Review: Camcorder? What Camcorder?

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine

Outside magazine, February 1999

Review: Camcorder? What Camcorder?
Palm-size digital video cameras let you play tourista without looking the part

By Brent Hurtig


Documenting your escapades with a camcorder glued to your face may seem like a tasteless enterprise, akin to suiting up in a pair of Bermudas and an aloha shirt to check out the Sistine Chapel. But the new digital video camcorders are small enough that you can ditch the stigma, not to mention a knapsack full of other gadgets. Instead of using 8mm or VHS-C tapes, digital camcorders tally ones and zeros on matchbox-size MiniDV (digital video) tapes — much like a computer writing on a floppy disk — allowing them to pack more punch in a smaller package. Specifically, the digital images are clearer and more detailed than standard analog, the audio is crisp and hiss-free, and paused frames are jitterless.

Each tiny tape can store up to 90 minutes of video and CD-quality audio — or, alternatively, about 500 still photos. (Later, you can print stills with a PC or Mac, a $150 video capture system, and a $200 photo-quality color printer.) So, taking into account the vast discounts any shop will offer on this equipment, for a bit over $1,000 you can outfit yourself with an all-in-one camcorder/camera/audio recorder, ready to chronicle any exploit. Upon your safe return to civilization, just link it to your TV or stereo and you'll be ready to bore your friends silly.

All five models we tested have handy LCD screens, which free you from shooting through a viewfinder and let you watch replays of the day's most grisly face-plants. They all use fast-charging lithium-ion batteries, have built-in speakers, and feature optical zooms — which, unlike the digital variety, actually magnify an image rather than simply manipulating it electronically. hey all, in fact, will make you glad that you never bought one of those analog dinosaurs.

More than simply a tool to document your travels, the 1.8-pound Sharp VL-PD1U ($2,999; 800-237-4277) works as a portable entertainment system: A small village can huddle around its enormous four-inch LCD viewer, which doubles as a touchscreen for accessing controls. Traits such as a 10x optical zoom and digital playback zoom, which lets you enlarge choice areas of the picture post-shoot, help to justify the price tag. And thanks to the audio dubbing feature, you can also lay down your own soundtrack or mix in narration with the original audio.

Camcorders are decidedly delicate, so if you're prone to pratfalls you'll want to investigate the solidly built Sony DCR-PC1 ($1,899; 800-222-7669). There's beauty behind its brawn, with a bright 2.5-inch LCD screen, features such as audio dubbing, and playback effects that let you warp the picture or render it in sepia tone. The 1.1-pound unit takes a superb picture, particularly in fading light, thanks to its razor-sharp Zeiss 10x optical zoom. And if you're in the habit of embellishing your tales, the DCR-PC1 is your willing accomplice: Its reality-altering "luminance key" feature superimposes still images — say, portraits — on top of moving video images. "Yup, that's me on top of K2 ..."

If you haven't quite managed to assemble a film crew for your proposed wilderness epic, the JVC GR-DVM5 ($1,800; 800-252-5722) offers technology that'll keep your shooting schedule on track — a video self-timer that lets you play both auteur and star without missing a beat. The 1.2-pound JVC also has a self-timer for stills and a 10x optical zoom. A single remote control for both the camera and your VCR is handy for one-touch editing, and though you can't mix in music or commentary, this unit has other fun effects, such as the "classic film" record setting, which can make your day on the slopes look like grainy lost footage of Jean-Claude Killy skimming the downhill course at Grenoble.

If you're still a little leery about sporting a camcorder, you might find the low-frills Canon ZR (800-652-2666) appealing. At $1,199 it costs considerably less than the others, and it has the subtle look and feel of a camera. Convenient controls and a 2.5-inch LCD that swings up mean that you can easily shoot one-handed. Though the 1.2-pound ZR isn't packed with features, those it does have are quite useful: A clever, albeit bulky, snap-on eyepiece converts the LCD into an ersatz viewfinder for filming in bright sun, there's a self-timer for video and stills, and it has an 11x optical zoom.

The Hitachi M2 ($1,499; 800-448-2244) doesn't quite fit the mold of the others we tested, in that it's better suited for snapshot photographers who only dabble in video. Rather than using tape, the 1.2-pound unit has a removable hard drive that can store an incredible 3,000 photos, 1,000 stills with audio, four hours of audio, or a paltry 27 minutes of video. It lacks a powerful zoom (just 3x) or special video features, but since there's no tape to rewind you can call up any of those photos in an instant. The M2 has a phaser-like design that would make Captain Picard jealous: A collapsible awning blocks sunlight from the 1.8-inch LCD and the lens swivels 360 degrees, so you can click off shots of Michelangelo's finest work without the docent ever taking notice.

Photographs by Jim Cooper

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