There has never been a better time to capture your own video for your projects.
While there are a wealth of truly professional camcorders out there – capturing in high-end formats such as Sony’s XDCAM EX and Panasonic’s P2 – there are great models for less technically demanding creatives.
These include top-flight AVCHD consumer models that are more than good enough for motion-graphics artists and Web designers who want regularly capture video to include in their work – and they’re pretty affordable too.
Many of these have a variety of manual shooting modes, which are ideal for those wanting more creative control over their footage.
Must Read story: Handheld HD camera showdown – great video without great expense
They also ape, or are inspired by, features included in digital cameras, such as face detection to multi-megapixel image sensors.
Accompanying this is a massive improvement in image quality. The shift towards 1,920 x 1,080 recording sounds as though it should offer an increase in picture quality, but lots of other factors come into play, too – image sensor resolution, the video processor and lens, to name but three.
Camcorder manufacturers are pushing these boundaries, too, chiefly by incorporating larger image sensors that capture more light and detail, but also by beefing up with higher bitrates and better processing.
Some HD camcorder-makers (most notably Canon) are making a push towards internal flash memory instead of hard disk drive storage.
This helps make camcorders lighter and more robust, while also using less battery power; flash memory storage is now available in large enough quantities and capacities to make it affordable and worthwhile.
All the camcorders in this test give you the option to record or copy to removable flash memory cards (chiefly SDHC) or, in some cases, to take advantage of both.
This means you can switch seamlessly between internal and external storage without needing to tell the camcorder which one to record to. This allows you to keep shooting even if one storage device runs out space. Some even offer dual recording modes – enabling you to shoot both video and still images at the same time.
To help you discover which HD camcorder best meets your needs we’ve picked four flagship models from Canon, JVC, Panasonic and Sony. Each one has plenty to offer both newbies and experienced amateurs. So let’s dig right in.
It may be the most expensive camcorder in this test, but the XR520VE is a monster when it comes to storage capacity, with a 240GB hard drive that’s bigger than the stock storage space found in some computers.
While this makes it great for extended trips or projects – since you won’t need to keep downloading your footage – it does have an impact on the camcorder’s weight (half a kilogram) and battery life (about an hour).
In terms of specifications, the XR520VE is almost identical to the slimmer, lighter, cheaper CX520VE. It has the same Exmor R image sensor with an effective video resolution of 6.6 megapixels, but with a relatively low maximum HD image quality of 1,920 x 1,080/16Mbps.
Like the CX520VE, that effectively ensures it doesn’t scale the heights of its Canon and JVC rivals – or even really measure up to the two Panasonics. And, of course, it has a similarly tricky touchscreen user interface to the CX520VE.
In the hand, the XR520VE looks and feels pretty portly, although its bulk makes it easy to hold. Strangely, its zoom toggle button is narrower and trickier to access comfortably than that of the CX520VE, and you’ll find your fingers and thumbs contorting into all kinds of weird shapes to switch shooting modes or snap stills.
One good thing about the extra bulk is that Sony has found room for a control dial by the lens, which lets you take manual control of settings such as focus, white balance and exposure.
It’s also one of the only camcorders here that includes an electronic viewfinder. However, the bulkier body hasn’t made more room for a component video output – which could be problematic if you own a TV that doesn’t have HDMI.
The picture quality delivered by the HDR-XR520VE is similar to that of its sibling; detail is good rather than remarkable, but colours and skin tones are rendered accurately. We found the SteadyShot optical image stabiliser to be slightly better than average, though the geo-tag function proved redundant because we couldn’t get a signal lock.
Like other hard-drive models in this test, the HDR-XR520VE is relatively slow to start up. Accessing features in the touchscreen menu system also enforces a short wait while the hard drive does its thing.
Place the HDC-TM300 next to its HDC-HS300 sibling and you’d be hard pressed to tell them apart. They have the same manual control ring on the lens, 2.7-inch touchscreen display, F1.8-2.8 Leica lenses and top-mounted 5.1-channel surround sound mics.
Pick them up, though, and you’ll notice the difference – the TM300 is nearly 100g lighter, dispensing with the 120GB hard drive in favour of 32GB built-in flash memory. The case is slimmer, creating room for a wider zoom toggle on top of the camcorder.
The HDC-TM300 has a 3MOS image sensor system, giving it an effective resolution of 6.21 megapixels; top recording quality is pegged at 1,920 x 1,080/17Mbps.
