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Shooting with media in mind

Image: JVC Everio camcorder
JVC's Everio line of camcorders, like those from other manufacturers, has models that combine different media formats, including some with a hard drive as well as room for a memory card, and others that have solid-state memory drives with slots for additional memory cards. JVC

If you've been dabbling with video, perhaps using a Flip camcorder or shooting video with your smartphone, and want to move to a camcorder with more features and capabilities, there's plenty from which to choose. Before you do, it's a good idea to decide on which recording media is right for you.

Current digital camcorders use a variety of media — hard disk drives, built-in solid-state memory, removable flash memory cards, mini-DVDs to record video and even tape. Digital tape — the most popular being the MiniDV format — has been the norm for nearly 10 years, but is rapidly losing ground to flash memory.

"We forecast that 90 percent of camcorders within three years will be using flash memory, whether it's embedded in a camcorder as a drive, or via memory cards," said Christopher Chute, IDC's worldwide digital imaging practice research manager.

Michael Rubin, author of several books on filmmaking and technology including "The Little Digital Video Book," agrees flash memory is the future. But he is also an advocate of miniDV for serious enthusiasts, even though he realizes "it's going away, and it is going to get harder and harder this year to find a miniDV camcorder."

More on that in a moment. The "traditional" camcorder market — think advanced features such as rotating LCD screens and optical zooms of at least 15x — has been "flat for quite a number of years now," according to Ross Rubin, director of industry analysis for The NPD Group. And the advent of the pocket-sized and inexpensive Flip in 2007 had a dramatic effect. For less than $200, anyone could capture good-quality video easily and quickly.

A digital camcorder, often costing $1,000 or more, was no longer the province of the well-to-do or the technologically savvy. Manufacturers have paid attention. Prices have fallen — many models now start at $300, and the average selling price is $600, according to Chute.

While flash memory is the medium of the future, here's a look at some of the pros and cons of various camcorder storage media:

Hard disk drives: Camcorders with built-in hard disk drives are generally less expensive compared to those with flash memory. For example, in one recent ad, Sony showed its DCR-SR47 Handycam Camcorder with a 60-gigabyte hard drive for $399 next to its DCR-SX40 Flash Memory Handycam Camcorder for $339 with 16 GB of internal flash memory.

As a guideline, standard video runs about 4.5 minutes per one gigabyte; compressed, high-definition video is smaller, with about 7 minutes per GB.

While it might seem that a 60-gigabyte hard drive is a better value than a similarly priced 16 GB flash-memory based drive, that's not necessarily true.

"Hard drives right now are definitely larger sizes than flash drives because they're less expensive," said Chute.

But hard disk drives have some disadvantages. The biggest is the drive's fragility. "Hard drives have a lot of sensitive, moving parts, even more so than tape drives," said Michael Rubin.

"Camcorders live in the elements, and these consumer devices are not that robust. I wouldn't feel comfortable shooting a lot of video and having it on a built-in hard disk, because if that thing crashes, like hard disks do, you've lost the whole camera and all the video on it."

Flash drives: Hard disk drives use rotating, magnetic platters to store data. Flash-based, solid state drives are made up of chips, which are less volatile than hard drives. With no moving parts, flash drives are also considered more reliable and rugged.

Many camcorder makers that use flash memory also provide a slot on the camcorder for an SD or SD High Capacity (SDHC) card for additional video storage. Sony uses its proprietary Memory Sticks. An 8 GB Memory Stick PRO Duo card retails for about $60; a 4 GB card for about $40.

Canon gives customers three choices for storage: flash memory, hard disk drives and miniDV tapes, said Ben Thomas, supervisor of Canon USA's Consumer Imaging Group for video marketing, said in a recent interview.

Flash drives are "more durable, much smaller, much better on battery life, and they're very quiet," he said. "A lot of camcorders with DVDs and hard drives make a lot of noise and emit a lot of heat. Flash memory avoids those issues."

Camcorders that have between 8 and 16 GB of flash memory are a good size for most consumers, said Rubin. With a more limited size, that means you'll make it a point to get video off the camcorder and onto a computer.

MiniDV digital tape: MiniDV has been the dominant media for digital video. It's inexpensive — about $4 for a 60-minute (12 GB) tape, said Rubin.

"With miniDV tape, you shoot it, you take it out, you put it on the shelf, and it's archived and will last for years; it's not going to crash," he said. "It's much safer, it's inexpensive, and it's a good way to start (taking video), especially if you don't know if you're really going to get into it."

For example, a refurbished miniDV model from Sony, the DCR-HC52 released last year, is featured on the company's Web site for around $200.

One reviewer, writing on about the camcorder, said "the simplicity of MiniDV tapes makes this a good value choice. DVD camcorders in this price range suffer from bad battery life, and disk errors that can render your disks useless. The MiniDV tapes are tried and true."

But MiniDV does have its challenges.

"It's a lot more complicated to have a video camera with tape, something that pulls the tape into the camera and has playheads and all that stuff," Rubin said. "It's expensive to build, they're hard to maintain and they can break.", which reviews camcorders, notes that MiniDV's main "flaw" is its "linear nature. In the same way that DVDs surpassed VHS, people want the ability to skip around a random access set of files rather than fast forwarding and rewinding to get to a specific section on a tape."

Mini-DVDs: Camcorders with Mini-DVD optical drives use 3-inch discs which can hold between 15 and 60 minutes of video, depending on the recording quality. A three-pack of single-layer DVDs costs between $18 and $20.

"I wouldn't record on a mini-DVD primarily because recordable discs are poor storage solutions, they are error-prone and don't have long lifespans," said Rubin. "Although at least with mini-DVD, you can take the discs out of the camcorder and store without a lot of computer equipment."

And, "while it's nice to have video on a DVD that you can just pop into your DVD player, I've got many DVDs that I've recorded that just don't hold up over time."

Rubin said "mass-produced DVDs are different; they're stamped out and they last a lot longer, but recordable DVDs are very different media."

Mini-DVDs also record video in a more compressed format than other media, which means the quality is not as good, he said.

"I like to store my video in the highest quality I can, and then I can choose whether I want them to get smaller in size, or have less resolution for the Web, or for TV, or whatever. But at least I can store it in what would be called professionally the 'master resolution,' and a great resolution. You just don't get that on mini-DVD."

Ultimate winner: Solid-state memory
Ultimately, solid-state memory will be "unbeatable for price and performance," Rubin said.

"The only serious consideration today one might have is simply that you cannot select a flash-based camcorder without also making decisions about your computer hardware and software.

"A commitment to video on removable flash cards necessitates, sooner or later, a very large hard drive and backup system, perhaps a giant, multi-terabyte 'RAID' drive for storage and backup."

Without such backup, "you’re living in danger of one big computer crash and losing all your wonderful videos," he said.

"And thus the simplicity of the slowly antiquated MiniDV tapes. No expensive computer hardware is required, and if you aren’t ready for that commitment, you can still store lots of video inexpensively, waiting for a time in the near future when you are ready to make the commitment required for a flash-based lifestyle."