Camcorder formats: which one is best?

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Derek loves nothing more than punching a remote location into a GPS, queuing up some music and heading out on a long drive, so it's a good thing he's in charge of CNET Australia's Car Tech channel.

Prospective camcorder buyers are faced with a choice of four types of camcorder recording media: hard disk, flash memory, MiniDV/HDV tapes, or mini-DVD. We run through the pros and cons of all four formats to make your purchasing journey a little less like a trip through Dante's nine circles of hell.

Back in April 2006 when we first penned this feature, two formats — MiniDV and mini-DVD — were in the ascendency. In the two intervening years we've seen the rise of high definition, as well as a vertiginous fall in the price of storage.

In the case of camcorders, a hybrid is any camera that allows you to record video on two types of media. The first set of hybrids, produced by Hitachi in late 2006, combined both hard-disk and mini-DVD media. Now, however, this term is used almost exclusively with camcorders that use flash memory and either hard disk or mini-DVD. We'll go into more detail as to why flash memory hybrids are a good idea when we examine each recording medium.

Most of the new hard-disk and mini-DVD models released this year are able to record video to removable flash memory, typically either SD or Memory Stick cards. However older models still on sale, as well as many second-hand cameras, are only able to store still images not video on their removable flash memory.

Hard drives provide the best bang for buck

Hard disk
The beauty of hard-disk camcorders, especially in this age of high-definition video is that nothing else offers the same value per gigabyte. Most of the current hard drive models available are hybrid units that allow you to record to removable media — so if you run out of space during a year-long round-the-world trip, you can top up storage capacity by gorging yourself on SD or Memory Stick cards.

Hard disk capacities on standard-definition cameras range between 30 and 60 gigabytes — at maximum quality (about 9Mbps) — is good for around 430 and 860 minutes respectively. Meanwhile high-def hard-disk cameras usually boast between 40 and 120 gigabytes. This should be good for about 290 and 880 minutes respectively at 1920x1080i 16Mbps. Some of JVC's latest high-definition cameras can record at 26Mbps, meaning that you can only cram in 600 minutes of top quality footage onto the GZ-HD6's 120GB disk.

Whether you choose standard-def or high-def, a 30GB or a 120GB model, a hard-disk camcorder will provide more than enough storage space for most situations. Indeed you're far more likely to run out of battery juice at an inopportune time, rather than be caught short of space. The great fear with all portable hard-disk devices is that the disk will get scratched by sudden movements and drops, but all modern camera hard drives have enough protection, buffering and smarts to withstand all but the most severe of falls.

Most high-end camcorders nowadays are hard drive units, so if you want features like a hotshoe, headphone and microphone jacks, and a viewfinder, you'll have to stump up the big bickies.

Standard-def prices: AU$799 to AU$1,399

Standard-def makes and models:
JVC GZ-MG730, GZ-MG530, GZ-MG465, GZ-MG345, GZ-MG330, GZ-MG130
Panasonic SDR-H280, SDR-H60, SDR-H40
Sony DCR-SR220, DCR-SR300, DCR-SR85, DCR-SR65, DCR-SR46, DCR-SR45

High-def prices: AU$1,399 to AU$2,199

High-def makes and models:
Canon HG10
Panasonic HDC-HS9
Sony HDR-SR10, HDR-SR11, HDR-SR12

There are two types of flash media: removeable (SD/SDHC cards and Memory Stick) and built-in

Flash memory
We've spoken at length already about hybrid cameras with supplementary flash memory, both removable and built-in. There is, however, a gaggle of cameras with only flash memory on-board. Mini-DVD, tape and hard drives are all fairly large immoveable objects around which a camera must be designed. Flash memory, on the other hand, is compact and frees the designers' hands somewhat. This means that not only are flash-only cameras smaller than their brethren, but they can be shaped differently too — witness the upright Sony HDR-TG1 and the discontinued Canon HV10.

Some may find the petite dimensions to their advantage — space-deprived travellers, for instance — but there are a few downsides. Generally we've found that these smaller, lighter cameras are harder to hand hold, especially for extended durations. And despite the fact that flash memory prices are falling as fast as oil is rising, flash memory is nowhere near as cost effective as hard-disk. This isn't much of an issue for standard-def cameras, but can be problematic for high-def models — a 4GB SD card or Memory Stick holds a smidgen less than half-an-hour's worth of top quality footage.

Keep in mind too that not all memory cards are created equal. To keep up with data being saved to it, SD/SDHC cards used with camcorders should be rated 40x (6MBps) or above.

Standard-def prices: AU$499 to AU$899

Standard-def makes and models:
Canon FS11, FS100
Panasonic SDR-SW20, SDR-S7

High-def prices: AU$1,599 to AU$1,869

High-def makes and models:
Canon HF10
Panasonic HDC-SD9

Mini-DVD suffers for lack of capacity

As the name suggests, these camcorders record onto a small DVD disc — 8cm versus a regular DVD's 12cm diameter. The great — and some would say, the only — advantage of DVD camcorders is the ability to burn a copy of your masterpiece straight away. However, while the reduced disc size ensures that these cameras aren't built only for giants, it greatly reduces storage capacity. A full-sized single-sided, single-layer DVD holds 4.7GB, whereas a similar mini-DVD only holds 1.4GB. That means you'll only be able to cram in a paltry 20 minutes of standard-def footage, or 10 minutes of high-def, at high quality.

Since the advent of affordable hard-disk camcorders we've been loathe to recommend mini-DVD models. The tide may be turning somewhat though with Sony's new DVD camcorders being hybrid models that can record video to flash memory — some models even have built-in flash memory. Recording to flash memory has the advantage of allowing simple editing functions, like scene deletion, that are usually denied to DVD camcorder users. This means that users can finally choose the scenes to burn to disc and can make multiple copies of Uncle Jack's 90th to hand around.

