Ready for a video cam close-up

Samsung's $450 SC-D107 records on MiniDV, has a 3.5-inch TFT color viewing screen, and a 20x optical and 900x digital zoom.

Panasonic's VDR-M50, priced at $800, has a 2.5-inch TFT color viewing screen, 18x optical and 500x digital zoom, and records on MiniDVD.

With loads of options'including still shots'digital video cameras can play many parts

There's a lot to like about digital video cameras, beginning with ease of use and the overall quality of their images.

All the DV camcorders listed in the accompanying chart are user-friendly enough to let most people successfully record moving images within a few hours of opening the box. And even at prices from $110 to $800, you will find enough features to make everybody from professional photographers to amateur government users happy.

Most DV camcorders come with hardware-based edit controllers that let you perform basic editing procedures. If you want more sophisticated editing, just transfer the captured images to a PC for editing and view the results on a TV or computer screen.

Best of all, they're fun to use.

If you have already checked the assortment of DV camcorders at a store, you know that making the right choice can be complex and confusing. From a camera's look and feel to its specific feature set, there is a lot to consider, even for fairly well-informed buyers. The camcorder that's right for me might not be right for you. So at minimum, you need to consider the following information.

CCDs. A charge-coupled device is an image sensor used in both camcorders and still digital cameras. When a picture is taken, light coming through the lens is converted into electrical signals by the thousands or millions of tiny pixels that make up the CCD's grid.

Most consumer DV camcorders use 0.25-inch or 0.33-inch CCDs with between 270,000 and 680,000 pixels.

While many high-end camcorders use three CCDs'one each for the primary colors red, green and blue'all the less expensive camcorders in this roundup use a single CCD to capture all the primary colors. Single-CCD camcorders cost significantly less than high-end units, and produce nearly as good results.

Progressive scan technology enables CCD image sensors to improve video images and capture still images by recording full-frame images that can be displayed without any loss in resolution.

Viewfinders. The eyepiece viewfinders on some camcorders have higher resolution than others and display images either in color or black and white. Choosing a color or black-and-white viewfinder is mostly a matter of user preference; some people find color to be more realistic but black and white to be sharper.

In either case, look for a viewfinder with a manual diopter that lets you adjust its focus manually, especially if you wear glasses.

LCDs. LCD monitors come in various sizes, with 2.5 inches and 3.5 inches being most popular. LCD screens that both swing and rotate from the main body of the camcorder are advantageous because they allow you to see your subject from odd angles when it isn't possible to peer through a viewfinder.

While many users prefer a large LCD, I find that those with smaller, 2.5-inch screens often have better resolution and are easier to see. The better LCDs have coatings to reduce glare and reflection, as well as controls for adjusting screen brightness.

Storage options. Tape storage options for digital camcorders include MiniDV, Digital 8mm and MiniDVD. Most digital camcorders also can use various types of memory cards for adding storage capability and working with still images.

The MiniDV format records digitally on tiny tapes 1/12th the size of a standard VHS tape, with quality that is 50 percent more detailed than the best reception of standard television broadcasts. This, along with CD-quality audio on the same tape, accounts for the wide popularity of the MiniDV format among digital camcorder manufacturers.

The MiniDVD format records onto 3-inch optical disks instead of tapes. Camcorders using the format have the same high-quality video and audio recording capability as MiniDV, and while the format seems ideal for users, there continue to be some compatibility problems between different manufacturers' camcorders.

While major manufacturers like Panasonic, Hitachi and Sony are exploring the market for DVD-based camcorders with a few new products, they tend to be more than $1,000. Only products costing $800 or less are listed in this guide.

Camcorders using the Digital 8mm format are largely represented by Sony devices using proprietary Hi8/Digital8 tapes. My own Sony Digital8DCR-TRV340 can record and play back using both Hi8/Digital tapes and Hi8/standard 8 tapes (analog). It's an advantage if you have lots of video footage stored on older analog tape formats.

Sony makes a wide range of digital camcorders for professionals and amateurs, including those based on all three formats listed above.

