Thinking about taking some holiday photographs of the kids to send to send to Grandma in Des Moines? Then you're probably considering a camcorder, the most popular electronic product today.
"There's a great pent-up demand to take pictures of the kids," said Jack Wayman of the Electronic Industries Assn., a Washington-based nonprofit trade association of electronics manufacturers. "Yuppies and higher-tech people insist on taking those memory pictures. So there's a whole new climate for taking movies. Two years ago, there was one camcorder in a neighborhood. Now there are 20 in the block."
EIA statistics show that three years ago, one American family in 30 owned a camcorder; today, the number is one in 10.
This year, Wayman said, national camcorder sales set an electronics industry record: 1,965,361 sold in the first 40 weeks of 1990. And from Sept. 22 to 28, the video/audio devices hit an all-time industry figure for any week, selling 135,066.
Why? Because they're less expensive ($700 to $2,000) than they used to be, and are smaller and fully automatic. "They're idiot-proof. You cannot take a bad picture," Wayman said. Some are small enough to hold in your palm and weigh only 1 1/2 pounds--including the battery pack. And some models are made for either right- or left-handed people.
"The microchip has changed everything," said Wayman. "In the last five years, it has made all our electronic products small. Five years ago, you had an old thing on your hip, a big camera that weighed 15 pounds. Now, you can hold it in your hand.
"Camcorders have bottomed out in size and technology. You should have bought your VCR five years ago. You should buy your camcorder now. . . . Unless you're a videophile or video junkie, just get the basic, simplest one."
According to Irwin Buksbaum of Lee-Mac Camera Exchange Inc. in Pasadena, the small, lightweight 8-millimeter camcorders are gaining in popularity over the larger VHS models you hold on your shoulder.
"The little cassettes take better pictures than the big ones," said Buksbaum. "People find it hard to believe that. But, most people want something simple and lightweight, unless they're real videophiles."
(In contrast, 10 years ago, consumers had to lug a video camera and portable recorder, with a combined weight of 35 to 40 pounds and a price tag of about $4,500.)
So, in addition to determining the brand and complexity of the camcorder, consumers have to decide whether to purchase a VHS or the 8-mm. The trend is toward the 8-mm, which, experts say, has better picture resolution and loses little quality when copied. But some like the feeling of stability, actual or perceived, they get in the larger VHS camcorders.
But you should do some homework before you purchase your camcorder, said Mike Lahman, a camcorder specialist at Lee-Mac. "The videophiles want the ultimate in high tech, but I wouldn't recommend high tech to the normal consumer."
When you go shopping for a camcorder, investigate the following:
Camera format. There are three kinds: standard VHS, which uses the same big videocassette as your VCR so you can take it out of the camcorder and put it right into your video recorder; VHS-C, the same size tape as a VHS but in a smaller cartridge that you put into an adapter and play directly in the VCR, and 8-mm, a cassette tape that you must play through the camcorder into your television and make VHS copies on the VCR.
Standard VHS and 8-mm have a two-hour recording time; the VHS-C can record for only 20 minutes at standard speed.
"Generally speaking, the 8-mm will yield the best picture quality," Lahman said. "But camcorders of any format produce reasonably clear pictures."
* Sound quality. The VHS and VHS-C camcorders use a linear audio track that's usually mono and low-fi (a few of the higher-priced models are stereo). The 8-mm have a single audio-frequency modulation that produces an 8-mm hi-fi sound, which is considered far better than the VHS and VHS-C audio. Some more expensive 8-mms also are stereo.
But whatever kind of camcorder you select, be careful of what you say when using it, Lahman advised: "They're omni-directional, so they pick up sound in all directions."
* Reproduction quality. Experts say all camcorder recordings will lose some image quality when copied. However, most agree that the 8-mm has superior quality to begin with and loses about only 10% of image quality per copy. The VHS can lose up to 30%, and the VHS-C loses about 15% when it is put into the adapter, even before copying.
* Shutter speed. Many camcorders automatically set the shutter speed; 1/60 or 1/100 of a second are used for normal shooting. Some more expensive models offer 1/4000 or 1/10,000 of a second. "You'd need 1/10,000th of a second to capture a bullet going through a target or an arrow through a balloon," Lahman said.
* Lens aperture, or f-stops. The lower the f-stop, the better the low-light power. Most camcorders have a capability of f/1.6; more expensive models, f/1.2.