Standard-def prices: AU$499 to AU$799

Standard-def makes and models:
Canon DC310
Panasonic VDR-D50
Sony DCR-DVD810, DCR-DVD610 (hybrids)
Samsung VP-DC171Wi, VP-DX10

High-def prices: AU$1,099 to AU$1,599

High-def makes and models:
Canon HR10
Sony HDR-UX20 (hybrid)

MiniDV tapes will record the same amount of high-def or standard-def vision

MiniDV/HDV tape
Like dinosaurs, tape-based camcorders once ruled the Earth but unlike those massive lizards they're not extinct. Nowadays they generally form the top and the tail of a manufacturer's camcorder line-up. Standard-def MiniDV camcorders from Canon, JVC and Sony are all AU$399 entry-level models with big zoom lenses and not much else. The high-def HDV models from Sony and Canon boast large image sensors and are fully featured.

Each MiniDV tape holds a fixed amount of footage, say 60 minutes of standard-def footage. Pop that same tape into an HDV camera and, via the magic of more compression technology, you'll be able to record 60 minutes of high-definition video. This is good news for anyone sitting on an Aladdin's cave of MiniDV tapes and wanting to step up to high-def.

A thing to remember about tape is that transferring footage to your computer for editing requires a FireWire connection — something that most PCs lack out of the box — and that video upload happens in real time, that is a 60-minute tape will take 60 minutes to transfer across. Also the linear nature of tape precludes you from deleting a random scene — say scene 10 of 31 — from a tape.

Standard-def prices: AU$399 to AU$989

Standard-def makes and models:
Canon MD225
JVC GR-DA30, GR-D850
Panasonic NV-GS330
Sony DCR-HC52

High-def prices: AU$1,449 to AU$1,799

High-def makes and models:
Canon HV20, HV30
Sony HDR-HC9

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Add Your Comment 24

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Alaric posted a comment   

Great article. I think this subject gets a bit tricky for people because the differences are very subtle. The cameras all look similar from the outside. I also wrote a piece about camcorder memory for travellers over at my blog


chepalopod posted a comment   

There are two problems with camera storage:
- capacity
- battery
Battery is not image storage as is, but how long the battery last on each type of storage will be a problem if you are in the middle of a jungle (or far far away from any electrical plug, in general).
Can anybody give a review on this?


chepalopod posted a comment   

There are two problems with camera storage:
- capacity
- battery
Battery is not image storage as is, but how long the battery last on each type of storage will be a problem if you are in the middle of a jungle (or far far away from any electrical plug, in general).
Can anybody give a review on this?


TAIB SAJAT A GHANI posted a comment   

( MALAY LANGUAGE )Saya berpendapat kamera video menggunakan HDD adalah terbaik. Ia mudah dan cepat untuk kerja-kerja edit di komputer untuk dijadikan DVD. Saya sendiri menggunakan 2 kamera video HDD jenis JVC dan SONY


PradoPrankster posted a comment   

Thanks a trillion for posting this review. I am gonna visit India next month. Hence, I find this article very useful. Great! I dont want to buy a DVD handycam.Instead, I am gonna buy a 60gb HD cam. Thanks again.


Sean posted a comment   

I've got the sony hdr-sr12 with a 120gb hard drive and over christmas 08 i used an external hard drive to backing up 60 gb of videos and when i used the camera i copyed over to the external using the laptop and if you deleted the videos on the camera it is very easy to copy back to the camera. The camera is seen on the computer as a external harddrive and the camera hard drive is formated in fat32. if i want to use the camera on a boat i use a memo card.


Jimbo JR-Eire posted a comment   

Sorry, VRD-MC5(multi function) i'm using not mc3. Thanks again


Jimbo JR-Eire posted a comment   

Mini DV's still the best in standard def. in terms of its video quality and the cheaper to buy anywhere tapes. I bought the top end Sony 2 1/2yrs back in Barrack's place. But i know most manufacturers don't make much anymore. A bit time consuming only in editing though but i do it when i'm babysitting my luvly,cuddly 1st big babah! I have a laptop but i used VRD-MC3 to edit it into DVD discs. 1,2,3 and your done! Easy peasy no need to use your own laptop! Good for amateur like me and pro alike. The only thing is you have to buy the unit and a firewire cable separately. If your looking for video quality(and low noise) aside from cheap tapes; compact and light Mini DV is good for you. My humble opinion only . Thanks


gabadines posted a comment   

IMHO .... I too do a bit of editing - I like to archive my own family footage + transfer old vhs vhs-c video8 footage to dvd and from an economical point of view - it still does make sense to use Mini dv tapes ... I am planning on upgrading to a HDef camcorder in the near future and still deciding a format to use though I am leaning more on Dv tapes for storage - I agree with 'Anon' - picture this - with a HDD format - and you're on a holiday - it is a must that you transfer all your footage to a laptop as space will eventuallly run out .... try to skimp on space to get a longer recording time and the tradeoff is a sacrifice on video quality - at least with Mini Dv tapes ... once I finish with my 60 min on SP ...just lug in another tape and thats it ... you'te not limited on quality and storage and you're not compelled to download the footage to a harddisk for editing ... which tyou can do anytime it pleases you ... the only drawback is there seems to be less and less manufacturer investing on new Hdef camcorder using Dvtape format :-(


matt posted a comment   

Here's another take The big advantage of the hard drives is their storage, but you can easily work around that. If you're thinking hard drive vs flash, go with flash. Tape camcorders are a different beast, and have many differences, but HDD vs flash are very similar.

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