Monday, March 09, 2009

Home videos, now in HD

Well, not NOW, but a week or so from now.

Last year, I sold our standard definition digital camcorder (A Canon ZR 850) planning on surprising the wife with an HD camcorder for Christmas. Unfortunately, we had a budget constrained Christmas, so not only no HD, but no camcorder at all...

Which is kinda irritating since I've been wanting to make some computer videos, and some gun videos for the blog; as well as of course, recording family stuff etc...

Then Woot busts out this badboy last night for less than half what every other HD camcorder I've been looking at costs (and less than 1/3 of the ones I really want):

That is the Canon Vixia HR10 AVCHD mini-DVD camcorder; and Woot is selling it at $300...

...well now... That really got me thinking hard about buying.

For a long time, I wasn't really interested in a DVD based camcorder; because the media was expensive and hard to find. However, over the past year or two, mini-dvd-r and rw have become very widely available, and VERY cheap.

I don't really want a consumer grade MiniDV based HDV cam, because the media is slow, and sequential access; and can't be read without the camcorder (unless I want to buy a professional quality MiniDV deck).

The pro grade cameras in class are all MiniDV; and if my budget were that big ($2k to $10k) I'd live with trading the inconvenience of tape for the quality; but I'm not going to bother with another MiniDV if it isn't pro grade (except maybe the very top of the range HV40 or the model it just replaced, the HV30)

Mainly, I've been looking at flash based camcorders, and hard drive based camcorders. In general I prefer the large capacity they offer; unfortunately as I said, they cost twice (or more) what this camera costs.

That said, I still wasn't sure if I wanted to consider a mini-dvd based setup; so I decided to analyze exactly what I wanted or needed from a camcorder.

What do I need from a camcorder

Alright, so what are my criteria?
  1. Resolution
  2. Frame rate
  3. Format
  4. Lens
  5. Media
  6. Battery
  7. HDMI output
  8. USB 2 or Firewire data out
  9. Image stabilization/vibration reduction
  10. Other features
I want to address those out of order, because my first discriminator had been the media; and with the price of this 'corder I needed to re-evaluate whether DVD was acceptable to me.

Media: Tape, hard drive, flash, DVD

Let's get tape out of the way first.

I hate it.

It's slow, it breaks, it gets dirty and degrades over time, it's sensitive to environmental conditions... basically, it's a pain.

It also doesn't support non-linear file access, which means you have to fast forward or rewind to a specific spot on the tape to get the video from that spot; and you can only transfer that video in real time, or at best some low multiple of real time. You can't just pop the tape in a computer and read a specific file, like you can with memory cards, DVDs, and (through USB) hard drives.

Unfortunately for me, tape is still the dominant media format. The best quality recording format uses tape; as do most of the best quality cameras. That said, tapeless media camcorders are catching up.

I've primarily been focusing on flash and hard drive based camcorders, because you get a longer recording time without having to change the media.

Unfortunately, both are expensive. The lowest cost models I'm looking at are around $600, and they go up to $1300.

More importantly from a technical aspect though, flash based and hard drive based camcorders both have the same major problem: you can't cheaply change the media (or at all in the case of the hard drive setups... though some support recording to both hard drive and flash media).

Although flash cards are amazingly cheap, first quality brand (SanDisk, Lexar etc...) class 6 flash cards (high speed data transfer. Class 4 are the standard, cheaper, and MUCH slower type) are still $17 a piece for 8gb, or $12 a piece for 4gb cards. You really don't want to use slower, lower quality cards.

The biggest disadvantage of the mini-dvd format of course is of course lower data storage capacity than flash or hard drive based camcorders; with single layer disks at 1.4gb and dual layer at 2.8gb.

To counterbalance that however, mini-dvds are CHEAP. With DVD-R running under $0.85 in bulk (or $3 for dual layer) and DVD-RW around $1.50 in bulk (or $4 for dual layer); for the same price as one high quality SD card ($12 for 4gb $17 for 8gb $38 for 16gb), you can get considerably more total recording capacity.

Of course, SD card prices are still coming down; but so are mini-dvd prices (especially dual layer).

Just how inconvenient is it having to change DVDs, vs flash cards (let's presume we use rewritable dual layer DVDs to make the comparison fair)?

