video camera buying advice sought
February 2, 2009 4:14 PM   Subscribe

Video camera advice sought. (also, is there a review site for video cameras as good as dpreview.com is for digital cameras?)

I've never bought a video camera before, other than digital still cameras with weak video modes. The last proper video camera I used for personal use was a Hi8 camera, though in the last 3 or 4 years I did help a friend shoot a couple weddings with a semi-professional MiniDV camera.

I have a lot of storage capacity, about 3.5TB, in my HTPC, which I intend to use as a movie-viewing hub. I don't have a great backup system in place yet, however, but I need to set that up anyway.

I am leaning toward tapeless, though using tapes is a nice instant backup feature...

I definitely want 1080 resolution! And the camera shouldn't be too big.

Are there a few current go-to, best-buy models out there that have a high value and performance bang-for-the-buck?

I don't have a great idea on price range, since I don't have a good frame of reference of what $300 will get you vs $1000... I figure we'll try to keep the price tag under about $1100, but less is better obviously.

And is there a dpreview.com -caliber website dedicated to video cameras? Thanks!
posted by schmoppa to Shopping (8 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
camcorderinfo is a great resource for video cameras, although overloaded with advertising these days.
posted by Izner Myletze at 4:41 PM on February 2, 2009

I like looking at the Amazon reviews for electronics. Throw out the best and worst reviews of course.

The one time I ignored consistent bad mouthing I saw there (e.g. the camera was really bad in low light) I really regretting it since it was spot on accurate.

I do this ever when checking out things reviewed in other more specific review sites.
posted by bottlebrushtree at 5:11 PM on February 2, 2009

I just bought a Canon VIXIA HF100 and a 16GB SDHC card and I love it so far. It meets all your requirements. I spent quite a bit of time looking at Hi Res clips on Vimeo and Youtube and it looked like the best bang for the buck.

If you want some full resolution samples, let me know!
posted by cdmwebs at 5:13 PM on February 2, 2009

Wow, cdmwebs, are you me? I just bought the exact same two products. ;)
posted by nitsuj at 5:36 PM on February 2, 2009

@nitsuj I don't think so....but maybe. How do you like the camera? For the OP, of course.
posted by cdmwebs at 5:52 PM on February 2, 2009

Thanks guys! Great feedback so far. That Canon looks nice.
posted by schmoppa at 6:35 PM on February 2, 2009

A useful thing to check out is the "HD" videos on vimeo.com. If you google a particular model, you come up with tons of shots. For example, I think the best camera in the range you're talking about would be the Canon VIXIA HV30. Of course, I prefer tapes to flash/HDD, because you can swap them out in a pinch, they're cheap, and as you said, they function as sort of a backup.
posted by knave at 7:32 PM on February 2, 2009

This will be a Canon Vixia HF100-centric post, but likely has some generally-applicable stuff too. I too just got the HF100 and think it's pretty sweet. It had the best reviews I saw. It's palm sized and can be had for between $500-600 online as of Feb '09. I can just barely make it work with my current computer setup but feel like I bought for the future, given how fast things evolve and go obsolete. Speaking of that, the HF200 will be out this spring, so HF100 deals will surely get even better, though inventories will dwindle. Here are some things to consider:

Cards vs. Tapes: I love not having tapes and would not go back. I also would not want an internal hard drive model, given the failure risk and cost of repair. SDHC cards are getting so much cheaper lately too. You can get great deals on 16gb and 8gb cards (be sure to get class 4 or class 6 speed cards in order to be able to capture footage in the highest quality recording modes on the HF100). 32gb class 6 cards are rarer and pricey as of now but will no doubt come down quickly and become the standard. I give it a year. It's hard to know whether to trust the reviews, but the off-brand SDHC cards appear to fail more often than known names like Sandisk or Kingston (you wouldn't think there could be much difference). I've never had a card fail in my years of digital camera use, but have had only Sandisk and more recently Kingston. I read some bad reviews about the less expensive Transcend 16gb cards everyone is getting for their tapeless camcorders, but have also read plenty of trouble-free accounts of them.