The HDC-TM300 has the familiar touchscreen interface, with goodies such as the Digital Cinema Mode tucked inside its menu system.
The HDC-TM300 is packed with features. Intelligent Auto mode handles white balance, focus and exposure for point-and-shoot operation. You can pick from five scene modes, or use the manual controls.
There is one thing about the HDC-TM300 we don’t like: the DC socket is tucked behind the battery, which you have to remove to get at it.
This also means you have to charge the battery in a separate unit.
Digital Cinema mode is all-or-nothing – unlike the Canon HF S10 or Sony camcorders, switching it on gives you 25p progressive shooting and an extended xvYCC colour gamut – but you can’t pick them individually. Nor can you use Digital Cinema mode and take advantage of iA features.
But it is picture quality that counts, and here the HDC-TM300 measures up. Images are captured with accurate colours and wonderful amounts of detail, when viewed using the built-in mini HDMI or ports on an HDTV.
JVC Everio GZ-HM400
Perched at the top of JVC’s Everio camcorder range, the GZ-HM400 should give its rivals a run for their money.
Like the Canon HF S10, it can shoot 1,920 x 1,080 video at 24Mbps – the highest level possible under current AVCHD spec – and it includes 32GB of internal flash memory, plus lots of manual controls. It also has a 10x optical zoom Konica Minolta lens, and a huge 1/2.33-inch CMOS image sensor with 10.6-megapixel resolution (9 megapixels effective).
Things get off to a shaky start. The chunky body is uncomfortable to hold. JVC continues to use its Laser Touch system, forcing you to stroke a glowing light strip down the side of the camcorder’s 2.8-inch lens for menu scrolling or some controls.
This would be fine if Laser Touch worked well, but it’s sluggish and fiddly. There are five small, touch-sensitive buttons at the bottom of the LCD, complicating things further. Canon’s four-way cursor joystick and tabbed menu layout is simpler.
But the GZ-HM400 gets lots right, too. Its chunky zoom rocker switch is ideal for precision zooming. It has a switch and dial that let you take physical control of zoom, white balance, exposure and other settings in manual mode.
There’s also colour peaking and zebra patterns for focus and exposure, and an extended xvYCC colour gamut. Some options aren’t available unless you’re in manual mode, which could be a problem for newbies.
Video quality is excellent, and the level of detail matches any here; colour fidelity and skin tones are accurate, too. Quality suffers in low light, though, with a lot of picture noise. Also, the stereo microphone on top of the camcorder is too easy to touch accidentally, which adds noise.
Canon Legria HF S10
When it comes to producing easy-to-use camcorders that deliver on picture quality, Canon has an enviable track record – and the HF S10 is no exception.
Everything about it screams quality, from its fit, finish and comfortably weighty feel, down to the components inside. These include a 1/2.6-inch CMOS image sensor with an effective video resolution of 6.01 megapixels and an improved Digic DV III processor, which now includes face detection. You also get 32GB of flash memory (enough for three hours of video at the highest quality setting), and an SDHC card slot for expansion.
The real beauty of the HF S10, though, lies in its careful balance of features and functionality: it’s as simple or as complex to use as you want it to be. You can choose to point and shoot when you need to monitor the action rather than output, or use the menu system to take full control, with a wide variety of options in between.
These range from tweaking the white balance settings for certain shooting conditions (such as indoor tungsten or fluorescent lighting, for example) to using a variety of shooting modes (such as Aperture Priority), along with professional features such as colour peaking and zebra patterns, so you can optimise focus, exposure, and more manually.
Most options live up to Canon’s ease-of-use promise, with the exception of the mini control dial by the lens. It enables you to call up and use all kinds of manual features – such as focusing – while you shoot, but it can be fiddly to use. A proper lens ring would have been better.
Canon has missed a trick when it comes to audio. There’s no 5.1-channel surround option, and the stereo microphones are oddly placed on either side of the lens. On the blustery day of our shoot that meant the HF S10 picked up a lot of wind noise, even with noise reduction on. Your best bet may be to buy an external microphone and mount it on Canon’s proprietary mini hotshoe on the top of the body instead.
Where the HF S10 wins through, of course, is with its picture quality. The results are simply stunning. Play your footage back on an HDTV or computer screen and you’re rewarded with natural-looking images with good skin tones and colour balance, and a very high level of detail.