At the highest resolution and compression rating supported by the mini-dvd format (XP+ at 12mbps. Some flash and HDD based cameras support higher bitrates, but they take up more space, so the relative comparison is the same), a $4 dual layer mini-dvd-rw will record about 28 minutes. A $12 4gb card will record about 40 minutes, a $17 8gb card about 80 minutes, and a $38 16gb card, about 160 minutes (most first generation flash based camcorders only support up to 8gb cards, but some support 16gb; and the newest cams support 32gb, which are running over $100 right now).

If we presume the worst case comparison, you would have to change DVDs five times in just over two and a half hours to equal a 16gb card; but you'd pay $20 to do it, not $40.

However, as I said that is at the highest resolution, frame rate, and compression quality. You can vary the framerate, resolution, and compression (just as you do on a standard digital camera) and get as much as 108 minutes of recording time, and still have a better picture than any analog, and most SD digital camcorders.

Given all that, and that it would be rare for me to want to record something that long without changing the scene (other than lectures, school plays, and meetings; you generally want a scene to last a maximum of about six minutes); I consider it a limitation I can work with.

In addition to a lower total data capacity, mini-dvds have a lower read/write rate than either Class 6 SD cards (they have the same rate as class 4 however) or hard drives. This limits DVD based camcorders to a slightly lower maximum quality than an equivalent flash or hard drive based camcorder. Also, they take longer to format, longer to access, and longer to erase (for re-writable disks).

As to why changeable media is a good thing well there are a LOT of reasons there.
  • If you fill the media up, you just change the media.

    This is a major reason why pros don't use hard drives yet, except at the very highest end where they have changeable hard drive systems.

  • If media goes bad, obviously, you can change it. You can't do that with hard drives.

    This is a big deal actually; because hard drives go bad a lot, especially when they get jostled a lot, as you would expect in a camcorder. And again, this is one reason why pros generally don't use hard drives.

  • You can get the filmed data without the camcorder being present, functional, have a charged battery etc...

    This is a HUGE problem with hard drive based camcorders. It's the single biggest reason why pros don't use hard drives; and in fact is why low end pros and semi-pros generally still use Mini-DV.

    Of course, to get the data from a MiniDV tape, you either need the camera, or a pro quality HDV deck that can do data export (they start at around $1k). With a flash card or DVD you can just pop them in the computer.

  • You can easily archive media, and make copies etc...

  • It's easy to ship copies around or give them out

  • You can easily read the media on external devices; especially computers

  • You can make the media read only, and keep archive copies in your safe etc.. (important for legal purposes, investigation, insurance records, accident records etc...)

  • You can play the disks or cards on some DVD players and Blu-Ray players (or even some TVs in the case of SD cards).
Yes, you can do all that with flash based camcorders, but as I said above the media is a lot more expensive.

There is one specific disadvantage to DVDs though, and that is they aren't nearly as vibration tolerant, or tough as flash devices. It's the difference in reliability between a spinning disk, and a solid state chip.

So, advantages to DVD:
  • Cheap media
  • Changeable media
  • Playable on computers
  • Playable on some DVD players and Blu-Ray players
  • Lower capacity media (needs to be changed more often)
  • Lower data throughput (limits maximum quality)
  • DVD media takes longer to format, finalize, erase etc...
  • Less reliable and tough as a machine
  • Media is also not as tough (scratching etc...)
Given all those factors:
  • I still prefer flash based camcorders

  • I find DVD based camcorders an acceptable alternative; at least theoretically

  • I find hard drive based camcorders unacceptably limiting, unless they also allow for flash recording

  • I don't want to put up with the inconvenience of tape, unless the quality tradeoff is there; and I don't have the budget for that kind of quality
Other Important Factors

For my purposes, the media wasn't the most important question; but it was the easiest and fastest discriminator.

Of the rest, the biggies are resolution, frame rate, format, image stabilization, and the lens.


A lot of the early HD camcorders, and even today most of those under $500, run at 1280x720.

Now, there's nothing wrong with 720. Most of the time you'll never notice the difference between 720 and 1080, unless your TV is huge and you sit relatively close to it.

Most lower end pro-level and high end semi-pro level video cameras (and video software) run at 1440x1080 anyway.

Heck, most of the time, you're going to want to shoot at a lower resolution anyway, to increase your recording time, reduce your data transfer time, and reduce your file size.

