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Video : Clearing Up the Picture: How to Choose a Camcorder

May 13, 1990|Dennis Hunt | Times Staff Writer

Buying your first camcorder can be an intimidating experience. When you walk intoa store, one look at the formidable array of formats, shapes, prices andfeatures can generate total confusion.

But with a little basic knowledge, the decision may not be so puzzling forbuying a portable video camera.

The three formats, all based on cassette size, are full-sized VHS, 8mm andVHS-C. The full-sized VHS machines use a standard VHS cassette, while the othersemploy compact-sized tapes. The VHS-C format is a mini version of the standardVHS. With an adapter, the VHS-C cassette can be played on any VHS deck.

Though you'll hear all sorts of market-share estimates, full-sized VHS clearlydominates the market, with about a two-thirds share. Commanding the bulk of theremaining third is 8mm, with VHS-C bringing up the rear.

Price, of course, is important. Camcorders aren't cheap and are still mainly forthose with a fair amount of disposable income. Each format can be bought in the$900 to $1,200 range, though you see more discounts for the full-sized VHS,sometimes for as low as $700. For the big spenders, juiced-up machines areavailable in the $1,900-$2,500 range.

The most important thing to remember when shopping for a camcorder is that alldeliver roughly the same quality picture, although ultra-expensive fancy models,such as full-sized VHS machines in the Super-VHS mode produce the sharpestpicture.

There are differences, then, are in size, sound quality and ease of playback.If size is important, note that the full-sized VHS machines weigh from 6 to 8pounds, roughly twice the size of the compacts. The VHS-C ranges from 3 to 4pounds while the 8mm machines range from 2 to 4 pounds.

One of the smallest and lightest camcorders, Sony's 8mm CCD-TR5, which sells inmany stores for about $1,200, is slightly more than 2 pounds, loaded withcassette and battery.

For those who use camcorders primarily for vacations and have to tote themaround for hours at a time, a light machine is obviously preferable. But forgeneral use--at home and for special events--don't worry about weight. Though thefull-sized VHS is heavier, it's still light enough for easy handling.

The reason the full-sized VHS is so popular is ease of playback. The samecassette you use to record can be popped in your standard VHS deck. Also, thebasic VHS tape gets two hours of recording time at fast speed. And it costs lessand is easier to find.

For playback convenience, the next easiest is the VHS-C cassette, which is alsousable in the standard VHS deck with an adapter. But at a fast speed, it getsjust 20 minutes of recording time.

With the 8mm camcorder, playback is the big drawback. If you owns an 8mm VCRdeck, there's no problem. But since most people don't own 8mm VCRs, playbackmeans hooking up the camcorder to the TV. On the positive side, the 8mm tapeallows for two hours of recording at the fastest speed.

In spite of its playback drawback, 8mm camcorders are rising in popularitybecause of the three formats, 8mm provides the best sound. But remember, becauseof the limited sensitivity of the built-in mikes, no camcorders produceexcellent sound.

In the steady-picture sweepstakes, the full-sized VHS is the winner. Forhand-held shooting, VHS is a lot steadier than the lighter machines. That meansless of a chance for shaky picturesQone of the biggest headaches suffered bycamcorder users.

One area that all camcorders are deficient is performance in low light. Themanufacturers all brag how well their machines record in dimly lit situations,but it's just hype. The measure of a camcorder's performance in low light is itslux rating. The lower the lux number, the better the machine supposedly performsin low light. But even with a low lux camcorder--say, seven lux--the picturerecorded in poor light is barely adequate.

NEXT WEEK: A look at a revolutionary new camcorder.

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