How to Buy a Digital Camcorder


Over the past few years, the trusty camcorder has weathered a sea change of epic proportions. Due to the popularity of HD-shooting smartphones and pocket cameras, as well as DSLRs with stunning video-capture capabilities, the current crop of consumer camcorders has had to sprint in order to keep up.

The sum of all those parts is a buyer's market. Today's high-definition models are smaller, lighter, and more affordable than ever—and despite their tiny sizes, they capture more-vibrant colors, sharper video, and smoother motion than ever before. They also let you save footage to flash memory or hard-disk drives, upload footage to the Web with ease, and capture 3D video.

Whether you want to snag clips of your playful spaniel, create the next indie-film masterpiece, or shoot everything in 3D, we'll direct you to a camcorder that meets your needs.

Flash Is King Flash memory rules the camcorder world these days, but options abound. We help you decide among SD-card-based camcorders, fixed flash drives, and other options. more

What Level of Camcorder Is Right for You? Camcorders span the gamut from pocket-size devices to shoulder-mounted professional models to twin-lens 3D camcorders. Here's a summary of the different types to help you get pointed in the right direction. more

Key Features Learn about digital camcorder basics, and find out how a digital camcorder can help you shoot in various situations. more

The Specs Explained Why should optical zoom matter to you? How much money should you be spending anyway? Learn which specs to pay attention to and why. more

Camcorder Video Formats Explained Can your computer handle AVCHD--and does that really matter? Learn the differences between digital video formats, find out more about codec basics, and see if your system is up to the task. more

Camcorder Quick Tips No time to read everything? Here's some fast advice in what to look for at the store. more

In Video: How to Buy a Camcorder

Flash Is King

For quite some time now, shoppers have been presented with many competing forms of video-storage media, including DV tape, MiniDVDs, and on-board hard drives. But at the moment, for most casual video shooters, the choice is clear: flash memory.

In the past few years, camcorder makers have added high-capacity flash memory drives to store footage; in the same period, capacities for removable SDHC and SDXC cards have soared. These days, many camcorders use a combination of an SD card slot (or even multiple SD card slots) and an internal flash drive to store footage. Other camcorders use one storage format or the other exclusively.

Each type of storage has its pros and cons, but the most versatile option is a camcorder that uses SDHC- and SDXC-card-based storage in one way or another. Here are the major advantages and disadvantages of each media-storage format, as well as some guidelines on how to pick the right card for your camcorder.

Hard-Drive-Based Camcorders

On-board hard drives offer a lot more storage capacity than flash, but for most users the trade-offs aren't worth the extra space. You can't swap disk drives in and out, so a hard-drive-based camcorder is less convenient for shuttling video files from the camera to your PC or Mac than a camcorder with removable storage. And even though you may have more than 100GB of storage space on a hard-drive-based camcorder, your battery is bound to poop out long before you can fill that much space in a single shoot.

Due to their small movable parts, hard drives fail more easily than flash memory does. Disk drives are more prone to crashing in challenging environments, too, such as during outdoor shoots, fast-action shoots, or high-altitude (above 10,000 feet) filming—exactly the kinds of situations you rarely get a second chance at capturing.

All that extra hard-drive space can also introduce a few bad habits when it comes to managing your video. It's best to offload smaller chunks of footage to an external drive or a PC as you shoot it, but with a honking 120GB hard drive built into your video camera, you might be tempted to just leave it there. In general, you're better off getting enough flash memory for your shooting session, and then offloading the video to an external hard drive or to a hard drive in your PC. Because massive amounts of on-board storage are some users' primary need, most camcorder makers offer at least one hard-drive-based model.

Flash-Drive-Based Camcorders

For the smallest, lightest, and lowest-cost models--pocket camcorders in particular—an internal, fixed flash drive may be the camcorder's only storage option. In the case of pocket camcorders, storage space may top out at 4GB or 8GB, which is just enough space for an hour or two of footage. A flash drive is generally more durable than a hard drive due to its solid-state nature, but a fixed flash drive has the same limitations as a hard-drive-based camcorder: You can't remove the drive, so it's not the most convenient option for transferring your files to a PC or Mac.