Most of the time...

Although the times you'll really want to have a 1920x1080 video are limited; there is a very good reason to shoot at that higher resolution:

Level Of Detail (LOD)

Shooting at a higher resolution gives you a greater level of detail to work with in your video. While that detail may be lost when you convert down to DVD format, or web format; starting with the highest quality possible source, allows you to have the highest quality possible result. You just get more detail, sharpness, contrast, and definition when you start off with a higher LOD.

Also, high LOD gives you a lot more flexibility in your editing. When you start with the highest quality image, you lose less quality in the editing process (it's digital so I'm talking about photomanipulation and downsampling, not generational losses).

Finally, high LOD allows you to take very deep crops of scenes, and blow them up to full screen size, while maintaining acceptable visual quality.

For example, you can shoot a scene wide at 1920x1080; then crop down to a center shot of 1280x720 with very little perceptible loss of quality; giving you more flexibility in your editing, and room to fix misframed shots.

So, for my personal use, I want a 1920x1080 capable camcorder.

Frame Rate

Now to explain that important bit, "P" vs. "I".

"P" stands for progressive, and "I" interlaced. That USED to mean that either every frame was drawn scan line by scan line (progressive), or that every second scanline was drawn every frame, thus forming a full image with every scanline being hit every two frames (interlaced).

This interlaced way of showing an image is why when you shoot a traditional television screen with a video camera, it flickers; because the video cameras shutter speed is so fast, that it sees that half the data is missing in each frame.

Obviously, progressive images give you twice as much data to deal with, because every line is drawn every frame.

I say "used to mean", because with digital displays (and digital cameras), there are no scanlines anymore. Instead, a "P" means the entire scene is rendered every frame (but there's no scan, so it isn't really progressive), and "I" means half the scene is rendered every frame, and the other half the next frame (which is technically interleaving, not interlacing); so again a full scene is drawn every two frames.

There is definitely a very visible difference in quality between an analog progressive image, and an analog interlaced image. An analog image displayed progressively will a fair bit brighter, sharper, and more colorful than the same image displayed interlaced.

In todays digital world however, even though you're getting still twice as much data with a "P" signal, the visible quality difference is much smaller; basically, because the human eye isn't great at discriminating that fast.

That fast being 30, 60, or 120 times a second for television (in the US anyway. In Europe its 25, 50, and 100) and 24 times a second for film (or really 48 times when it's projected. Projectors show each frame twice, for half as long, to reduce the appearance of flicker).

The standard frame rate for films is 24 frames per second, and each frame of film is displayed twice (using a shutter), for an effective 48hz display rate.

The standard frame rate for U.S. analog televisions is 30 frames per second, which is actually displayed at 60hz, interlaced (thus a full frame every 2 cycles, for 30 frames per second).

When we transitioned to digital, we kept the standard at 30fps; but all HDTVs display a non-interlaced image (even if you are getting an interlaced signal, the actual display is showing it non-interlaced).

Also, most HDTVs refresh at twice frame rate (showing each frame twice, or 60hz), and some even refresh at four times frame rate (120hz), to improve the apparent smoothness and prevent blurring or flickering with very fast motion on screen.

The difference in frame rate is one of the subtle but significant ways that images shot on film, and images shot on traditional video "look different" (lighting, color saturation, contrast and sharpness, and the appearance of grain are the other main differences).

Even if two scenes are identical, and were shot at and played back at the same resolution; they will look different when shot at different frame rates.

Basically, images shot and displayed at 30fps look more "like video" to our eyes, and those shot and displayed at 24fps look more "like film" to our eyes; especially when subjects are moving in the scene.

Of course, since the image is displayed at a frame rate, it also has to be recorded at a frame rate (though not necessarily the SAME frame rate).

Basically all camcorders will be able to shoot at either 30 frames per second or 60 frames per second (or both). Some however also offer 24 frames per second to give your video a more "filmlike" appearance.

Canon also offers a 24 frame per second mode, that isn't exactly a true 24p (24 full progressive frames per second), which they call 24f. 24f mode is shot at 60 interlaced frames per second, and then digitally re-sampled down to 24 progressive frames per second (actually, sources conflict. It may be shot at 48 interlaced frames and then de-interlaced. It is definitely shot with a slower shutter speed however, which would indicate the 48fps theory is correct).

