Looking for an HD camcorder? They're proliferating like bunnies, but is it a good time to buy one yet? Not only are there lots more HDTV camcorders on the market now than there were last year at this time, the variety of HD camcorder recording methods has expanded as well. Sure, you can record on tape, but wouldn't you really rather record to a hard drive, or better yet, a flash memory card? What about recording to DVDs, or even to Blu-ray discs? All these choices are available at prices that are oftentimes south of $1000. Here are 10 things you need to know before you plunk down your cash.
1. All the HD camcorders' video looks great. Every one of the latest HD camcorders we've seen—seven in all—delivers kick-ass video, almost as good as what you see coming down a lot of cable or satellite systems from the networks. But it doesn't look as clean and sharp as Blu-ray or HD DVD.
2. Know what do you want to do with the camcorder. Maybe HD is overkill. If you want to upload videos to YouTube, the easiest way to do it is using the video capabilities of a point-n-shoot still camera.
3. The HD camcorders are easiest to use if you plug them directly into an HDTV via HDMI. Almost all the camcorders have HDMI output, so it's easy to just connect that camcorder to your HDTV and use the supplied remote. In fact, it feels like this is what the camcorder companies would prefer you to do, because the editing software included with every one of the camcorders is almost unusable, which brings us to number 4:
4. Editing AVCHD footage is awkward. Many of the latest camcorders use the highly compressed AVCHD format, a variant of the H.264 used in Blu-ray and HD DVDs. Cutting HDV footage of older camcorders is easy, because it's a mature HDTV video format that's been around for three or four years. AVCHD is quite different, newer and more cumbersome. While many editing software packages now support AVCHD, it's still a rather clumsy process to move the footage from camcorder to PC, albeit a little easier when you're dealing with a Mac.
5. If you plan to edit HD footage, especially AVCHD, get yourself a mofo PC or Mac. Make that a dual-processor machine with eight cores if you can swing it. You'd better have the most powerful PC you can find, because the huge files and compression chores you'll be asking your computer to deal with are daunting, and require spectacular amounts of power unless you want to endure long waits for rendering.
6. Where will you distribute the video from your HD camcorder? (in other words, how will Grandma watch your masterpieces?) With HD, gone are the days of ubiquitous playback devices for your videos. After you're done editing, it won't be as easy as laying it down on a VHS tape or DVD that even Grandma can play in her living room. HD footage goes well on a Blu-ray disc, but who has those burners or players yet?
7. Decide if you want a camcorder that records on hard disk, flash memory card, DVD, HDV tape or Blu-ray. A hard disk stores more footage but is bulkier and more fragile than flash memory. But a 4GB flash card only stores 40 minutes' worth of footage. Recording on DVD and Blu-ray both involve spinning removable media which seems anachronistic, but then your footage can be played back immediately on many Blu-ray disc players. Then there's DV tape recording HDV footage, which gets good results, but it seems so, uh, analog.
8. Prices are reasonable. The best HD camcorder I've seen, the Panasonic HDC-SD1, costs around $800. You'd be surprised how prices are plummeting with HDTV camcorders. Since it's not brand-spanking new, you might be able to find an even better deal on that Panny SD1 on Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving.
9. Most camcorders end up gathering dust on a closet shelf. Be realistic. Are you really going to be shooting lots of video? Accurately assess whether you'll actually be using a camcorder frequently, or just occasionally. Also think about whether anyone will be eager to watch your HD videos that you may not have the time or patience to edit. If you have a special event coming up, consider borrowing or renting a camcorder rather than blowing all your spare cash on a trinket that will be used once or twice and end up as shelfware.
10. Catch up on some reviews of the latest HD camcorders to get a lay of the land. Camcorder Info picked as its camcorder of the year the Canon HV20, an HD model that uses old-timey DV tapes and records in the HDV format. We found the camcorder's video spectacular, with very few motion artifacts. It's also nice to be able to output in good ol' DV whenever you want with no further rendering.
After using seven of these camcorders, and five of them for about a month in an extended review situation, our fave was the Panasonic HDC-SD1 (pictured above), with its near-perfect video, flash memory recording, tiny size, smooth stabilization and $800ish price. For a look at that, also check out Wired's roundup of camcorders in its annual Test issue, and coming soon online and now on newsstands, my own roundup of five HD camcorders in Maximum PC magazine.