now if you phone them up or e-mail them with the CCD failure they are giving out the contact details of their service agents and telling people that as long as the fault is the CCD the repair will be free :thumbsup: . First off they could have done a lot better, but now I think there is little you can really complain about. Even if you only read the last few pages of the thread you will see everybody that has had a problem is now reporting how pleased they are with Canon and the service agents.

Mark.
 

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