According to reviews, 24f looks more filmlike than 30p but less filmlike than 24p.

Like televisions, some cameras offer 720p, 1080i, or 1080p (at 24fps or 30fps depending); with each frame of an "i" image having half the data of a "p" image. This reduces the size of the data to be dealt with making it easier to process.

Not all cameras support a 1080p mode for this reason. Most less expensive cameras only support 720p or 1080i.

To my mind, you're actually better off with 720p than 1080i in most cases, because there is very little visible quality difference (in fact sometimes 720p images can look better than 1080i), and 720p images are still slightly smaller (more recording time).

Of course, as I said above, sometimes you want the highest quality available; and for consumer grade gear right now, that's 1080p.

However, there are two ways of getting a final 1080p image. Some cameras offer a true 1080p mode where every frame is fully captured at 30 frames per second (actually they mostly run at 60fps and either digitally merge, or simply discard half the frames); while others record at 1080i, but they do it at 60 frames a second, and digitally combine the images into a 30fps image.

Either method produces a perfectly acceptable image. The HD industry group allows either to label themselves as "Full HD", though the true 1080p image is anywhere from slightly better to "much" better, depending on the quality of the image processing.

There are two disadvantage to 1080i60 deinterlaced to 1080p. Under some conditions (high contrast and very fast motion), there may be some video artifacts, especially on curved lines. Also some video editing software will choke on deinterlaced video; so it's important to make sure you've got the right import/export filters etc...

Oh and some cameras offer higher frame rates (generally at lower resolutions), to allow you to play back in slow motion. It's a gimmick, but it's a kinda cool and useful one.

For my purposes, I would like a camera that offers both 24 and 30 frames per second at 1080p. I would prefer 1080p30 (or even 1080p60), but deinterlaced 1080i60 is acceptable. While I'd prefer a true 24p mode, I don't mind 24f mode.

If the camera has higher frame rates available, that would be nice to have; but it's not something I'm specifically looking for.


Every recording has a format. In the analog days, your format was generally dictated by your media. When we went to digital though, format was divorced from the recording media, and all of a sudden there were a lot of options.

The earliest HD camcorders either recorded in proprietary formats; or just recorded in MiniDV format, scaled up to HD. That however turned out to be very inefficient, and different vendors implementations of the process had compatibility issues.

Eventually they standardized on an extension to the MiniDV format that works, called HDV; which is used in most pro level mini-cams,and some pro-sumer level camcorders (like the Canon HV20/30/40 series for example).

Today, there are still a lot of cheaper camcorders that use proprietary formats (the ones that look like those 70s pistol grip flashlights mostly; like the Flip, or Aiptek... though some of them actually do use standard formats, you'll have to read the specs); and you can only get the media into a standard format for editing, by exporting it via special software etc...

Obviously, most folks aren't going to want those for any kind of real video work. That said, they are very cheap, and fun, and are just fine for youtube, or for your teenager to screw around with.

There are basically four standards out there right now for higher end amateur, and lower end professional HD video recording (high end professional cameras all use RAW formats specific to each camera):
  1. Motion JPEG
  2. Raw MPEG
  3. HDV
  4. Vendor specific proprietary formats based on MPEG
  5. AVCHD
Motion JPEG is a format that effectively takes 24, 30, or 60 still jpeg photos per second, and compiles them into a video segment.

MJPEG is popular with digital still cameras that have a video mode, and with some extended definition (more than 640x480 but less than a true high def picture at 1280x720) video cameras (they were never very popular so there aren't many out there); but it produces very large file sizes, and has to be converted into other formats for editing. Also, it takes a fair bit of processing power to process those scenes, so generally speaking length, and resolution, are limited.

That said, some still cameras can produce MJPEG at their full native resolution. It looks spectacular, but generally needs a very expensive camera (for clips more than a few seconds long anyway), and produces HUGE files (a gigabyte a minute or more). Most of those cameras can only shoot for a minute or two because their internal buffers can't process more data.

Raw MPEG and HDV are both generally used in professional/prosumer HD cameras; because both require a lot of computational horsepower, and both produce very large file sizes. This means either you need to have big hard drive based recording systems attached to the cameras, or you need to change the DV tapes frequently.

