Whether you're a first-time buyer or in the market for a newer model, here's what to look for while you're shopping. First off, forget about the analog camcorders. Sure, they're temptingly cheap, with prices starting around $200. But they're big and bulky, and your home movies will have the slightly fuzzy, smeary look of a rental video.
Video from a digital camcorder is twice as good: The images will be almost as sharp as those in a DVD movie. And editing analog VHS-C and Hi8 tapes is so tedious that most people don't take the trouble. You have to do it on a VCR or buy a special converter box or video card to get your movies into your computer. Either way, you sacrifice even more picture and sound quality in the process.
Digital camcorders start at around $450 and can run up to $2,000 or more for some consumer models. It's a good idea to do some homework before you head off to the mall. Figure out what features are important to you, and how much you're willing to pay in order to get them. That makes it easier to zero in on your best options among the overwhelming number of models you'll find in the store.DISPLAY
All digital camcorders now come equipped with an LCD screen that ranges in size from 2 inches to 3.5 inches, measured diagonally. It makes setting up shots and viewing your results easier. Expect to pay about $50 for each additional half-inch in screen size. With the smallest camcorders, you won't have a choice: A bigger screen just won't fit the chassis. Canon's $900 Elura 40MC, for instance, only comes in a 2-in. version. No matter what the display's size, make sure you look at the screen in bright sunlight to check that the picture doesn't fade.SIZE AND WEIGHT
Ultracompact camcorders cost about $100 more than the same maker's conventional ones with the same or similar features. They're lighter, so your arm won't give out in the middle of a shoot. At just over 1 lb., Panasonic's PV-DC252, a $700 midrange choice, is a quarter-pound lighter and 2.5 in. shorter than its $600 PV-DC202, for example.BATTERY LIFE
The standard-issue camcorder battery will give you only a couple of hours before it needs a charge. Go ahead and spend an extra $50 to $125 for a long-life spare that will go up to 8 or 10 hours. You'll be glad you did.SNAPSHOT CAPABILITY
Step-up models, for about $100 more, have a removable memory card and, sometimes, a built-in flash for taking still pictures. Look for a USB port to transfer the snapshots to your computer. Don't expect high-quality photos. Even the so-called megapixel camcorders don't produce images as sharp as a digital still camera. If you don't intend to use the camcorder for snapshots, don't pay extra for a 1- or 2-million pixel sensor: It won't noticeably improve the quality of images recorded in the video mode.A FEW OTHER HINTS
A microphone on the front of the camcorder generally produces better sound than one that is situated on the top. For the best audio quality, shell out an extra $50 to $100 for an external microphone--and make sure that the camera you buy has a place to plug it in.
Ignore all the hype about the incredible zoom capability of some camcorders--claims ranging as high as 700X zoom. Most of the magnification is the result of a digital technique that blows up the center of the picture with increasingly grainy results. Optical zoom is what counts when you want a close-up, and camcorder lenses are generally 10X zoom or 18X on Canon models.
Most digital camcorders that you'll find use a tape format called MiniDV. It's the smaller tape size that makes the digital models smaller than their analog counterparts. There are two other choices, Digital8 and MicroMV, but only Sony makes them.
Sony's Digital8 camcorders, from $500 to $900, let you record digital signals on the bigger, older, and cheaper 8mm and Hi8 analog tapes. The only reason to buy a Digital8 camcorder, however, is if you already have a library of analog 8mm or Hi8 tapes. It will play them and even convert them to digital should you want to store or edit them on your computer. (If your Hi8 camcorder still works, you can hook it up with cables to any digital camcorder with the same result.) The risk, many experts say, is that Digital8 will become an orphan format that will leave you with an even bigger library of obsolete tapes the next time you're in the market for a new camcorder.
Sony's MicroMV camcorders, starting at $1,200, are the smallest on the market. The tapes are the size of a matchbox, about a third the size of MiniDV tapes. The tape cassette also has a tiny memory chip that stores a thumbnail photo of each new video segment that you record. That makes it easier to go back and search for specific scenes when you're showing the tape to your friends. The problem with the MicroMV camcorders, though, is that they're so small that they can be hard to use, especially if you have large hands. The latest model, the $1,500 DCR-IP55, even has a foldaway pistol grip reminiscent of 8mm film cameras to make it easier to hold.
Once you get your camera back home and start shooting, don't just stack all of the tapes on a dusty shelf, waiting for a captive audience over the next important holiday. These days, editing digital videos in your computer isn't the hassle that it used to be. Compile the highlights of your birthday party or vacation into an easy-to-watch music video that you can burn onto a CD or DVD or zip off to the grandparents in an e-mail. That way, no one has to sit through your 10-hour day at Disneyland. But they'll love seeing those few precious moments. By Larry Armstrong