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Digital Holiday Trends 2007:
Video Camcorders - Memories in High-Def (12/2007)
by Douglas Dixon
Camcorder articles in the Manifest Tech Blog
This looks to be another tough holiday season for retailers, with sales trending lower through the fall, stressed by rising fuel prices, falling property values, and recalls of tainted toys. Retailers like Wal-Mart held early "secret" sales on specific items, recalling the brutal competition last year, especially with price-cutting of digital televisions. This is good news in the short term for consumers, though, with continued dropping prices and more pre-holiday sales. Plus online shopping continues to give consumers more power to compare prices and find good deals.
Hot gift ideas this year start with portable devices -- media players, mobile phones, and portable navigation systems. But this is also the season of high definition -- digital cameras sport multi-megapixels, flat-panel widescreen televisions are finally dropping to a price point where you're ready to buy, and you can step up to shooting your own home videos in high-definition. But with these new opportunities come a sometimes bewildering variety of choices and associated technologies that require some serious thinking before you can make the best decisions for your needs.
So let's look at the trends in these areas, and some sample products that illustrate them. Just be warned that prices continue to change drastically, especially in the holiday season, so the numbers listed here are a snapshot as of early winter.
For "How-to" guides and tips on connecting digital devices, also see the Digital Tips site from the Consumer Electronics Association, covering digital televisions (HDTV), home audio, MP3 players, plus digital cameras and camcorders and accessories (www.DigitalTips.org).
Video Camcorders -- Memories in High-Def
Meanwhile, high definition is not just for watching -- Smaller camcorders and falling prices have brought HD gear into the hands of consumers. But this is only part of the overwhelming profusion of choices now available for shooting video -- There are three ranges of resolutions (Web/mobile, standard-def, and high-def), and at least four recording formats (tape, DVD disc, hard drive, and memory cards).
Lower Web-resolution video is part of the user-generated content (UGC) revolution exemplified by YouTube. It's about having fun shooting and posting short-form videos, and not so much about the production quality and resolution. You don't even need a video camcorder -- The mobile phone is blowing past traditional cameras as the photo-taking device of choice, and soon the majority of mobile phones will be video-enabled -- to both watch and shoot videos. Similarly, digital cameras are shooting better-quality video, at full standard-res.
Find the RCA Small Wonder EZ201 camcorder on Amazon.com
Meanwhile, the options in digital video camcorders are exploding, with SD and HD cams from $500 to under $1000. The challenge is in choosing the recording format: DV tape, 3-inch mini-DVD disc, hard disk drives (HDD), and solid-state memory (SDHC) -- as well as various combinations of the same:
- Mini-DV tape camcorders are proven, reliable, and inexpensive. They can record for a solid hour, interface well with existing software, and use less-aggressive DV compression which is easy to edit. The physical tape also serves as is an inexpensive archive. However, tape is clumsy for fast access and searching, and the mechanical tape transport mechanism weighs down the camcorder and can cause alignment or other problems over time.
- DVD disc camcorders with mini DVD discs (8 cm / 3 inch) are really convenient for consumers -- just pop them into a set-top player or computer to watch your clips (though you may need to wait for the camcorder to finalize the disc). However, the profusion of DVD formats is confusing, and the storage capacity even with double-sided discs is limited for higher-quality formats. These cameras record in the more compressed MPEG-2 format used on DVDs, which has lower quality and is clumsier to edit. The disc also can serve as a relatively inexpensive archive. Future DVD camcorders still can grow in capacity with the use of the high-def disc formats (HD DVD and Blu-ray Disc).
Find the Panasonic HDC-DX1 DVD camcorder and
Panasonic HDC-SD1 memory card camcorder on Amazon.com
- Hard Disk Drive (HDD) camcorders have become more popular as storage capacity has grown into the multiple 10s of GBs, and prices have come into the range of the alternate formats. The greatest benefit is immediate access to your video -- just attach the camcorder to your computer to access the clips. However, the media is not removable -- Once you fill the camera in the field you need to hook it up to a computer and a bigger disk in order to copy off the data and free up the internal storage. In addition, like DVD camcorders, HDD camcorders typically use more aggressive compression in order to squeeze more video onto the disk.
- Solid-state memory is coming on fast as almost the best of all worlds for camcorder storage, as its capacity keeps doubling and prices keep dropping. Memory cards offer the instant-access convenience of hard disks, and the easy removability of tape and DVD. The new SDHC (Secure Digital High Capacity) format expands the SD card format to higher capacity and faster speeds. Cards up to 8 GB cards are now readily available for under $150, and can hold 80 minutes of HD video.
These solid-state camcorders are particularly fun and light -- basically the size of a soda can, with a lens on the front, some controls on the back, and a pop-out LCD display along the size (but no optical viewfinder).
For example, the Panasonic HDC-SD5 AVCHD camcorder shoots in full 1920 x 1080 high-def, and records around 10 minutes of video per GB in highest quality mode ($999, www.panasonic.com/consumer_electronics/sd). As a result, a tiny 4 GB SDHC card priced at around $50 can hold 40 minutes of HD video, while 8 GB is dropping to around $100 and can hold 80 minutes -- or longer than a DV tape.
Find the Panasonic HDC-SD5 camcorder on Amazon.com
For even more portable shooting, the rugged and water-resistant Panasonic Palmcorder SDR-S10 standard-definition camcorder ($399) is only 4.49 x 2.48 x 1.22 inches and 0.4 pounds, and records from 12 to 50 minutes of MPEG-2 video per GB of storage.
Find the Panasonic SDR-S10 camcorder on Amazon.com
However, HD video has required new compression formats to squeeze similar amounts of video to the same physical media. DV camcorders typically use the HDV format, designed to fit an hour of HD video on DV tape. Other mini-disc, hard drive, and memory card camcorders use the even newer AVCHD format.
The downside in shooting HD is the open question of how you are then going to share your videos. You can play back from your camcorder, but you can't burn HD video to regular standard-def DVD -- and the new Blu-ray and HD DVD formats are not yet readily available enough to serve the same function (though the Sony PS3 and Microsoft Xbox can play these respective formats). You can edit and play back HD video on computers, but while these formats are starting to be supported in video editing software, but there's still some catching up to do. And sharing the huge HD clips over the Internet is still a slow process.
The bottom line: If you're doing fun things that you'd like to shoot and preserve in high-def, go ahead and get started with a HD camcorder. Just expect to downres that beautiful HD pictures to edit and share in SD, since it will be a while before the technology catches up to readily work with HD material. But you'll have your memories saved in HD for the future.