Higher-end camcorders offer a combination of embedded and removable flash memory, which greatly expands your video-recording time without adding much heft to the device. Even on less capacious models, embedded memory is very useful in a pinch, in case you lose your storage card or fill it up.

Picking the Right SD Card

If you opt for an SD-card-based camcorder, you'll need to buy your storage space separately.

SD cards come in three formats: SD, SDHC, and SDXC (the most recent). Cards that use the original SD format max out at 2GB of storage, which isn't enough for most video needs. You'll want to stick with SDHC cards (4GB to 32GB) or SDXC cards (64GB or more).

SDHC cards pack up to 32GB of storage, and SDXC card capacities currently offer up to 128GB of storage. A 64GB card can hold more than 5 hours of 24-mbps 1080 HD video at the the highest quality settings, and things will only get better in the near future: The SDXC card format should reach a whopping 2TB of capacity within the next few years.

But storage capacity isn't the only thing to pay attention to when you buy an SDHC or SDXC card. Each card comes with two speed ratings. The Class rating gives the minimum write speed of the card, which is important to know when you're saving video. Each Class number identifies the minimum write speeds in megabytes per second (MBps). For example, Class 4 cards offer minimum write speeds of 4 MBps. Bit rates for the current crop of consumer camcorders typically top out at 24 megabits per second (mbps), or 3 MBps, so a Class 4 rated card works fine.

If you don't plan on shooting a lot of footage, you needn't splurge on a Class 6 or Class 10 card. However, if you expect to crank out reams of long Full HD video files, get a card with the highest maximum speed rating you can afford. The higher the maximum rating, the faster you can whisk your video from the camera into your PC for editing and archiving.

One very important fact to consider is that SD cards are forward-compatible, but not backward-compatible. In other words, SDHC cards work in SDHC and SDXC slots, but SDXC cards don't work in SDHC slots.

Most camcorders announced in 2011 support the SDXC format, but before you plunk down plastic for an SDXC card, make sure your camcorder and card readers support it. The first SDXC devices came out in 2010, so any camcorder released before then won't support the format. And though most new camcorders do support SDXC, card readers and host devices may have problems reading your SDXC card unless they're brand-new readers or devices. At this time, we'd recommend the highest-capacity SDHC card for your storage needs, but as time goes on, SDXC will likely be compatible with all the newer card readers on the market.

If you have a computer with a built-in card reader, you can augment its ability to read SDXC cards with a USB external card reader. For example, SanDisk's ImageMate All-in-One Reader USB 2.0 accepts SDXC cards, and it can be used on Windows XP, Vista, or Windows 7 machines.

What Level of Camcorder Is Right for You?

Whether you just want a handy device for casual shooting or you earn a living producing broadcast-quality professional video, you can find a camcorder that’s right for you. You can also find something to match any size wallet: Camcorder costs range from less than $100 to thousands of dollars. Here’s what you’ll get in each camcorder class.

Pocket Camcorders ($80 to $250)

The darlings of the YouTube set, pocket camcorders are great for anyone looking for low cost and convenience in an HD camcorder. These camcorders are popular because of their supreme convenience and portability: Stick one in your bag or purse, shoot some video when inspiration strikes, plug the camcorder into your PC, and upload your work to your favorite sharing or social-networking site.

Many pocket camcorders use the MPEG-4/H.264 codec; it requires relatively little PC horsepower, so you can pipe video into your PC very quickly. Most pocket camcorders have a flip-out USB jack that you can plug directly into your desktop PC or laptop; you don’t need to fiddle with a cable. One model, Kodak’s PlaySport ($150), is weatherized and waterproof. You can take it swimming with you and even film underwater (to depths of 10 feet).

Pocket camcorders are only slightly thicker and taller than a smartphone, and they cost as little as $80, which makes them practical stocking stuffers for the holidays. Just don’t expect too much from them. Their small lenses, “lossy” MPEG-4 codec, lack of manual controls, and tiny on-board microphones yield poorer-quality video and audio quality than conventional camcorders offer. Also, be sure to check whether the pocket camcorder you're considering uses fixed internal storage or lets you use a removable memory card to store your footage.