Since professional filming is done scene by scene, and single scenes rarely last more than a few minutes; frequent tape changes are considered part of the process, and not a major inconvenience.

Oh and I should note, raw-mpeg doesn't necessarily mean readable by other raw-mpeg devices; because each vendor has a slightly different implementation. However, it generally DOES mean readable by third party editing software etc...

So, for the cost and size penalty, you get considerably higher quality; and files that are very easy to edit using professional editing tools.

As of today, most reality tv, and most news from the field that's shot in HD; is shot using HDV equipment. Also many lower budget television shows, made for TV movies, and even some low budget feature films (especially from the niche cable networks) use HDV.

The major vendors also generally have their own proprietary formats; most of which wrap something around the raw MPEG data, in order to make it more efficient etc... etc... All are quite similar, and generally provide roughly the same functionality, with a few spcific features highlighted for a particular vendor etc...

The problem with those proprietary formats of course, are that they are vendor specific. They may be very high quality, and more size efficient, but you can only use software and equipment from that vendor. Of course you can then export that proprietary format using another software tool to a standard format; but then you lose the advantages of the vendor format (however questionable they may be).

Oh and most of the mid to high end cameras that use these propietary formats also offer the option of using standard HDV, or raw MPEG as a fallback option.

Joy eh... Confused yet?

The AVCHD format was created by a consortium of vendors (primarily Sony and Panasonic) in order to produce a standard format, that produced a smaller file size than the raw MPEG solutions, and that would be suitable for recording on media other than tapes or gigantic hard drives.

Basically, it uses the H.264 industry standard (the same standard that YouTube and Itunes use to delivery their HD content, but with higher bit rates; which means higher quality) to wrap an MPEG video and AC3 audio stream into an MPEG-4 file.

The resulting video files are still high quality (though not quite as high as HDV-ProHD or raw MPEG, even at maximum bitrate), but it's MUCH smaller (as in 1/3 the size for the highest quality, and 1/12th the size for the most compressed).

AVCHD is now the dominant standard for amateur tapeless HD video; and most HD capable video editing software supports it (that was not the case when it was introduced).

Because the format is highly compressed, you need a fair bit of horsepower to deal with the files natively, and it takes a long time to transfer and transcode files; but it works. Also, because the major video editing vendors all support it now, you can export and transcode the files into standard MPEG based formats and work with it there.

It's important to understand, that AVCHD is a variable bit rate format; which means you can specify different levels of compression, trading file size for quality.

XP+ at 12Mbps is what I would call the baseline HD level for AVCHD. This quality is very good; considerably better than broadcast HDTV for example, and roughly comarable to the quality of a BluRay played on your HDTV. XP+ may be a bit lower quality than you'd like for actual BluRay authoring however (because you always lose a bit of quality in the process).

Because they have a lower maximum read/write rate than flash or hard drive based recording systems; mini-DVD based camcorders support a maximum AVCHD quality of XP+.

There are two higher quality levels available, FXP, and MXP+.

Most flash or HDD based camcorders support one level of quality higher than DVD based cams: FXP at 17Mbps; which is more than sufficient for BluRay authoring, unless you are capturing high dynamic range scenes, with lot's of fast motion (which would tend to accentuate any flaws in compression).

The latest highest end models also support MXP+ at 24Mbps. MXP+ is theoretically considerably higher than Blu-Ray quality; but it takes twice as much space as XP+ quality (which means half the recording time for the same space), and twice as much processing power to handle.

You can also chose two higher compression levels and lower bit rates, to save file size at the expense of quality.

SP runs at 7Mbps, for approximately 1.7 times the runtime of XP+; and roughly the same quality as broadcast HDTV.

LP runs at 5Mbps, for approximately 2.4 times the runtime as XP+, and roughly the same quality as iTunes HD.

OK NOW are you confused?

Well, don't be. Basically, there are two realistic options right now for midrange and above camcorders; AVCHD, and HDV. HDV uses tapes, AVCHD doesn't. HDV is higher quality, AVCHD uses less storage space, and is nonlinear.

I'd love an HDV-ProHD level minicam, but they're just too expensive (about $2k minimum for 720p/1080i, or $4k minimum for 1080p); so for now, AVCHD will work just fine for me.

