For almost eight years, there wasn't much going on in camcorder technology—if you wanted something small and good, MiniDV was your only real option. Now we have an embarrassment of riches: New formats that promise greater portability, better ease of use and improved picture quality have sprouted up. Which one should you buy? First, define your needs and ambitions, then look at features and, of course, price.
1. The Best of the Basics
Price: Starts at $399
MiniDV's been around, but that doesn't mean it's old. Higher resolution sensors, integrated still camera features and onboard editing are just a few goodies you'll find on its wide range of models. Sharp's ultra-compact VL-Z7U ($900) even has a swiveling body for easy overhead shots.
2. Mini Quality in a Micro Package
Price: Starts at $1,199
Resolution on the MicroMV is as good as what you'd get on those gargantuan (read: palm-size) MiniDV cassettes, although recording time drops from 180 minutes to 60. Cassette supplies are sometimes scarce: Sony is the only manufacturer making MicroMV camcorders (such as this DCR-IP55, $1,499) so pack a lot of backup tapes when you travel.
3. Film-Free Design Equals Ultra-Small, But ...
Hard disk camcorder
With no cassettes, no hinged doors, and fewer moving parts that can break, the hard disk camcorder will be a good choice if you need something for light duty that is also spy-camera small. One catch: The first of these, Samsung's ITCAM-7, won't be available until September.
4. Spielberg Quality, for Spielberg Money
At this price, this is less for Busch Gardens than for a serious amateur filmmaker. The world's first consumer HD camcorder, JVC's Digital Hi-Def Camcorder GR-HD1, records images in striking, almost 3-D detail. Fortunately, it uses standard MiniDV tapes and can record in different modes so that you can show your footage on both HD and standard televisions.
5. Simplicity Defined: Direct to DVD
Price: Starts at $899
Nothing's easier than this. Take a 3-inch recordable/rewriteable DVD, put it in your new DVD camcorder and go to work. Playback? Take said disk and pop it into your DVD player. Done. Panasonic's VDR-M30 ($899) is one of the first cameras of this format in a truly portable size.
Five amazing, clean technologies that will set us free, in this month's energy-focused issue. Also: how to build a better bomb detector, the robotic toys that are raising your children, a human catapult, the world's smallest arcade, and much more.