Best Buy in Digital Video cameras
1 April 2005 | 0
Gone are the days when digital video cameras were beyond the price range of most consumers; now you can pick up a decent DV camera for under EUR1500.
There are definite advantages to owning a digital video camera. Not only does it offer sharper images than analogue video, the images will not degrade when you transfer the footage to a PC for editing.
Digital video also increases your storage options. Like conventional analogue cameras, you can transfer your footage to a VHS tape, but you can also edit your home movies on your PC, transfer it to a CD or DVD if you have the necessary equipment and archive it for future viewing. Using the digital video output and IEEE 1394 (also known as FireWire) cable, you can transfer the digital video to your notebook or PC. To do this, your machine must also have an IEEE 1394 port. If it doesn’t, don’t panic; it doesn’t mean that you won’t be able to put your movie-making skills to the test. If you are using a notebook to edit your digital video, you can get a Firewire PC card, which will fit into a PCMCIA slot. The model we used for this test was the Trust Firewire Video Notebook Kit DV410, which is available from Scope Distribution. It’s easy to install; simply load the software from the accompanying CD and insert the card into your laptop
Desktop users can get a card for their PC, although you will need a free bay in your PC. If you aren’t familiar with fitting the PCI cards, it’s best to leave it to a professional.
To make a good DVD, you need a good digital video camcorder — but not necessarily an expensive one. You should look for features that make the capturing process easier and the video quality better.
There are a few choices for consumers who want to get in on the digital video revolution; the manufacturers that took part in this review were Canon, JVC, Sony, Panasonic and Hitachi.
Fits the bill
The first thing to decide is exactly what you are looking for in a camera. If you want a compact camera that will take good footage, the Panasonic NVS50B definitely fits the bill. If extra features are what you are after, the Sony TRV33E or the Hitachi DZ-MV350E with its DVD media may be what you’re looking for. The JVC GR-DV4000 and Canon MVX150i both have excellent lenses; the JVC camera has a super-bright aspherical lends, while the Canon camera comes with above average 16x zoom capabilities.
All the cameras were compatible with a few different media types. In most cases, it was mini DV cassettes for capturing video footage, with Multimedia or Secure Digital cards for taking still images and e-mail video clips (Memory Stick with the Sony camera). However, the Hitachi DZ-MV350E is a little different from the rest of the cameras featured here because it records directly to DVD RAM or 8cm DVD R rather than mini DV cassettes. The DVD discs are housed in a protective cartridge; this helps minimise possible damage that could be caused by dust or scratches.
What the camera fails to include is a DV input/output connection; this means that the firewire notebook or PCI card is unnecessary. Whether this is an advantage or disadvantage is probably down to personal choice.
The DVD discs have an advantage over the mini DV cassette — they are much easier to navigate, as they do not have to be rewound to reach the desired section of film footage. However, the main disadvantage is that they cannot be reused; DVD RAM and DVD R discs are write-once media.
Most DV cameras use colour LCD displays. Check the display size: Bigger is better, but it almost always depends on the size of the camcorder itself, and some people would rather have a smaller device.
If the small LCD screens on DV cameras cause problems for you, the Canon and the JVC GR-DV4000 cameras both have large 3.5in colour LCD screens. Obviously, the trade-off in this is the cameras themselves aren’t as compact as some of the other cameras in this review. The larger LCD screen can be a real benefit while filming, as it makes framing and focusing much clearer and easier. Consider how the camera fits in your hand. Although smaller camcorders can be more convenient to tote around, their controls are often awkwardly placed. Moreover, people with large hands may find them more frustrating to use than a slightly larger model.
Optical, not digital
For long-distance filming, it is better to opt for a more powerful optical zoom rather than be seduced by the digital zoom figure. Optical zoom actually gets you closer to the subject, while the digital zoom will merely magnify what is in the viewfinder. You should approach manufacturer claims about digital zoom with caution: Anything above 100x produces such poor image quality that it is generally not usable. The most impressive optical zoom was seen on the Canon MVX150i — it comes with an above average 16x optical zoom. Behind this, you’ll find a 1/4in. 1.3-megapixel CCD for still images at a maximum resolution of 1280 by 960, which should be enough for general use or 4in by 6in prints. With that in mind, Canon has enabled direct printing via USB with this camera, so you don’t need a PC to get a hardcopy of your photos.
Of course, when it comes down to it, the ultimate decider in what video camera you opt for is image quality. In this area, there is very little noticeable difference between the five cameras here; all produced excellent quality images. Some cameras deserve a special mention though; the JVC GR-DV4000’s super bright aspherical lens is worth noting, as is the Canon MVX150i and the Sony TRV33E. The three cameras produced image that were just superior to the other cameras. This was mainly due to the type of lenses the cameras were fitted with.
Another important consideration is ease of use. While a multitude of features is desirable, there is no point in having them if you can’t find them quickly and easily. The Canon MVX150i suffers a little from control clutter, with a selection of 14 buttons to choose from. This is despite using a jog wheel for menu navigation, which doubles as a quick selector for the various exposure presets available. Another criticism is that the tape compartment is bottom-loading, and you can’t get to the SD/MMC card slot while the LCD panel is shut. It also suffers from the common problem of having the playback controls where they can’t be seen at the same time as the LCD panel.
One of the best in this area was the Sony TRV33E, with its touch-panel LCD screen. The fact that you didn’t have to fiddle around with different buttons to navigate the menus is a definite bonus for this camera. The menus are easy to work through and are user-friendly.
