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So you want to buy a camcorder. (Assuming that's the reason you typed it into the search window.) There are so many models, so many formats, and so many choices. It’s important to get the most camera for the dollar.

Start with the basics – what kind of tape do I put in it? Do I want ot put a tape in it at all? There are several forms of media used to store video data. It has gotten to the point where you don’t even need tape anymore.

There are two methods of recording, analog or digital. An analog signal is what's on a standard VHS cassette, for example. Digital data is the kind of information a computer processes. The main advantage of digital is that once the signal is reduced to numbers, it can be manipulated in ways an analog signal can’t. A digital signal may be adjusted in the digital domain as computer data, so it could be filtered for clarity, compressed to maximize the amount of data that can be placed on any given blank media, or to adjusted for better color, sound, and picture.

All camcorders are essentially digital cameras, as the image-capture device in almost every camcorder made today is a silicon chip covered in phototransistors, each representing a pixel of picture data. This data comes off of the chip in digital form, and is then processed for filtering, electronic zoom, image stabilization, and such, with the level and type of processing depending upon the camera model.

In digital camcorders, the signal is processed, and then recorded on DV tape, Mini DV tape, Mini Disc, Flash-RAM solid-state memory chip, Memory Stick, and Digital8 tape, among others. In analog camcorders the data is processed in a similar fashion, then converted to analog to record in VHS-C, S-VHS, Video-8, and Hi-8 tape.

The format you choose also helps determine what price category you will be shopping in. Most analog camcorders cost less than their digital counterparts, partly because conventional camcorder technology is mature, and digital technology is still developing. Another reason is that since a digital camera has much more potential for added functionality, they tend to be more feature-laden, thus more expensive, than analog models.

Once you have decided on the format, the next thing to consider is the camera’s size. This is no trivial matter. Some camcorders are so small that they would fit in your pocket, but may be too small to operate well by novices (or people with big fingers), while others may be large enough to handle conveniently, but too large to travel everywhere with you. The best thing to do is to go to a store and pick up a few models. That way you can determine for yourself what you want to do.

Zooma zoom zoom
Since the purpose of a camera is to take pictures, the lens is very important. Most camcorders offer a zoom lens of some kind, with the amount of magnification varying depending upon the model. Size does not always relate to lens power, either. A large simple lens may have less zoom ability than a small advanced one. Zoom ability is measured in how many times the image can be magnified, so a camera with a 3x zoom is less able to get in close than a camera with a 5x zoom. Don’t forget that the amount of zoom the camera is capable of is not always an indication of quality. Also remember that the closer you zoom in, the tighter your field of view becomes. In othere words, the closer the zoom, the less image is visible.

Many camcorders also incorporate “digital zoom”. Since the image captured is just so much data, it is easy to zoom in on a specific area of the image and enlarge it electronically. With a digital camcorder, this zooming can also be done with your computer once you have downloaded it, but it is much easier if it is a feature of the camera itself.

Making a connection
Almost all camcorders will play back on a TV. The better models have a cable for S-VHS, as well. S-VHS records the chroma and luminance information about the picture separately, and keeps them separate to increase signal clarity until they reach the TV, which then processes them. This especially is an advantage with high-end TV sets, as their picture processing circuitry in some cases will be better than the electronics in the camera.

Digital camcorders need a way to transfer data to a PC. In order of data transfer speed, there is infrared transfer, USB cable, and IEEE 1394, also known as i-link, or Firewire, . You can also use the digital memory card (if provided) in camcorders that have digital snapshot ability to transfer your still pictures directly. That can be done either through an adaptor that lets you insert the memory in the PCMCIA slot on a laptop, or the floppy disk drive (if there is one) on your laptop, or even in a designated port, such as the one on Sony laptops for the Memory Stick.

Power – enough said
There is no such thing as too much power, especially for a high-use portable device like a camcorder. All camcorders have rechargeable batteries, but there are differences between the various types. Nickel Cadmium (NiCd) batteries are inexpensive, but suffer from a phenomenon known as “memory”. If you don’t drain the battery completely each time before you recharge it, the battery “remembers” the shorter use time. Nickel Metal Hydride (NiMH) batteries are relatively immune to that effect, as are Lithium-ion batteries. Lithium is a better choice, since they not only “forget”, they are lighter then the other types and can be formed into custom shapes for better camera case design. They are the most expensive, though. But you get what you pay for.

Special features
There are always the special features to consider. Camcorders are available with features that used to only be in the realm of the professional. Today’s cameras do everything except follow you around hovering in the air. You may decide you don’t need any fancy features, but if you have them, they can make the job so much easier, not to mention fun.

A mini-monitor attached to the side of the camera lets you show people what you shot, and also let you aim the camera at arms’ length, by letting you use the screen as a huge viewfinder. Almost every camera has this, except some of the low-end analog models.

Stereo is good. Digital Stereo is better.

A Hot Shoe is what they call a clip on the top of a camera that lets it communicate with and/or power devices placed there, like a light, or a boom microphone, or a remote control module. A remote control helps when you use the camcorder as a playback machine, or when you are shooting remote from a tripod, for example.

Anti-shake technology interprets the camera's movements and reduces or eliminates the resulting shake in the picture. Some systems rely on software only, analyzing the image to control shake. Others use actual motion sensors inside the camera to “feel” how you are shaking, and compensate for it. These systems tend to produce the better image.

Night vision or zero-Lux operation allows a camera to operate in almost complete darkness. Some cameras can also “see” infrared, long-wave energy we cannot normally see. This is a completely different feature than low-lux operation, by the way. A line of Sony cameras with that feature could actually see a person's body through their clothes. they are now in high demand on Ebay, since Sony changed the design once this "flaw" was exposed.

Digital picture taking means the camcorder can also function as a digital camera. This way, you can take digital stills for email, a website, or other applications including just printing it out to hang on a wall. Camcorders with this ability will usually have a slot for a standard digital memory card for picture storage.

Digital signal processing lets you work on photo quality and other picture and sound attributes in the camera. This ensures that the videos you take are as good as possible at all times, not only if you have a video studio at home.

Video editing is also for those who don’t have a studio at home, yet would like to make video movies with titles, wipes, fades, and such. You can even edit on the fly and show everyone a professional-looking video of an event almost as soon as it occurs.

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