Other DV tape formats include DVCam and ProDV, both of which offer some advanced features for high-end camcorders costing $10,000 up.

As for memory cards, the most popular ones currently used for both digital still and digital video cameras are CompactFlash, SmartMedia, Memory Stick, MultiMedia Card (MMC), Secure Digital Card (SD Card) and xD-Picture Card.

Of these, the SD Card and MMC are the most popularly used by DV camcorder manufacturers, with the exception of Sony, which uses its own Memory Stick in most of its Handycam series.

The most important two things to remember about memory cards are that they enable the recording and playback of high-resolution still photos, and that they are not interchangeable.

Video connections. Since DV camcorders need to be connected to other devices, including computers, TVs and even printers, various high-speed connectors are required. Look for a camcorder with the following connectivity options:
  • IEEE 1394. Also called FireWire by Apple Computer Inc. and iLink by Sony, IEEE 1394 is a fast external bus standard, supporting data transfer rates of 400 Mbps or 800 Mbps, making it ideal for transferring real-time video and streaming video data.

  • USB 2.0. This is another fast external bus standard, supporting data rates up to 480 Mbps.

  • S-Video. Super Video technology transmits signals over a cable by dividing the video information into two separate signals, one for color and the other for brightness. It produces the sharpest possible video images for TVs.

  • Composite Video. This technology uses a single signal over one wire to transmit video images to a TV. The result is not quite as bright and crisp as S-Video.

Audio technology. DV camcorders using Pulse Code Modulation are capable of recording excellent, CD-quality stereo sound that generally comes in two modes: two-channel 16-bit stereo, or four-channel 12-bit stereo. The two-channel mode delivers the best sound, but the four-channel mode lets you use two stereo channels instead of one in case you want to record sound while taping and use the other later for adding music or sound bites.

In either case, avail yourself of your camcorder's microphone input jack to greatly improve sound quality over that produced by the camcorder's tiny built-in microphone.

Zoom. There are two types of zoom: optical and digital. While recording images, your camcorder will automatically use optical zoom to focus more clearly. Or, you can manually set optical zoom for special effects. Most of today's consumer DV camcorders provide optical zoom capability between 10x and 30x.

While manufacturers advertise digital zoom rates as high as 400x to 800x, these figures can be misleading. Digital zoom works by taking a piece of a normal image and enlarging it digitally so that the resulting image is often quite distorted as the zoom goes higher.

Image stabilization. If you lack a tripod, your camcorder will shake with every move of your hands, wrists and arms. Image stabilization significantly reduces the blurring that results, and is generally accomplished by one of two methods: optical stabilization or electronic stabilization.

The optical technique uses a prism or a group of lenses behind the camcorder's main lenses to detect shaking and compensate by moving the main lenses around. The electronic method uses digital circuits to remove the shake effect by modifying the image after it has been recorded.

Of the two, optical image stabilization is probably the better choice because it works before the image is recorded and doesn't reduce image quality.

Manual controls. Most functions of a camcorder are performed automatically, but some degree of manual control is available.

Some camcorders let you manually set exposure, shutter speed, backlighting and focusing. For example, most camcorders automatically focus on images at the center of the viewing field, but you can manually override the automatic settings to set the focus elsewhere.

Similarly, if the automatic settings for white balance don't adequately control the different shades of colors as you move the camcorder from light source to light source, you might want a manual override to manage the tints yourself.

Special effects. Perhaps more than anything else, a camcorder's special effects can affect how much you enjoy using it.

Various types of fades from scene to scene should be possible, including black or white fades at the start or end of a scene, fades from color to black and white, or mosaic fades at the beginning or end of scenes. Some camcorders can dissolve one scene into the next, or wipe it by having the image slide into the next one.

It's particularly fun to shoot scenes in sepia'like old-fashioned brown-tinged prints'or freeze frames in wild colors.

Combining a camera's special effects with video editing programs on your PC can add a professional touch to any video you take.

J.B. Miles writes from Honomu, Hawaii. E-mail him at jbmiles@starband.net.

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