Do Your Homework: Be aware before you get one of these camcorders that the technology mix may not quite be where you'd like it just yet. It's not necessarily easy or intuitive and you have to know a bit about what you're doing on multiple fronts or be willing to experiment and learn (or get a Mac - wait, don't shoot! I'm serious! See below). Check out this HF100 owners' thread at avsforum, which is Mecca for all things video-related. It goes into detail about this model's recording modes, methods for getting the video into the computer, compatible editing software, accessories, problems, workarounds, all the questions noobs ask, etc. The early pages in this thread are about people ordering the camera and discussing backlogs, but it soon gets into useful info. The latest pages trail off into less useful subjects. Very long, but very informative.

1080 What?: You won't have trouble finding cameras that will record in 1080, but it's the letters and numbers that come next that can make a difference. 1080i60, 1080p24, 1080p30, etc. Read up on the differences and what it may mean for you. Also be aware of the difference between TVs and computer screens in terms of progressive vs. interlaced and things like 29.97fps vs. 30fps. I haven't quite figured out all of the implications of that yet, but you may want to make sure you know what you're getting into in terms of the kind of outputs and destinations you have in mind for the video you shoot, any conversions that may be necessary to get from A to B, software required to do that, etc. Relatedly, here's an avsforum user's post that gets a bit technical about the HF100's three shooting modes and what that means in terms of display mode and frames per second: 60i, 30p, and 24p. I can't vouch for the accuracy:

All files are recorded the same on the camera, as 60i. Here's what you end up with in the files:
Record 60i = 29.97 frames per second, with two different fields per frame.
Record 30p = 29.97 fps where the two fields are captured at the same time, which prevents interlacing effects. It's not actually true 30p since each frame's data is stored as two separate fields (rather than being stored as a single progressive frame).
Record 24p = 29.97 fps after the 3:2 pulldown is applied. You'll have to do an inverse/reverse 3:2 pulldown (also called reverse telecine) to get true 24p (or 23.976 fps).
This stuff is all pretty silly in my opinion. If you read the HF10/HF100 manual, it refers to 30p and 24p as "PF30" and "PF24", which is their way of saying "it's not really 30p or 24p". You end up with a usable result either way, but it requires you to play tricks in post production.

Editing Software: Read up on the AVCHD format as well as the .mts/.m2ts container files these cameras produce, which contain video files in the H.264 video standard. Editing software is still catching up to the AVCHD format in many cases so be sure you have something compatible lined up. Older versions of popular editing software likely won't be able to handle it. The newest versions of the major products are adding support for it. This zdnet blogger doesn't like AVCHD. Also look into "smart rendering". No idea what it is but apparently not many editing suites employ it yet, using something less good instead. I appear to be fine without it, but hardcore videophiles who want top specs may not be satisfied yet. Some major names in the editing software world that can handle AVCHD include Sony Vegas Movie Studio Platinum 9 or Vegas Pro 8 (Vegas products get the best reviews I've seen in forums regarding working with AVCHD on the PC), Pinnacle Studio 11 or 12, Corel/Ulead Video Studio X2, Nero 9 (allegedly a horrific, bloated mess), iMovie (for Macs), etc. Here's a brief YouTube of a USA Today guy talking about four of the products, or rather the versions of those products available in 2007.

Hardware: You'll need a computer with pretty good specs to be able to process the highest quality hd video smoothly, though lesser computers can handle lesser quality levels. My two laptops are roughly 2Ghz dual core / 2gb RAM and are apparently underpowered for the hd highest quality levels. I've read that a quad core processor, 2.6GHz or better, and 4gb of RAM or more is what you really need. My underpowered Mac apparently only works smoothly due to a technicality that some would consider a drawback (iMovie automatically and silently converting to Apple Intermediate Codec?). Google around for other opinions.

