As you might have noticed, my main hobby is videographing lately. Having researched the market, I think I can offer some useful advice regarding where the camcorder market is going and hopefully save you a few bucks.
The idea is this: if you already have an old camcorder, hold on to it. If you just want “a” camcorder, get the lowest-end DV Canon one, which is usually selling at around $230. If you want to buy an HD camcorder wait 2-3 more years. The reason I am suggesting this is because the HD camcorder landscape is going to rapidly change in the next few years and so it’s wise to wait for this change to happen and then buy. We are currently living in a transitional stage.
The “tape”-based DV/HDV camcorders are going the way of the dodo. That much is a fact, no matter what the fanboys will tell you. The new standard is AVCHD and all major companies are going for it (including Canon which is keeping mum so far about it). It is a more convenient format for the user, as only SD or CF cards are needed instead of big, boring, last-century tapes. Additionally, because AVCHD uses USB 2.0, it will be the final strike against Firewire (main reason why Macs always come with firewire is video support).
AVCHD does not yet produce the same quality video as MPEG-2 does for HDV camcorders, but eventually h.264 encoders will be perfected. However, it’s more difficult for NLEs to have support for h.264 editing rather than MPEG-2 with large GOPs. So far, only few NLEs have mastered AVCHD, while most either crash sooner or later with it, or they only support h.264 flavors from specific brands. Maturity will come there too, just not yet though as h.264 is a bitch to decode properly, let alone edit it. You will also need a very beefy PC and 4 GB RAM to work with full progressive HD — specifications that are top of the line today but will be common ground in a few years. Finally, the future AVCHD camcorders will record in full HD 1920×1080 progressive format, while the current HDV standard is limited to 1440×1080-anamorphic and interlaced. In fact, they already started doing so, check this Panasonic model that was announced today.
So, to get an HD camcorder, make sure it’s in the format that will rule in the future and also make sure that you will get it in a time that the market is ready for it. Currently, the market does not even support fully HDV, let alone AVCHD. But the right time will come, just be patient and hold off any purchases regarding HD. Of course, this kind of advice is for people who buy 1 camcorder every 7-10 years. If you are a prosumer who changes gear every 2-3 years, this advice won’t matter much.
A detailed comparison between AVCHD and HDV can be found here.