Why Buy a High Definition Camcorder?
The top performers in our review are Panasonic HC-X920, the Gold Award winner; Panasonic HC-V770K, the Silver Award winner; and Canon Vixia HF R72, the Bronze Award winner. Here’s more on choosing a system to meet your needs, along with detail on how we arrived at our ranking of the top 8 HD Camcorders.
For decades, handheld video cameras have been the tool of choice for recording home videos, and for good reason – nothing else has been quite so well adapted to the task. In later years, as digital technology began to progress, still cameras were no longer confined to shooting only stills. While camcorders were still far superior, it was clear that their long-held monopoly on home videos would be coming to an end. But that was just the beginning.
Just as digital cameras came to capitalize on the video market, smartphones now dominate both industries, making the uses for dedicated camcorders appear even more scarce. But that’s not to say they are without use. In fact, they remain the best option for shooting video in many situations.
Now, if you’re only shooting up-close video for 5-10 minutes at a time, then by all means, continue shooting with your smartphone or digital camera. It’s really not necessary to buy a dedicated device unless you’re convinced that it can accomplish something for you that your existing options cannot.
When compared to smartphones and point and shoots, the best HD camcorders offer superior video quality (though to an ever-decreasing degree), better zooming options and much more comfortable recording for long durations.
With a camcorder, you’ll record video that’s consistently in focus with high framerates that make footage look more lifelike. When you zoom in on subjects, they’ll no longer appear grainy or lacking in detail, which can be hugely useful for capturing details at a recital or wedding. They’re also much more comfortable to hold steady for long periods since they’re designed with that in mind. For these reasons, there’s really nothing better for documenting your family’s exploits.
Now comes the tasks of choosing the best camcorder for you. We’ve sifted through the specs and run our own tests to figure out which factors will have the biggest impact on you. Below is a summary of our tests and what we learned from them. For more information, be sure to check out our other articles concerning HD video cameras.
HD Camcorders: What We Evaluated, What We Found
The quality of video depends on a variety of complicated and interconnected factors. Unfortunately, many of these factors – such as lens quality or compression – cannot really be quantified. So while there’s no consistent way to prove that one camera has superior image quality over another without actually seeing the video, there are certainly some clues to be picked up from each camera's specifications. Naturally, that’s where we started.
Sensor size is typically a good indicator of a camera's image quality. In general, larger sensors collect more information and therefore produce better-looking footage with lower levels of grain in low light. The actual quality of the sensor along with other factors also play a large part, however, so sensor size is not a sure-fire method for getting the best image quality. But assuming that all else is equal, a larger sensor will do a better job.
Resolution gives you a good idea how clear and detailed your video will appear on-screen: 4K is clearer than 1080p, 1080p is clearer than 720p and so on. Video captured in 720p will likely appear pixilated or unclear on a large 4K display – the pixel count is simply too low. However, if you don’t view your footage on a large display, you might just be wasting your time prioritizing that. Still, cameras that offer higher resolutions are objectively better and so they receive higher marks in general than lower-resolution options. Just make sure you keep you own needs in mind.
Framerates are another important specification to consider. A camera that shoots at a higher framerate is going to produce smoother-looking footage, especially in slow-mo shots. Most of the cameras we tested were able to shoot at up to 60 frames per second – double that of most feature films. With twice as many frames, however, you’ll take up twice the space on your SD card, so adjust your settings if necessary.
Aperture is often overlooked when buying a camera, but it’s just about as important as anything else you’ll consider for your camcorder. Cameras with low apertures, like f/1.5, allow large amounts of light to hit the sensor. In low light, this means you’re less likely to have to boost the sensitivity of your sensor to compensate. This helps to keep unwanted noise out of your footage. Just keep in mind that as you zoom in, your aperture increases and restricts more light from passing through the lens.
For this reason, apertures are often written as a range. For example, a typical HD camcorder might have an aperture range of f/1.8-4.5. This means you’ll have a wide aperture of f1.8 on the wide-angle end of your lens and a narrower aperture of f/4.5 on the telephoto end. If a camera offers a longer zoom than the rest, it’s likely that its range will be wider, so try not to judge a camera too harshly based on where the range ends before you also consider the length of its zoom.
When it comes to zoom, the only things you’ll really want to consider are optical zoom and extended zoom. Optical zoom utilizes the movement of the glass within your lens to magnify subjects in the distance. Extended zoom, when available, does the same but necessitates the disabling of some features like face detection and image stabilization. The other option, digital zoom, essentially does nothing – try to avoid it when you can since it degrades the quality of your video.
The low-light rating of your camera is a trickier specification to read as it’s often used deceivingly by manufacturers to make a camera appear better in low light than it actually is. The unit of measurement here is called a lux, and 1 lux represents the amount of light that one candle will cast upon a 1-square-meter surface a meter away. Assigning a camera a 1 lux rating is to claim that the camera can produce an image of a subject by the light of one candle about 3 feet away. The problem is that there is no indication of what level of quality you can expect. In our view, it’s best to consider this specification skeptically and base most of your low-light conclusions on sensor size and aperture.