My Experience: I was almost scared out of buying this thing due to all the complications I read about, but by luck the HF100 wound up working for me for reasons below. I tried pulling video off of my SDHC card from this camera using both Mac and PC and am much, much happier with the Mac, at least for my purposes, which aren't fancy.

PC: I removed the SDHC card from the camera and put it in a USB SDHC reader (if you have an older SD reader, it likely won't read SDHC cards, but new readers are cheap). I'm pretty sure you can also leave the card in the camera and hook it up to the computer with the included cable. Either way, you have to install the included Pixela ImageMixer software to pull the video off onto a PC, but don't count on doing much more with it than that. The consensus is that it's nearly useless as an editor, but is still the easiest way to pull the video off (two different things). One thing it apparently does well, which can be difficult using other methods, is to automatically and seamlessly stitch together the 2gb (max size) chunks the camera captures video in, assuming you recorded clips that exceed 2gb on the card. But you still need a real editing program after that if you want to be able to slice and dice and output something nice. I downloaded some kind of freeware - it may have been VirtualDub. I didn't have a great experience with it, at least on a 2GHz/2gb PC laptop. And I saw the interlacing that the avsforum thread warned about, given that I was watching 60i (interlaced) video on a progressive scan screen. It was severe. I don't entirely know what I'm doing and am winging it, but that made the video unusable and I wasn't sure how to fix it. I started reading something about deinterlacing and kind of got fatigued. Clearly with more diligence, more knowledge, better software, and likely better machines, other PC owners are getting along just fine.

Mac: On the Mac, I just put the card in the SDHC reader, launched iMovie '08, and it prompted me to import the footage. Then I sliced and diced it, tried out some titles, transitions, voiceovers, audio imports, photo imports, etc., and output it in various formats and saw none of the interlacing. It's probably just some default setting somewhere. No problems at all and quick processing (2.2GHz, 2gb MacBook Pro). I don't know why it worked better, only that it did for me, maybe because of the aforementioned automatic format conversion. My Mac did warn me not to import at the highest resolution (1920 x 1080), because it said playback could suffer on my particular machine, but I did it anyway and it was fine. YMMV. But that just shows the level of machine you should ideally have to work with full AVCHD, i.e., better than what I've got. In terms of software, iMovie is the intro-level editing software on the Mac, but Apple offers much more spendy/fancy software too, like Final Cut Express, or Final Cut Pro, which also work with AVCHD.

Backup: With all that storage you've got, you can easily back up the files from your SD card for the long term. You'll want to save the entire file structure, not just he .m2ts files. Some people are running into a problem of not being able to import straight from such backups, though, and I think are having to put it back on the card to import (or are trying to figure out how to make a virtual disk image so the computer thinks it's pulling from a distinct drive instead of just a folder). I'm not there yet myself.

Accessories: Don't forget to factor accessories into your budget. The HF100's included battery only lasts an hour, for example. But you can buy bigger ones that last 2 or 4 hours. You may want filters, or at least one clear one to protect the lens and delicate lens cover mechanism. Extra SD cards. A shotgun microphone (note: the HF100 uses a special proprietary hot shoe). A lavaliere microphone for interviews. A tripod. Other software like DVD authoring or whatever. You may want a bag to protect your investment and haul around your other accessories. Don't forget to make your own $5 or $14 Steadicam (at least a $786 savings!)

By the way, Canon also offers the HF10. It's identical to the HF100 except that it packs 16gb of internal storage in addition to the SDHC slot. Also it's a different color and costs more. But since you can buy a 16gb card for less than the cost difference between that and the HF100 (if any consistent price difference remains at this late product cycle date), many forum dwellers feel it's not worth it. Some people like the idea of having it as emergency extra room in case their cards fill up or they forget them or whatever. Others say it doesn't make sense since a card is easily replaceable but an internal drive is not. I'm with the latter camp, especially since cards will get bigger and cheaper quickly while that internal 16gb will stay the same forever. Your call.

Good luck and have fun.

Camcorderphiles please chime in with any clarifying techno details.
posted by Askr at 5:56 PM on February 3, 2009 [2 favorites]

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