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Digital camcorders—short for video camera recorders—are devices with a video camera and a video recorder combined into one unit. They do a great job of capturing special moments featuring friends, family, and loved ones in a way no still image camera can. Camcorders are a popular “must-have” gadget for the family, thanks to dropping prices and home computers that have grown powerful enough to edit videos.
Camcorders designed for the average consumer are very compact and can be operated with one hand, and it's easy to copy recorded videos to a computer for editing own home videos, presentations or school projects. While many cell phones and digital cameras also record videos, in most cases camcorders have better lens and feature more storage space for videos.
Here are some features to keep in mind when shopping around for a camcorder:
A key consideration when picking a camcorder is the resolution of the videos it produces. In general, higher resolutions allow for better quality videos. But higher-resolution videos take up more space on the camcorder, and require more powerful computers for even basic editing.
A popular video resolution is “Full HD”, which means each “Full High Definition” frame in the video is 1920 x 1080 px (1920 pixels wide and 1080 pixels tall). Other common resolutions include HD (1280 x 720 px) and SD—“Standard Definition” or 768 x 576. Some camcorders can even record videos at higher resolutions, such as 3840 x 2160 (4K), but they are for professional use and costs thousands of dollars.
For many consumers, Full HD camcorders strike a good balance between detail, video quality, and storage requirements. They also record movies that won't take too long to edit on a reasonably-priced computer. Yet the Full HD label doesn't necessarily mean high quality, as discussed in the following sections.
All digital camcorders use a sensor to convert the light captured by the lens into a digital signal, which is then saved as a digital video file. Think of the sensor as the camcorder's retina, which converts visuals into information the gadget's “brain” can understand and store. Two major types of image sensors found in camcorders are the CCD (charge coupled device) and CMOS (complimentary metal oxide semiconductor).
CMOS sensors consume less power than CCD equivalents, meaning camcorders equipped with the first type usually last longer on battery power. On the other hand, CCD sensors have long been considered superior in terms of the quality of videos recorded.
However, some CCD-based camcorders have longer battery lives than CMOS counterparts. And many CMOS sensors feature quality that rival CCD alternatives. Do not automatically assume one type is better than the other, if selecting a camcorder for battery longetivity or recording quality.
When listing specs of their camcorders, manufacturers sometimes quote two resolution figures for the sensor: the effective and gross pixel counts. The effective count represents the number of pixels on the final recorded video, while gross indicates the number of actual pixels that can be captured by the image sensor.
Some camcorders produce videos and images that are of a higher resolution than what the sensor can record. For example, a gadget advertised as a Full HD video recorder (1920 x 1080 = 2073600 pixels) actually uses an SD sensor to capture images (1280 x 720 = 921600 pixels). Where do all of those extra pixels come from?
Many camcorders “cheat” by blowing up the original images to match the claimed video resolution. Through a process known as interpolation, the original pixels are spaced apart and extra pixels are filled in between, based on the color of the originals.
Interpolated images suffer from lower quality, and take up unnecessary space on the camcorder as well. The added pixels also do not reflect the actual image recorded. Thus, it's best to concentrate on the gross count, because it's an accurate indicator of just how much detail the image sensor can capture.
Professional cameras are usually mounted on stable platforms or a cameraman's shoulder, to reduce shakiness. Such stability is impossible for handheld camcorders, so many of them have an image stabilizer built in to account for the natural movements of the human hand.
Most camcorders feature optical or digital image stabilization, or a combination of the two. Optical image stabilizers use gyroscopes to counteract slight motions by quickly shifting pieces of the lens assembly. Digital stabilizers take the frames recorded by the sensor and align them as they are combined into a movie.
In general optical stabilization is better, because the digital method discards parts of the captured images to keep the recording stable.
Older camcorders saved videos on tapes, but as technology improved manufacturers switched to mini DVDs and eventually settled on hard drives, memory cards, and built-in flash memory. Practically all camcorders store their movies on the latter two, with the first option usually available on higher-end (and thus more expensive) recorders.
Memory cards and flash memory last longer because they have no moving parts, prolong battery life by consuming less power, and allow for more compact camcorders through a smaller size. Hard drives on the other hand usually have higher storage capacities, meaning they can accommodate longer and higher-resolution videos. For non-professional use however, memory cards are usually enough, especially when videos are usually transferred to a computer for editing and sharing anyway.
Like image stabilizers, camcorder zoom is of the optical or digital kind, and some recorders feature both. Optical zoom magnifies faraway objects by adjusting the lens assembly, much like how a magnifying glass enlarges things based on how far away it is from the eye.
Digital zoom on the other hand does the same by taking the recorded image, and enlarges it by adding extra pixels in between the original ones (see interpolation under Sensor Resolution) to give the illusion of a closer, more detailed recording.
Again, optical is better: videos captured with digital zoom suffer from lower quality. Worse, to achieve the effect, digital zoom ignores part of the original image.
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