We also considered the resolution of still images in our review, although that might not make a big difference to you. The ability to capture stills can be useful, and some cameras can even do it while filming, but in most cases the quality will likely leave you unsatisfied. If you have a smartphone less than four or five years old, you’ll be better off using that in most cases. Still, cameras with higher-resolution still options got a slightly higher image quality score.
Since you can’t learn everything about image quality from specifications alone, we thoroughly tested every camera in our review both in our lab and out in the real world. We captured video in a wide variety of circumstances and displayed it all before a panel of testers who then ranked each camera based on image quality factors like sharpness, clarity, color reproduction, low-light performance and dynamic range. Based on this data, we were able to assign each camera a score to reflect its performance. While no image quality test is perfect, this helped us to inject some personality into our review and fill in the gaps left by specification analysis alone.
Features & Design
The design of a camera, along with its features, has a direct impact on how you interact with it. Cameras with large batteries will keep you shooting longer while those with internal storage keep you from running out of space. The size of an LCD screen determines how easily you can frame shots and navigate menus, while a touchscreen adds convenience.
Fortunately, these factors are much more self-explanatory than image quality specs and therefore require much less explanation. Aside from what’s already been mentioned, you should keep an eye out for optical image stabilization, which prevents a shaky hand from ruining your footage; face detection, which helps to optimize your settings to best complement a subject; and integrated Wi-Fi, which allows you to transfer your files to phones and tablets cord-free.
Video filters are also a nice bonus, but they really shouldn’t be a deciding factor in your camcorder search. Honestly, we tend to shy away from using filters at all since they permanently alter your footage. If you must add filters, a better, albeit more complicated option, is to add filters prior to shooting in a simple editor like Windows Movie Maker, iMovie or one of the dozens available for free online.
Still, none of these specifications answer one of our most important questions when it comes to design – how easy is it to use? Since there’s no quantifiable method to measure this, we again entrusted the task with our panel of testers. Using non-specific instructions, each tester had to complete a number of settings changes, alter the scene mode and apply filters to their footage. We then had them rank each camera based on how difficult finding and changing settings was and which had the most newbie-friendly design. Since our testers were previously unfamiliar with the menus, we felt this gave us some insight into how a new user might feel about each camcorder.
Help & Support
Support is the least important factor to consider when buying a camcorder, but it’s still something you’ll want to think about. Hopefully, by choosing a camera based on the criteria above, you’ll avoid any need for additional support, but if something does go wrong it’s good to know you’re covered.
Most of the companies in our review do an excellent job of supporting the products. The best offer several avenues for obtaining support. From phone and email support, to live chat and FAQs, there’s almost always a way to get an answer to your questions. We found a one-year warranty to be the standard for HD camcorders – anything more is a bonus, anything less is a risk.
HD Camcorders: Our Verdict and Recommendations
As you may have noticed, the majority of the products on our lineup come from three companies: Sony, Panasonic and Canon – with a JVC thrown in for good measure. In our opinion, the lack of diversity in our lineup is a result of the waning popularity of HD camcorders. Although there are certainly more than four brands of HD camcorder available, we found that most other offerings were from unknown brands looking to capitalize on the void left by other manufacturers pulling out of the business. Although you can take the risk and purchase an inexpensive model from an unknown vender, the models that we’ve chosen to represent are from well-established and reliable brands.
In general, we found that the Panasonic models on our lineup were the best in regard to image quality and also had the sturdiest overall feel, although we weren’t overly impressed with the layout of their menus or the responsiveness of their touchscreens. Our favorites are our Top Ten Reviews Gold Award winner, the HC-X920, which has the best image quality of anything we tested. And our Top Ten Reviews Silver Award Winner, the HC-V770K, offers a better balance between price and performance as well as built-in Wi-Fi.
The Canons we reviewed felt less robust, and with smaller sensors than the Panasonics their image quality trailed slightly behind. We were, however, impressed with the ease of use from Canon and the responsiveness of their touchscreens. Our favorite was the Vixia HF-R72. As our Top Ten Reviews Bronze Award winner, it has great menu and settings navigation, a long zoom, 32GB of internal memory and built-in Wi-Fi.
The Sony devices, surprisingly to us, lagged behind both Canon and Panasonic for image quality, ease of use and build quality. They feel much cheaper than their competitors, but on the upside they’re much lighter and more compact. If you’re a fan of Sony, there are good reasons to choose one, though we believe our top picks serve the average person better.
The JVC is a cool camera and offers some unique capabilities, but we weren’t impressed with its video performance or ease of use. It’s waterproof, dustproof, freezeproof and shockproof, which sets it apart from the other items on our lineup, though an awkward design and lackluster image quality hold it back from being a favorite. As a waterproof option, it’s one of the best out there, but if you’re in this for image quality, you're better off looking elsewhere. For more detailed analysis of each camera we tested, be sure to check out our individual reviews.