Image Stabilization

You know that motion sick feeling you get when you watch most home videos? How everything seems to be twitching, and little blurs creep in?

Yeah, that's because we human beings are shaky, twitchy creatures.

Image stabilization attempts to reduce the effect our twitchy little bodies have on the video we record (or the pictures that we take). This reduces jitter in the video, as well as allowing us to maintain sharpness down into lower light levels.

There are two types of image stabilization out there on the market; optical and digital.

With digital image stabilization, the image processor in the camera compares multiple sequential images, and tries to subtract the motion.

It works about as well as it sounds.

Optical image stabilization works much better. It actually compensates for the tremors by physically moving electronically stabilized lens elements in response to motion, as well as using digital image processing; and it works MUCH better.

You want a camcorder with optical image stabilization; and Canon does it better than everyone else (they've been doing it longer, and for higher end professional equipment, than anyone).


Where most consumer grade camcorders completely fall apart, is with their lenses. Most standard definition camcorder lenses were utter crap. The situation has improved somewhat with HD camcorders, but still the weakest point of the system tends to be the lenses.

Sony and Canon seem to be the exception to this trend; and are generally making much better quality lenses in their consumer grade HD camcorders than other manufacturers (Panasonic is making GREAT pro grade lenses, but that quality hasn't made it down to their consumer grade stuff yet).

Importantly, with their higher end consumer product lines, many of the major manufacturers have standardized on a 37mm lens filter ring, or at least are compatible with 37mm accessories using adapter rings (lower end mini-camcorders often don't have a filter ring at all, or it may be some odd size, as small as 23.5mm. Prosumer grade cameras generally run larger, anywhere from 42mm to 58mm; but they aren't standardized).

I'd really much prefer a camcorder with a changeable lens; but they start around $2k (plus the lenses) so for now, I'll take what I can get, which is a standard sized filter ring.

A 37mm filter ring lets you add decent quality photographic filters; or use step-up adapters to get to the common SLR camera lens filter sizes. Also, there are numerous telephoto extenders, wide angle adapters, and macro adapters at the 37mm size.

For my purposes, I want a low dispersion multicoated lens (called high definition, extended definition etc... depending on what company is marketing it), with either a 37mm or 58mm filter ring.

I'd like a reasonable optical zoom range, say a 40mm-400mm 35mm equivalent (average for a camcorder). I wouldn't want to go much more than 10x, because a very long zoom causes sharpness issues, and vignetting when used with lens adapters.

That approximate zoom range will let me use a .5x wide angle adapter to come down to 20mm equivalent, and a 2x telephoto adapter to come up to 800mm equivalent. Yeah, I'll be losing some quality in the process (TANSTAAFL), but given it's a 1920x1080 camera, and I'm not looking for pro quality, I can live with that range.

I'd also like a lens with a large aperture if possible. The faster the lens the better as far as low light performance, and hyperfocal distance are concerned.

Most standard definition camcorder lenses are dog slow, in the f/3 to f/6 range across their zoom range. Again, as with general lens construction, this is improving with the emergence of HD cameras; which want more light to produce those lovely high resolution images, so they need larger apertures (faster lenses).

For my purposes, I'd like something faster than f/2.8, or even better faster than f/2. If it's relatively fast at full zoom, that'd be nice as well; say f/4 or even better f/3.5.

Oh and if I can get full aperture and shutter control, I'd REALLY love that, but I don't know of any consumer level camera that will give me that (several have aperture priority, or shutter priority modes though).

Oh and ignore so called "digital zoom". All it is, is a crop taken out of the center of the image, then blown up to full size. With a 1920x108o camera, you can take a ridiculous crop and blow it up to claim a 200x zoom; but you haven't actually zoomed any further than your optics, and in the process you're adding artifacts and errors. If you want to crop, do it with your editing software.

Other Features

To me, there are two other important features, that I didn't rate quite high enough for a detailed analysis, but nonetheless are a major factor for me:
  • Connectivity
  • Manual controls
For connectivity, basically you MUST have either USB 2.0 or Firewire data transfer from the camera. No ifs ands or buts, you have to have high speed data transfer.

Now, since most of my computers have Firewire (aka. IEEE 1394), it generally transfers large files better and faster than USB 2, and video editing software generally likes it better; I personally prefer it for video.

