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Most smartphones, tablets, and digital cameras can record video, but if you want to capture fantastic video memories or create more professional footage, you need a camcorder. Camcorders provide sharper images and better sound, and they can film for much longer than devices that offer video capture as a secondary feature.
Camcorder prices range widely. Different models offer many different features – some that are indispensable and some that are almost gimmicks. How do you choose a camcorder that does everything you need but won't blow out your budget with unnecessary additions?
BestReviews is here to help you make the best buying decision!
We never accept sample products from manufacturers. We research the top models, then purchase our top choices at the same stores you shop. This consumer-oriented approach keeps our research, analysis, and reviews fair and unbiased.
The BestReviews analysis team defines standards specific to the product, then designs tests to rate competing models. We put each camcorder through its paces in both the lab and the field. We also look at owner feedback and talk with trade professionals. Finally, we put the results into the guide you’re reading today.
With such a broad range of prices and features, it’s important to identify the best class of camcorder for your needs. A cheap camcorder might provide decent results, but as your skills develop, you might find it lacks quality or features you want. On the other hand, it’s possible to spend a lot of money on functions you never use. Consider these camcorder classes to help target the best fit.
Models in the budget price range offer great flexibility for the least money. They’re perfect for sharing your footage on YouTube, Facebook, or your home TV. If your primary usage is family vacations, birthday parties, and capturing day-to-day digital memories, a budget camcorder is likely a great fit.
Product in Depth
Product in Depth
GoPro designs cameras to be as simple as possible. A “one button” mode allows you to simultaneously power up the device and begin capturing video. The ProTune option automatically adjusts and enhances complicated settings to optimize the picture. A slight issue often mentioned by consumers is the camera's inability to shoot in low light.
From skydiving to scuba diving, camcorders in this class can go with you virtually anywhere. Their rugged construction protects from damage during rough use, and they boast a variety of devices for mounting on helmets, bicycles, cars, and even surfboards and skateboards. Their portability and protective construction often result in a restricted feature set. Want to film your skydiving team from the air or capture a rock-climbing experience from a first person perspective? This category is for you.
Devices in this category straddle the line between professional- and consumer-grade equipment. They capture footage at high enough quality for broadcasting or professional filmmaking and usually offer superior audio. The significant quality increase is reflected in the higher price. If you’re launching a career as an independent filmmaker, look to the prosumer category.
Identifying the best category for your needs is a great place to start. Next, examine the features offered by individual camcorder models. These can be divided into three categories: operational features concerning the image quality and sound, physical characteristics, and price.
A prosumer camcorder can capture footage for broadcasting or professional filmmaking. The audio in these cameras is also designed to be better than average.
The image sensor is an extremely important component – it converts the scene you see through the viewfinder into a digital signal for recording. There are two types of image sensor: CCD (charge coupled device) and CMOS (complementary metal oxide semiconductor). Neither provides clearly higher quality than the other, so the choice of CCD or CMOS makes no real difference to the buyer.
The sensor's physical size does matter. A larger sensor captures more light variation; therefore, the larger sensor takes more detailed pictures. While the sensor itself isn’t huge – 1/3" in a good smartphone and 1/2” for a good camcorder – a slight difference in sensor size creates a significant difference in image quality.
Most camcorders can output video in the MP4 file format, which can be played on virtually any device.
Standard resolution of 720 x 480 pixels has now more or less disappeared. Each of BestReview’s recommended models captures at least HD (High Definition) video. Full HD is 1920 x 1080 pixels – also called 1080p. Check that label carefully. Some camcorders shoot 1080i definition. Though the numbers are the same, the “i” stands for “interlaced.” In a nutshell, the 1080i video is created by duplicating a 540-pixel image, hence the term “interlaced.” A 1080p, or “progressive” camcorder, truly captures 1080 pixels. Go with 1080p and you’ll get higher-quality images.
The best camcorders use 4K resolution: 3840 x 2160 pixels. This is also called 2160p. Video captured at 4K produces twice as many pixels per inch as HD. That makes for superb results, but there is a caveat. The output quality is limited by the screen upon which your video is displayed. If you use a standard computer monitor or an HD TV, all those extra 4K pixels make no difference at all.
AVCHD is a file format developed by Sony and Panasonic. It records professional-quality video that can be copied straight to DVD or Blu-Ray. Unless you’re a pro, you probably won’t use it – AVCHD video can’t be uploaded directly to social websites or played on phones or PCs without conversion.
Like any other video capture device, camcorders actually take a very rapid series of still images. The capture and playback speed gives the impression of motion. Good camcorders have a FPS rate of 30 or greater. Video captured at less than 30 FPS can appear jerky.
Rates of up to 120 FPS are available, but some owners report that people don't like video shot at 60 FPS and above. Viewers often feel that video at these higher FPS has an unreal, or “video game,” quality. Research suggests that because audiences are accustomed to seeing the slight blurring effect of 30 FPS video, fast frame rates show detail we usually miss.
If your camcorder needs are modest — perhaps you want to capture dance recital video or a school play — you could be happy with a budget-priced model.
Zoom allows the videographer to capture images from a distance. If you're a few feet away from someone at a party, you don't need much zoom to capture close-ups. If you're on the sidelines at the kids’ soccer game or in the back of a concert hall, a middle-range zoom allows you to get good footage of the action. When you're in the mountains filming wolves or bears, the more zoom the better – you probably want to be as far away as possible!
Not all zoom is the same. The lens system provides optical zoom. The camcorder’s software provides digital zoom. Though the digital zoom number can look more impressive than the optical zoom, digital zoom causes distortion. The more zoom digitally, the more your image degrades. Generally, a little optical zoom is better than a lot of digital zoom.
