Choosing the Right Camcorder

by : Patty Pinkerton

When you go shopping for a new digital camcorder, you'll be presented with a endless number of specifications and features. Your challenge is to sort through all the specifications and figure out whether the camera will meet your specific needs. When reviewing the spec sheet for any new camcorder, pay special attention to these items:

1. CCDs: A 3-CCD (also called 3-chip) camcorder provides much better image quality but is also a lot more expensive. A 3-CCD camera is by no means mandatory, but it is nice to have.

2. Progressive scan: This is another feature that is nice but not absolutely mandatory.

Resolution: Some spec sheets list horizontal lines of resolution (for example, 525 lines); others list the number of pixels (for example, 690,000 pixels). Either way, more is better when it comes to resolution.

3. Optical zoom: Spec sheets usually list optical and digital zoom separately. Digital zoom numbers are usually high (200x, for example) and seem appealing. Ignore the big digital zoom number and focus (get it?) on the optical zoom factor (which describes how well the camera lens actually sees); the optical zoom factor should be in the 12x-25x range. Digital zoom just crops the picture captured by the CCD and then makes each remaining pixel bigger to fill the screen, resulting in greatly reduced image quality.

4. Tape format: MiniDV is the most common format.

5. Batteries: You should buy a camcorder that uses lithium ion batteries - they last longer and are easier to maintain than NiMH (nickel-metal-hydride) batteries.

6. Microphone connector: For the sake of sound quality, the camcorder should have some provisions for connecting an external microphone. Most camcorders have a standard mini-jack connector for an external mic, and some high-end camcorders have a 3-pin XLR connector. XLR connectors - also sometimes called balanced audio connectors - are used by many high-quality microphones and PA (public address) systems.

7. Manual controls: Virtually all modern camcorders offer automatic focus and exposure control, but sometimes manual control is preferable. Control rings around the lens are easier to use than tiny knobs or slider switches on the side of the camera - and you'll be familiar with them if you already know how to use 35mm film cameras.

8. Choose from different ones at