Suggestions for DV Camera Purchase?
March 17, 2005 11:12 PM   Subscribe

I'm looking for a Digital Video camera but am at a loss as to what to look for, what technologies are on the horizon (that are, perhaps, worth waiting for), etc., etc..

Obviously I'd like the most bang for the buck, but I do have *some* requirements:
- Any vids taken will be plugged into my Apple G5 for editing and manipulation. While they will immediately be sent to my parents so that they can view vids of their grandchildren, I also want to provide my kids some footage of their formative years, etc. SO, either USB2.0 or FireWire4/8 is critical.
- Size is not a huge concern, but the lighter and smaller, the more likely I am to carry it around to capture those 'precious moments'.
- Image stabilization is a must as is a serious optical zoom (very infrequently does cool stuff happen close to me - maybe it's my aftershave?).
- Ability to snap digi pix is a plus.
posted by Lactoso to Technology (10 answers total)
The two formats to consider are the tape-based Mini DV, and disc-based DVD.

Oddly, Mini DV has a higher resolution than DVD does; 520 horizontal lines of resolution for tape, vs. 480 lines for DVD. Thus, the initial image quality on tape is slightly higher than on DVD. However to actually benefit from this, you need a high definition TV. You also need really good eyes, and training in image analysis to see the difference.

Mini DV has been around much longer; it is a mature technology. Therefore the hardware is less expensive and the recording medium costs are lower. However, the drawback with tape is fragility.

Camcorders can eat tapes, but the laser pickup in DVD recorders can not damage discs. Additionally, tapes wear with use; the heads cause tiny tape particles to flake off, gumming up the delicate mechanisms and degrading the tape in the process. From an archival point of view, tape based mediums theoretically should degrade more quickly over time, although there is still some controversy on this matter.

Unedited video is excruciating to watch. Martin Scorsese and George Lucas don’t film for ½ hour continuously and expect to produce a watchable product, and neither should you. This means some editing of your home videos will eventually occur. This will happen in your computer, but possibly in the new DVD recorder you’ll likely be buying within the next couple of years. DVD is an easier medium to employ in the editing process than tape, and much more user friendly for initial playback as well.

Therefore it seems that DVD wins the format battle. Tape is just about dead as a storage medium. So, having settled on a format, we move on to brand.

The two contenders are Sony and Hitachi. Hitachi outperforms Sony, for ease of use, feature content, and price point. Hitachi invented DVD cams, they are in their fourth generation, and the ergonomics and engineering are generally a notch above Sony’s.

Sony emphasizes the smallness of their new models, but my own feeling is that the cameras are actually too small, making the controls difficult to manipulate. Additionally, they pack too many levels in menu systems, in an attempt to eliminate buttons, and thus size. I think that this makes them unwieldy to navigate. Nonetheless, this is a fairly subjective analysis; my advice is to try out the cameras, yourself.

While Sony’s vaunted Carl Zeiss lenses are often pitched as being the sharpest, (Canon would beg to differ, BTW) Hitachi is no slouch when it comes to Lens technology themselves. Their abandonment of CRT technology and exclusive focus on large screen TVs over the last five years has given them some significant advantages in lens and focusing technologies, and their new HDTV products blow Sony out of the water. This advantage is almost exclusively a result of their technological lead in lens technology. Most consumers will likely never reap any real reward with the Zeiss lenses, but will constantly benefit from the easier operation of the Hitachi.

Now, as to Sony themselves, they are the world’s most arrogant and egocentric electronics company. They really take the attitude that SONY is bloody well the best, and everyone else can kiss their ass. This is a result of their longstanding lead in CRT technology, first with the Trinitron, and then with the WEGA. As a result, SONY always does things differently from everyone else, and the consumer pays for this with inflated prices, and proprietary technologies. Typically, their cross-platform technologies ONLY work with Sony products, and accessories always cost more. This is especially true of batteries, cases, memory cards etc. Avoid them if possible.

So having settled on Brand, we now need to choose a model.This is tough. The DZMV580 has a one megapixel CCD that will produce much better still photos than the lowel level DZMV550. It also has a genuine 16 X 9 mode, that will provide way better image quality on the a wide-screen Hi Def display coming into your home fairly soon while the 550 has a better optical zoom. To advise you I'd need to know more about your lifestyle and how you'd be using the camera. There are quite a few questions I'd ask before attempting to really recommend something.

That said, here is the most important thing to know. The new models are all coming out as we type. This could all change within the nest few weeks/months. Were I you, I'd hang on just a bit longer till the new models are introduced. Then, you can decide whether there are significant improvements worth having, or paying less for an 04 model.
posted by PareidoliaticBoy at 2:51 AM on March 18, 2005

Without wanting to take away from the first, excellent answer, I'm going to disagree anyway - those are all things to consider higher up the spectrum, but you want to keep things simple if it's just for home movies. I have a Sony HC20, and can highly recommend it. I'm sensing that you don't need a super highpowered professional setup - and this one will be more than fine.

