How to Buy a Digital Camcorder

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The Specs Explained

While a camcorder's specs don't tell the whole story, they can help you narrow your choices. You can use the camcorder's price, along with specs like LCD screen size, weight, and type of microphone, to weed out the ones that won't work for you.

Keep in mind that while a big LCD screen and lots of extra features justify a higher price, ease of use and overall size are also important considerations. Even the lightest camcorder won't do you much good if the controls are too small for your hands, so always try the camcorder out before you buy. Remember that the lightest cameras may sacrifice other features, and they'll often have a top-mounted microphone simply because there's nowhere else to put it. Then again, weight may be an important enough consideration to justify those trade-offs.

The more optical zoom, the better. Most modern camcorders come with at least a 10X optical zoom. Don't pay too much attention to the digital zoom, which simply enlarges the image the lens captures; the optical zoom is far more important. In the semi-pro range, you can expect to get a lens with higher-quality optics.

Important: Weight

A camcorder's weight affects how easy it is to use even more than you'd expect. The heavier it is, the more likely you'll leave it at home—this is why pocket camcorders are so popular despite their comparatively poor video quality.

Somewhat Important: Microphone Placement

Look for a front-mounted microphone, if possible. But if you have to settle for a top-mounted mic, look for one with an audio-zoom function. Also look for the ability to connect an external microphone, especially if you anticipate shooting stationary subjects.

Somewhat Important: Low-Light Modes

Long shutter modes or special infrared lights allow you to shoot in very little light. Higher-end models include battery-thrifty LED illumination built into the camera, but this method doesn't work nearly as well as a dedicated, external video light.

Somewhat Important: Screen Size

A larger screen makes it easier to see what you're recording and facilitates playback. But keep in mind that the screen size will take a toll on your camcorder's battery life, especially if the camcorder uses that LCD as its only viewfinder. Simply put, a big, bright LCD will drain your camera's battery more quickly. Though some models have whopping, 3-plus-inch screens, those big LCDs make the camcorder larger, too. As for touchscreens, that's a personal call; many new camcorders offer access to menu items and playback controls via a touchscreen LCD.

Minor: Geo-tagging

Have you ever watched video you took years ago, and wondered where you shot it? This problem grows worse over time, especially now that we no longer have DV tape boxes to label, and instead let video clips pile up in flash memory and hard drives, and forget to give those clips meaningful file names. Some camcorders sport GPS receivers that attach geotags to tell you exactly where you shot the footage.

Minor: Ports

Most camcorders have USB 2.0 ports for transferring video to your computer or for connecting external hard drives for backup. Most also offer HDMI ports so you can connect your camcorder to an appliance like an HDTV and watch your video. Many HD camcorders allow you to downconvert HD video to SD, which you can then hook up to and view on a standard-definition TV using the camcorder's S-video or composite connectors.

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