Many cellphones and digital cameras have a built-in record setting, but for high quality recordings that will stand the test of time you need the outstanding performance and advanced features of a dedicated camcorder unit. There is a camcorder that meets every need, from compact units that can be used on the go, to professional models with cinema-quality lenses. Before you shop for a new camcorder, make sure you have in mind what types of events you will be recording, and purchase a model that matches your individual needs.
Zoom – Every camcorder comes with a zoom lens that lets you get closer to your subject. Each camcorder has some sort of zoom lens, camcorder manufacturers don't always distinguish clearly between digital and optical zoom. Most modern camcorders have at least a 10X optical zoom, which should be more than adequate for general usage. A digital zoom crops and magnifies your footage after the optical zoom is fully extended. This method leads to grainy, pixelated, and generally unpleasant-looking images. In a nutshell, the more optical zoom, the better.
Resolution – Like televisions, digital camcorders are available in standard definition and high definition (HD). Standard definition models will cost less than high definition on average. They'll deliver video quality suitable for viewing on a computer or non-HDTV. HD camcorders will produce wide-screen video suitable for viewing on an HDTV.
Image Sensor – There are two main types of camcorder image sensors: CCD (charge coupled device) and CMOS (complementary metal oxide semiconductor). Both types of image sensor technology contain hundreds of thousands or even millions of pixels. Commonly, a camcorder with a CMOS sensor will offer better battery life than one with a CCD. The number of pixels on an image sensor is not the only factor influencing the quality of the video captured. The physical size of the sensor matters as well. Larger image sensors can capture more light than smaller ones, even if they have fewer pixels.
Image Stabilization – Unless you plan on doing all your shooting from a tripod mount, you will need a camcorder that features image stabilization; luckily, this feature is available on all but entry level camcorders. Each manufacturer has a different name for their image stabilization technology, but within each price point they all perform similarly.
Audio – Audio is an overlooked aspect of camcorder performance, and poor sound quality has ruined many recordings. If you plan on recording events in which the sound quality is just as important as the image quality, get a camcorder that has the audio performance to match your needs.
Storage Medium – Most camcorders store footage on flash memory devices, SD cards, and the like, which offers the greatest level of convenience for the casual user. Many of the most advanced models record on mini-cassettes, which are fine for professional applications, but require conversion to put footage onto DVDs or flash media. A flash memory based camcorder will be lighter in weight and smaller in size than a hard drive-based camcorder, but won't offer as much internal storage.
Battery – Battery life is an important consideration: the amount of recording and playback time you'll get out of a battery varies, but most camcorders are able to record for at least an hour with the included battery. If you plan on recording long events (sports events, concerts, etc.), make sure you get a model with sufficient battery life, or order an additional battery. Keep in mind that repeatedly reviewing the footage you just shot will drain your camcorder's juice quickly.
Accessories – There are many accessories available to help improve the performance of most camcorders, particularly among the more advanced models. Additional lenses allow for better picture quality and additional zoom, tripods and mounts allow you to film the action smoothly, and microphone upgrades can improve the audio. There are even waterproof kits that let you take your camcorder underwater. Many compact models assemble some connectors on a dock, so if you plan to connect to a friend's TV or want to offload video while traveling, make sure the connectors you need are on the camcorder and won't be left at home.
Panasonic and Sony have long been famous for the quality of their camcorders, and both brands offer models at a range of different performance levels and prices. JVC is famous for high-end models with a full range of add-ons and accessories, while Canon has gone one step further – although expensive, their best models recoup the investment by being appropriate for professional film and television use. Flip Video specializes in entry-level camcorders for those on a budget and casual users.