While an amateur videographer with minimal filming needs could probably be satisfied with a camcorder that costs $150 or less, a serious videographer with professional ambitions may need to spend $3,000 or more on a high-quality camcorder.
Hand-shake is a common problem with camcorders, and it’s exaggerated when you use zoom. Even tiny movements can spoil your video. Auto stabilization makes a big difference, particularly with action shots.
Product in Depth
Product in Depth
Sony FDRAX33 Handycam Camcorder
Sony wants to make you a pro. The Handycam is specifically designed to make anyone look like a true videographer. No prior knowledge of cameras is required. The beauty of this machine is that you can simply point and shoot to produce stunning images. The Sony also offers several versatile shooting formats for those who would rather not worry about manual configuration.
Whether it’s bad weather, dim indoor lighting, or simply a late evening shoot, you might find opportunities to take video in low-light situations. The low light compensation feature of a good camcorder helps capture high-quality footage despite these conditions.
Image stabilizing technology can be very helpful, but for the clearest video recording, use a tripod where possible.
Even low-cost camcorders can provide reasonable sound quality. When filming a kid's party or a family vacation, you might not think twice about the audio capture. Some camcorders offer significantly more advanced sound control, however, for times when the audio quality is crucial.
Recording technology comes in many forms, from single-channel to stereo to multi-channel. Some camcorders support multi-microphone or surround-sound systems, and some can be set to cut out certain sounds while focusing on others. If audio capture is important, investigate these capabilities in greater detail.
If you’re into skydiving, scuba diving, fast bike riding, or another action-packed activity, consider an action camcorder. These rugged cameras are built to withstand some fast-paced activities.
Camcorders are designed to be relatively light and portable, but the ideal weight can differ greatly depending on the type of shooting activity. A weight between 1.5 and 2 pounds wouldn't normally be problematic, but you wouldn't want it strapped to your helmet when racing down a mountain on a bike or skis. For that reason, action cams tend to be much lighter, as little as a few ounces.
A consumer with minimal to modest camcorder needs can expect to spend $100 to $150 for a budget camcorder.
Professional/prosumer camcorders offer a multitude of manual options, allowing the user to fine-tune capture. On some, you can assign frequently used functions to a dial for fast, easy access.
However, you might just want to press the Record button and leave decision-making to the machine. Automatic adjustment is particularly useful on action cams when your hands are often busy with other things. Some models even have voice activation for certain features.
Some of the market’s newest action camcorders are water- and freeze-proof.
Camcorders offer both viewfinders and LCD screens for framing your video. Two- and three-inch screens are common (measured diagonally). Some are touch-sensitive, allowing control of the camera features from the screen itself. Action cams usually don't have a viewfinder, and some don't have a screen at all.
Battery life is one of the most common complaints about camcorders, and it can vary enormously. There's one simple rule to avoid the frustration of your camcorder quitting at precisely the wrong moment: always carry spare batteries.
Each BestReviews selection is a well-made piece of equipment, but not all of them are made to withstand rough handling, significant impact, or underwater use. Action cams are a different category. They're tougher, and some are even waterproof. But they're still not designed for serious impact. Protective cases can be purchased for many of them.
Time lapse video allows a videographer to portray scenes as happening faster in time than they really do. A classic example of a time lapse video is a film of a flower quickly progressing from seedling to bloom.
Videos captured with high resolution and fast frame rates create large files. Camcorders store video on internal flash memory, SD or mini SD cards, or both. Check internal memory specifications carefully; some high-spec machines come with surprisingly little on-board memory. You might need to factor in an extra price for additional memory cards.
If the camcorder you purchase doesn’t have enough onboard memory for your needs, you may have to buy an additional memory card.
Top camcorders offer you a variety of ways to transfer your videos to your laptop or other devices. HDMI output is common, allowing you to connect the camcorder directly to a TV or computer monitor. Most models, especially action cams, also offer USB outputs – these are used for transferring files to a computer hard drive.
Some camcorders now include WiFi or FTP, facilitating quick uploads to social media sites. They can also transfer files to smartphones and tablets without a cable connection. Real-time broadcasting is even a possibility, although additional software may be required.
Some camcorders can be linked to smartphones or tablets using NFC (Near Field Communications) technology. Options and functionality vary; we've come across picture-in-picture recording and use of the phone as a remote control.
Product in Depth
Product in Depth
Panasonic HC-V770 Camcorder
The Panasonic HC-V770 HD camcorder is more expensive than many camcorders on the market. However, in terms of what you get per dollar, it simply can’t be beat. You can even record two angles at once by using your device as a second camera! This ingenious application produces a live feed from your camera a feature you can use to broadcast an event or watch over a sleeping baby.
At BestReviews, we usually advise against buying cheap – it's often synonymous with poor-quality manufacture or inadequate features.
Good, general-purpose camcorders can be found in the budget range of $100 to $150. Use this shopping guide and check carefully to ensure that the model you purchase will meet your needs, as features and functionality will be limited in this price range. These camcorders will satisfy many home users who film only occasionally.
Action cameras cost a bit more, and in this category we recommend avoiding the cheapest models. Because these camcorders don’t typically receive the careful handling of budget and prosumer devices, they must have solid construction and tough components. Expect to pay $200 to $400 for a suitable action camcorder.
If you expect to take your video-making to a higher level, you’ll find a wide range of choices in the prosumer category, starting around $500. It's possible to get a very good prosumer machine for less than $1000, but a serious videographer could easily spend three or four times that.
At BestReviews, we purchase every product we review with our own funds. We never accept anything from product manufacturers. Our goal is to be 100% objective in our analysis, and we do not want to run the risk of being swayed by products provided at no cost.