USB 2 however, is FAR more widely available. It's on basically every modern computer, and is most likely a better choice for most people.

Oh and if you're going to include USB, it would be nice if you could get realtime live vidcap over USB; for use as a high def web cam, or a security cam etc...

As to video connectivity, HDMI is critical for anything high def. You should also have a standard def output option available; preferably without requiring weird cables and adapters, but that's hard to find. If you DO need adapters, it's nice to get both composite and component (even better if the component supports HD as well).

You won't get any kind of SDI or BNC or other coax professional high def interconnects on a consumer grade camera; and you generally won't get discrete jacks for anything. Instead you get flimsy octopus cables.

On the controls issue... if you've been reading me for any length of time, you know I want manual controls on EVERYTHING. The more manual control over things I have, the closer I can get to the results I want.

Again, for most people, all the manual controls aren't very useful. Hell, half the time they won't be useful to ME; but I want them.

I'd like an external mike jack; because the internal mikes on most camcorders are crap; and they pick up a lot of conduction noise from behing handled etc...

If possible I'd like an accessory hotshoe, to control an external light... Though that's not really necessary, as there are plenty of lights that will attach to a tripod socket, and are self powered.

The Decision

Woot put this up last night at 10pm my time, and I was intrigued from the price, but thrown off by DVD; so I decided I'd do the research.

This morning, I started reading every review I could find (here's the most authoritative and detailed one). Uniformly the consumers who bought the camera loved it except for the battery life; and the pros thought it was good, but don't like DVD cameras, and don't like AVCHD as a whole.

What I like:
  • $299 is an amazing deal
  • Very compact
  • Great physical controls
  • Great manual adjustments and controls (more than most video cameras)
  • 24 frames per second mode
  • High quality Canon glass (high definition, low dispersion)
  • 43.6-436mm 35mm equivalent zoom (10x range)
  • f/1.8-f/3 (twice as fast as most lenses)
  • 37mm filter ring
  • HDMI and USB 2 output
  • Third party batteries are $20 on the street
  • Third party chargers are $20 on the street
  • According to reviews, the best video quality available in the market segment
What I don't like:
  • The battery life is a few minutes under 2 hours, which is a little below average for class
  • OEM batteries are $100 list and $50 on the street
  • OEM chargers are $100 list and $50 on the street
  • There is no microphone jack (most consumer camcorders don't have them unfortunately)
  • There is no accessory hot shoe (again, most consumer camcorders don't have them)
  • I still prefer flash based to DVD based camcorders
  • I still prever HVD to AVCHD
  • According to reviews, problems with the 24p mode
What really made the decision for me however, was the super fast, low dispersion lens; and the 37mm filter ring.

Well that, and these sample videos:

Paris in 720p at 24fps

Paris in 1080p at 24fps

The close up and infinite zoom performance, the color saturation, the rapid autofocus, and the lowlight performance all said to me "this is a camera that will do what I want".

So I pushed the button on the camera, then immediately ordered these:
Kenko .5x pro series high definition wide angle adapter.

Kenko 2x pro series telephoto adapter

Tiffen 37mm filter set.

I also grabbed a third party battery and charger, and step up rings for 46mm, 52mm, 58mm, and 62mm threads (so I can use common SLR filters and screw in adapters and lenses).

I'm still iffy on the whole DVD thing; but I have a plan.

See my thought is this: I want a Canon anyway; at least if I'm going for an AVCHD model (and I can't even come close to affording a pro level HVD right now. If I could, I'd still want a Canon - better lenses - and I'd be buying the $9,000 XL H1S or the new modular Red Scarlet system; which for $4,000 is twice the camera, or for $9000 is four times the camera).

If I find that the DVD media is completely unacceptable, I'll know pretty quickly, so I can box it back up, and give it to someone less demanding as a Christmas gift.

The battery is usable in like six different Canon models, and the 37mm accessories are the standard size for prosumer HVD and AVCHD models, so none of that would be wasted.

Then, a few months or a year from now, the price of flash media will have fallen even further, and the Vixia HF11 (which is the consumer grade camera I want the most right now, and which lists for $1200 but currently sells around $900 - read a review here. It's just been replaced with the $1299 HF-S10), will be on clearance for $500 somewhere.

In the mean time, I can finally get some of those gun and computer videos cranked out.

Wish me luck.