Camcorders: They’re Cool Again!

gamdrsCamcorders have been around for more than a decade and about one of every four American families owns one. The reason is simple: With the press of a button, a child’s first steps or first birthday party get recorded forever on videotape. And talk about instant gratification – you don’t even need to go to a one-hour photo store. You just play the tape back through your television and everyone’s an immediate star. In addition to taping family, friends, and faraway places, camcorders also come in handy for a more pragmatic purpose. When used for recording your home and its contents, videotape can help your insurance agent to expedite a claim if an accident occurs.

At this time of year, with graduations, weddings, and family vacations looming, if you don’t already have a camcorder, now may be a good time to consider buying one, especially considering the current Diiva technology. And the best news is that these devices have gotten smaller, more lightweight, easier to operate, and more affordable than ever before.

Your Choices

There are now more than 100 camcorder models available that range in price from $500 to $2,500. Sorting through them is a relatively easy task once you’ve answered a few basic questions. The first of these should be, are you comfortable connecting electronic cables? If you have no fear of plugging cables from a camcorder to a TV or VCR, consider yourself a candidate for models using eight-millimeter tape. RCA, Sony, Sharp, and Canon are the top brands here. If the thought of connecting cables turns you off, however, consider camcorders that use VHS-Compact (VHS-C) tapes. Here you take the small VHS-C tape out of the camcorder, place it in an adapter, and slide the adapter into your VCR. Press play and you are in business. JVC, Panasonic, and RCA are the names to look for in this format.

Once you’ve determined a tape format, ask yourself how you plan to use the camcorder. If you only want it to record special occasions, there is no need to spend more than $500 or $600. A model at this price will have all the features you need, including fully automatic, point-and-shoot recording and a color viewfinder so you’ll see your subjects in color rather than black-and-white, which was the norm up until a few years ago.

But no matter what their cost, today’s camcorders are amazingly simple to use. Just turn the power on, look through the viewfinder, frame your subject by adjusting the zoom lens, and then press the record button. That’s it. Camcorders with Program Auto Exposure (AE) settings are worth looking for. If you’re taping your son or daughter’s soccer game, just turn the Program AE setting to “sports.” Now the camcorder is optimally set for recording fast action. Other available settings – depending on the model and maker – include “sand and snow” for taping the family at the beach, ski slopes, or other high-glare locations. These settings make it easier than ever to make quality recordings in a variety of situations, even the most difficult.

There are two additional features that your camcorder should have – image stabilization and a built-in light. Image stabilization takes the “shakes” out of your videos by using electronic circuitry or adjusting the internal lenses. Don’t worry about how it works, just know that your friends and family won’t get seasick when watching your tapes. The light is great for making high-quality recordings indoors or in other low-light settings.

The hottest trend over the past two years in camcorder land is the surging popularity of models with two viewfinders: a smaller eyepiece and a much larger LCD screen that swings out from the side of the camera. Every major company now makes them – no matter which type format you choose. The larger (2.5- to 4-inch) LCD screens offer wonderful advantages. You can record from a number of different angles because you no longer have to keep the camcorder glued to your eye. You can rotate the larger screen while holding it at arm’s length. You can twist the screen so the kids can see themselves being recorded (a great attention getter). And once you’ve finished taping, everyone can stand around the camcorder and watch their antics. For a swing-out LCD viewfinder, expect to spend around $100 more than you would for a basic camcorder with a smaller color viewfinder. For example, Sony’s new eight-millimeter CCD- TRV15 is $699 list and has a 2.5-inch LCD screen and a 16x zoom lens. The VHS-C Quasar VML458 ($599 list price) has a 2.6-inch swivel LCD monitor and a 23x zoom. Both of these camcorders are excellent deals, especially when you realize that zoom lenses greater than 12x didn’t even exist five years ago, let alone 16x or 23x lenses.

Other Fun Features

From here, prices rise substantially if you want a larger LCD screen or improved picture and sound. JVC’s new GR-AXM700 DualCam with a 3-inch LCD ($999) is a fascinating hybrid. It’s a combination VHS-C camcorder and digital still camera; it holds up to 44 still photographs in memory that you can download into the family computer. Panasonic’s PV-L858 ($999) has a 3.2-inch LCD screen and a 23x zoom, takes up to 30 digital stills, and records video on easy-to-handle VHS-C tapes.

When you go shopping, you’ll encounter an improved version of eight-millimeter video called high-band eight-millimeter, or Hi8. The picture is almost twice as good as regular eight-millimeter and rental VHS tapes. If you want superior video quality and have a newer, high-quality TV, this is a good option. The CCD-TRV75 is a Hi8 Sony with a 3-inch LCD screen and image stabilization that costs $999. It also includes a feature called Laser Link, a plus for anyone worried about cables, since it beams the camcorder signal to the TV without wires (although you will have to connect a signal receiver that rests on top of the TV). Besides better picture quality and all the expected bells and whistles, this model also has NightShot, a new infrared light that lets you record in total darkness. Wild and lots of fun.

Digital Video (DV) camcorders are the next generation of home videography. They record beautiful images (better than Hi8) with CD-quality sound. They’re wonderful, but expensive. With a list price of $1,999, the Panasonic PV-DV700 is the most “affordable.” Still, prices are drifting down and just as CD players replaced turntables, DV will supplant the current eight-millimeter and VHS-C tape formats. However, this will probably take 10 years or more, so you can feel confident an eight-millimeter or VHS-C camcorder you buy now will not be made obsolete in the very near future.

Now get out there and start saving – and sharing – those memories!

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