Advice on camcorder purchase

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.


Richard wrote on July 31st, 2007 at 5:59 AM PST:

My Advice: if you are cheap and want at least acceptable quality, get a used camcorder. :-)

And concerning future formats, while I do agree that it’s propably better to wait a little until the technology matures, I do think that the times where there is “The One True Format” are over, everyone is doing different stuff, and no matter what you chose, you will be incompatible with someting else. Choose a workflow that works for you, and stick with it.


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Eugenia wrote on July 31st, 2007 at 8:55 AM PST:

This is not true actually. Regarding camcorders, we do go towards h.264 cards, not DV. That new format is here to stay, for at least 10 years.

As for used camcorders, I personally wouldn’t buy a used one when you can get a new one for $230, but that’s just me.

Renan wrote on July 31st, 2007 at 9:09 AM PST:

What about hard drive based camcorders. I hear you with regards to the high definition camcorders, I came up with the same conclusion doing my research. However, the transition to hard drive based storage looks very convenient to me. Would you advise trading in my trusty Sony TRV19 for a standard definition, hard drive based camcorder or are there also format issues with these (particularly editing)?

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Eugenia wrote on July 31st, 2007 at 9:31 AM PST:

I would not go for hard drive-based or DVD-burning camcorders. The new generation will be using either SD or CF cards. They are easily exchangeable, easy to replace. If your hard-drive dies and you are out of warranty, this kills the product. Hard drive camcorders don’t have a long life IMO.

Luis wrote on August 1st, 2007 at 9:58 AM PST:

So camcorders are going the way of h264??? I don’t know much about this in general, but as I see it it’s a big mistake. Codecs with high compression like h264 have 2 advantages:

1 – They save storage space. While an advantage, a small one since storage space is very cheap compared to everything else.

2 – They save bandwidth. This is the real advantage, since bandwidth is expensive. But I’m talking about internet bandwidth, and that doesn’t come into play when we talk about camcorders.

On the other hand, it has important disadvantages:

1 – It’s a lossy format (and on your own tests, a bad quality one). Why would you want HDV encoded into a lossy, poor quality format???

2 – It’s very expensive to encode/decode. And CPU cycles are rather expensive. A camcorder that encodes h264 in real time will need a powerful chip and it will use a lot of energy (energy might be cheap for a PC, but very expensive for a portable device).

3 – It’s a pain for video editing. And isn’t this the whole point of having a camcorder? Why choose the worst possible format for editing?

Unless I’m missing something, it sounds like a bad idea to me. They should come up with something better. Trading storage space for quality and ease of use (for editing especially) is worth IMHO.

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Eugenia wrote on August 1st, 2007 at 10:05 AM PST:

Luis, mpeg2 which is used in DV/HDV, is also lossy. As long as you give h.264 about 15mbps, it should be able to reproduce the quality of HDV mpeg2, which is at 25mbps. However, so far no h.264 camcorder came close in quality to HDV, but this is still under development. As I said, give it 2-3 more years and encoders will be optimized to produce better quality.

Regarding encode/decode, again, remember what I wrote. This is a format that will rule in 3 years from now, not today. By then, CPUs will be faster. It was really slow when DV camcorders came to the market for example, but computers became faster and now editing DV is a piece of cake. As for the camcorders themselves, they have no trouble encoding h.264 as long as they have hardware support. Battery life is unchanged.

As for video editing, you are right. It is NOT the right format to do editing. But, because the lack of DV tapes adds in the user convenience and lower camcorder prices, it will force NLEs to find ways to work with it better. Engineers will have to find ways to “understand” h.264 better and add better editing support for it. It’s going to be a bitch, but eventually it will happen.

BTW, Canon announced *just a few hours ago* a new camcorder, and it’s AVCHD, not HDV. I am telling you, this is where the market is going.

Jerry Jones wrote on August 1st, 2007 at 11:50 AM PST:

1. You are correct; AVCHD is where the consumer market is going.

2. AVCHD and HDV are both so-called “long GOP (Group of pictures)” formats so they are both difficult to edit unless you transcode them to an I-frame format such as Cineform .avi files using Cineform’s “Neo HDV” product.

3. AVCHD — transcoded to Cineform .avi format as an intermediate — is not any more difficult to edit than HDV. AVCHD is only more difficult it you are attempting to edit it “as is” (natively) in a given non-linear video editor timeline. If you want to edit AVCHD natively, you’ll need the fastest computer available.

4. Cineform’s “Neo HDV” product converts both HDV and AVCHD to Cineform’s .avi format, but for the AVCHD conversion to work, you must install an AVCHD decoder that works in Microsoft Windows Media Player. I did some experiments and I found an inexpensive CyberLink decoder called “HD264″ that you can buy for less than $40 U.S. and it is designed to put the AVCHD decoder into Windows Media Player. It works on my system; it allows “Neo HDV” from Cineform to do the AVCHD-to-Cineform .avi transcodes using Cineform’s included “HDLink” software utility. It is my observation that the Cineform codec transcodes do preserve quality far better than I would have guessed had I not tried the product.

5. I have both Pinnacle Studio Ultimate 11 and Corel (formerly Ulead) VideoStudio 11 Plus and Corel (formerly Ulead) MediaStudio Pro 8. The Pinnacle Studio Ultimate 11 does *not* support the Cineform .avi files at this time (bad news). However, both Corel programs *do* support the Cineform .avi files. I can edit the AVCHD material now as easily as DV .avi files on a Gateway laptop with just a 2.4Ghz Athlon 64 processor. Scrubbing is easy; previewing is a breeze. I suspect the Cineform .avi files might also work in the Magix Movie Edit Pro 12 software, but I haven’t tested that one, yet.

6. “AVC-Intra” is Panasonic’s I-frame, “pro” H.264 format. We might see this appear in prosumer camcorders soon. It is not a “long GOP” format. So it should be quite easy to edit and the image quality should be tops. However, it consumes more storage space.


Jerry Jones

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