With some of its function buttons located on the lens barrel, the JVC GR-DV4000 allows easy access to important functions. The rest are located in the traditional place behind the LCD panel.
The Hitachi has a ‘joystick’ button included on the interface; this can take a few minutes to get the hang of, but once achieved the rest is child’s play.
The Panasonic NVS50B is pretty compact, so the controls are mainly located on the side of the camera, behind the LCD screen when it is shut. However, this does not mean that the controls have been reduced to miniscule proportions. They are easy to use and clearly marked, and the menus themselves are simple to work through.
The cameras all come equipped with an impressive set of features, and many customisable options can be found on the models, if you know where to look. For beginners, the automatic settings are probably best left as they are. However, once you become more comfortable with the camera and how it works, it is worth learning how to customise the settings to get the most from your camera.
With the Canon MVX150i, the menu gives you access to a full set of manual functions, including shutter speed selection and exposure compensation alongside the ring-operated manual focus and programmable white balance. This camcorder doesn’t have a pop-up flash for still captures, but it does have a white LED lamp for low-light filming and focus assist as well as a smart accessory ‘hot shoe’ for optional microphones or lamps.
The JVC model has a pop-up flash to take still images with, but this is by no means the most important feature of the camera. It also has manual white balance adjustment, a choice of 12-bit and 16-bit sound and digital image stabilisation, which compensates for camera shake. There are also several ‘programme AE’ options, with special effects such as sepia, black and white monotone, and strobe, which gives the video footage the appearance of a series of consecutive snapshots.
Similar features can be found on the Sony and Panasonic models. Options include settings for spotlight, sports mode, beach and snow, and portrait mode. The Sony TRV33E has a Sunset and Moon option, which allows you to take footage of sunsets, night views, fireworks displays and neon signs. The camera can also use some special effects, such as negative, which reverses the colour and brightness of the picture; sepia; black and white; pastel, which makes the image appear as if it is a pastel drawing; and mosaic.
The Panasonic NVGS50B, like others in the review, has a night view, which allows you to take video footage in low lighting conditions. It slows down the shutter speed, however, so it gives the footage a strobe-like effect. The cinema function allows users to record footage that can be played back on a widescreen TV.
The Hitachi camera has a number of options for taking footage in difficult conditions, including an option for sand and snow, sports, spotlight and low light. The white balance has a manual adjust option, with presets for outdoor and indoor shooting. The camera also comes equipped with an electronic image stabiliser that corrects fuzziness in a magnified subject image.
Users can also mess around with the movie quality settings, although it is worth noting that with the DVD-R discs, once the quality has been set for a particular disc, it cannot be changed later on.
*** Best Buy ***
The JVC GR-DV4000 digital video camera may be more towards the higher end of our price scale, but it just had the edge over the rest of the cameras in the review. The camera itself has a professional air about it, with its large lens and silver finish.
The camera opts for the standard 10x optical zoom, with a digital zoom of up to 300x in video mode. This is less than the Canon MVX150i but it is more than adequate for most video requirements. The lens itself is an F1.2 super bright aspherical lens, which produced some great images to add to our home video collection. The lens hood that comes fitted to the camera cuts a lot of the glare from video images taken on sunny days, or where there is a strong overhead light.
There is a pop-up flash for taking still images; a feature that many other cameras lack. While this may not be an essential feature for a digital video camera, we felt it was a nice touch.
There are plenty of other useful features on the camera. Users can customise the white balance on the camera for various different shooting environments. The camera also allows users to manually control exposure. This is recommended for reverse lighting, video footage with a bright background, reflective natural background, overly dark background and an overly bright subject.
More advanced users can lock the iris to stop the camera automatically adjusting the image for brightness or darkness. This is useful when taking moving images, filming against reflective surfaces, etc.
The JVC camera also has backlight compensation that can be activated at the touch of a button. This brightens the subject quickly, but it may cause subject to become too white.
Manual focus is also available on the camera, with a focus ring that can be adjusted to get the best possible image.
The camera is equipped with a ‘blank search’ button; this helps budding film-makers find where to start recording in the middle of a tape, avoiding time code corruption. The time code on a tape gets corrupted if a blank portion is left in the middle of the tape — the footage recorded after will duplicate time codes of the footage that has gone before. If the time code gets corrupted, this will cause problems when you try to edit it later on.
When you get around to editing the video footage, the JVC camera has a function known as Random Assemble Editing (RAE). This allows users to select up to eight cuts for automatic editing; simply hook up the camera to a VCR and choose the desired scenes by putting edit in and edit out points on the footage. The editing will then be carried out automatically. This is a good all-rounder; it is easy enough to use but looks professional.
Mini-DV tape: Most such tapes hold 60 minutes (or about 13Gbyte) of digital video. When you convert that footage into an MPEG-2 file at the default (maximum) quality setting, it will fit onto a 4.7Gbyte DVD disc. To fit longer MiniDV tapes to a disc, you must use a lower quality setting
Analogue-in and -out ports: Use these to connect a VCR or an analogue camcorder so you can capture old video for transfer to DVD, or so you can export digital video to a VHS cassette
FireWire port: Any camcorder with a FireWire port is OHCI-compliant, which means that a PC with a FireWire port will recognise it, allowing you to control the camcorder from a video editing program and to import video from it.
White Balance: This a colour correction system that helps cameras take the best images in a variety of lighting conditions. The camera will use the set white balance to correct other colours in the image.