It's small, light, has a built-in lens cap, 10x zoom, image stabiliser, night mode (infra red! cool! sex tapes!), works with USB and Firewire, and works fine with my Mac. It takes normal MiniDV tapes, and does everything you need. Check out the specs, and go to a store and ask to have a play with one - you'll be sold instantly. It's perfect for home movies and Macs, works fine with iMovie, and is a good all rounder for beginners and intermediates.

The only thing it doesn't do well is still photography - but most camcorders aren't great at it, you're better off with a proper, dedicated digital camera. It'll take them, but stores them on the video tape, so it's a bit awkward to get them off. You can get the next model up, which takes Memory Sticks (Sony's awful proprietary format memory), but seriously, it's not worth the bother. Get the HC20, and a half decent digital camera.

If you don't want a Sony, look for anything with similar specs in that pricerange, and you can't go far wrong. But from your question, it looks like the HC20 is perfect for your needs. I second what PareidiolaticBoy said about editing, too - trim it down in iMovie, lose any unnecessary stuff, or you will lose all of your friends and become the most boring person you know...
posted by ralphyk at 6:06 AM on March 18, 2005

I would strongly recommend avoiding DVD-based video cameras, for two reasons:
1. DVDs are compressed ready for viewing on your TV. While this is fine if you don't want to edit them, if you do, they must be "transcoded" into an editable format, and then back again. This reduces the video quality.
2. Since you said you will be using a Mac: There's no easy way of importing the video from a DVD into iMovie or Final Cut. It's not impossible, but it requires third-party tools, and suffers from problem 1 above.

I don't know why PareidoliaticBoy says "DVD is an easier medium to employ in the editing process than tape" above - as far as I can see, this simply isn't true.

You'll also want to avoid Sony's "MicroMV" tape format, which uses a custom extra-small tape, which is again incompatible with iMovie and Final Cut.

Thankfully, the remaining format, MiniDV, is by far the most common and popular, and fully supported by iMovie and Final Cut. The only feature I would recommend looking for is "true" widescreen, or 16:9, and not letterbox mode. This uses the full resolution of the format to record widescreen videos, and doesn't just add black bars. As of iMovie '05, widescreen video is now fully supported.

Despite the previous posters somewhat vocal hatred of Sony, I have used several Sony cameras in the past and have had no problems at all. (They make normal MiniDV cameras as well as the avoidable MicroMV and DVD models.) The quality is excellent and the build quality is very good. However, shop around, look for deals. There aren't many "bad" DV cameras on the market.
posted by Mwongozi at 6:16 AM on March 18, 2005

Good point - the HC20 is a normal MiniDV camera, and does true widescreen - you can also attach extra things to the lens, like wideangle lenses and so on. Er, I'm not a Sony employee or anything. I just really like this camera...
posted by ralphyk at 6:36 AM on March 18, 2005

As Mwongozi said at the end, pretty much any camera will be fine, so go to your local shop and have a play with a few and find one you like. Also, his advice about avoiding DVD camera is spot on.

In terms of future developments, in about five years time camcorders will be a lot different, with HDTV-quality sensors and hard drives and what-not. The cheap flash-based MPEG4 cameras you see around now will have caught up in quality and usability to MiniDV. But none of this affects buying a camera now, unless you're prepared to wait a couple of years or spend thousands.
posted by cillit bang at 6:36 AM on March 18, 2005

I bought a Panasonic GS70 because it has a Leica-designed lens and 3CCD sensor system and the color that resulted was better the competitors in my comparisons. The low light performance is only OK though, so if you want to make one of those green commando vision sex videos I'd stick with the Sony. Also, the IS is digital, which is not nearly as good as optical, but the new GS250 with a very cool and improved menu navigation system also has optical IS.
posted by planetkyoto at 8:31 AM on March 18, 2005

3 CCDs will get you truer color and nicer picture than 1 CCD (think of the CCDs as "pickups" for video). Bigger CCDs are also better. I have a Panasonic DV953 and love it; however it shares with planetkyoto's camera the poor low-light capability. If you stick with something from Sony/Canon/Panasonic/JVC you'll probably be OK; reviews and product comparisons can be found at DV Spot and Camcorder Info.

Oh, and just to reinforce: DV tape is much easier to deal with than DVD for your purposes, and has better image quality. I've never had a DV tape "eaten" by any of the devices I've used.
posted by jtron at 8:56 AM on March 18, 2005

David Pogue had a nice review of 3 mid-price MiniDV cameras in the NYTimes last week - link (reg req.)
posted by omnidrew at 9:38 AM on March 18, 2005

Camera Technology.

Keeping it all simple:

DV is the way to go. It's ready to go to edit (any of the DVD camera stuff is a PITA and usually is fairly compromised.)

The 'better' format is HDV - a compressed to hell HD that works with 3rd party software (or with iMovie) to handle HD clips. These cameras cost around $4-6k.
posted by filmgeek at 4:32 PM on March 18, 2005

Thanks for all the info guys! No solid contendors, but definitely some very promising leads and pointers in the right direction.

Am currently researching at DV Spot and Camcorder Info for a MiniDV.

Ed T.
posted by Lactoso at 7:55 PM on March 18, 2005

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