Standard-Definition Camcorders ($180 to $330)

HD is all the rage, so should you bother considering a standard-definition camcorder? If you’re looking ahead to the future, no. But if you need something inexpensive but still full-featured right now, maybe.

SD is slowly fading from the scene, but for budget-conscious buyers who want to shoot decent-quality video, it’s a cost-effective option. Plenty of good-quality SD camcorders are available for $200 to $300; that’s about half the price of the equivalent HD models. Standard-definition video files are smaller and easier to work with, and you can render them quickly on a less-powerful PC, store many more hours of SD than HD video to your hard drive, and back up to DVD more easily. Nearly all current standard-def models use flash memory in place of DV tape.

Many households still have standard-definition televisions, and HD may be overkill for them. That said, the extra money spent on an HD camcorder translates into richer, more-vivid video to watch when you get an HDTV set. HD camcorders usually support downconverting HD video to standard definition. If you have a standard-definition TV and a tight budget, SD is a valid option.

HD Consumer Camcorders ($300 to $1000) If you want better HD video quality in a camcorder and more options, but also want a unit that's portable, reasonably priced, and easy to use, the traditional consumer camcorder may be for you.

These models are bigger than pocket camcorders, but not by much—you can easily slip one into a large coat pocket. Besides capturing video of much better quality, these camcorders offer more options and controls, and they usually include SD card slots for removable storage media.

Most HD consumer camcorders use AVCHD, a codec that imposes heavy demands on your PC but preserves most of the original video's richness and crispness. Most of the components are scaled up from the pocket camcorder: You get more memory, bigger lenses and sensors, and sharper and more-spacious LCD panels, sometimes with touchscreen controls.

The pricier conventional cams offer features similar to what you find on professional and other high-end ("prosumer") models, such as mic jacks, hot shoes for accessories like external video lights and microphones, and manual controls for focus, shutter speed, aperture, and other settings.

One feature that has largely disappeared from the conventional lineup is the eye-level electronic viewfinder (EVF). LCD panels have become remarkably crisp and vivid, but many experienced users prefer EVFs because they cut down on glare and save on battery power. With the increased power demands of an always-on LCD panel and with the camcorder recording data-rich HD video, it’s more important than ever to pay attention to battery life.

HD Prosumer Camcorders ($1000 to $3000)

You’ve used conventional camcorders for some time, learning their ins and outs while shooting birthday parties and picnics. Now you’re ready to take the next step—maybe even taking on paid jobs such as shooting weddings or shooting B roll for a professional videographer. A prosumer camcorder may be for you.

Prosumer camcorders offer a few advantages over mainstream consumer models: higher-quality components (especially sensors and lenses), extensive manual controls and shooting modes, and in many cases true 24p (24-frames-per-second progressive) shooting to produce video that closely resembles motion-picture film.

Prosumer models also provide better audio quality and audio options. Audio often gets short shrift in lower-end models, but many experienced users value clean, crisp audio as much as top-notch video. During a corporate shoot, for example, it’s important to be able to hear the speaker clearly.

Most prosumer models let the user add adapters to upgrade to professional XLR audio connections. These balanced-audio connections dramatically reduce line noise and hum, even if you run long cables from a tripod-mounted camcorder at the back of the auditorium to a microphone positioned near the stage.

Prosumer camcorders tend to be larger and heavier than their consumer-oriented cousins, and for good reason. A large, well-balanced camcorder is much easier to stabilize than an ever-shrinking consumer camcorder, resulting in less-shaky video. The increased size also accommodates a larger number of manual controls, such as rotatable rings for focus and aperture controls, and dedicated buttons to set white balance. It’s much easier to have a physical control at hand than to waste time poking around for it in the LCD screen menu.

Most prosumer models retain the electronic viewfinder—useful for avoiding the sun’s glare during shooting—and it’s often easier to hold the camcorder steady when you’re holding it up to your eye.

As you take more and more jobs, video archiving becomes more important, both to build your own portfolio and to keep backups of work shot for your clients. For these reasons, many prosumer models still use DV tape, often in addition to removable flash memory. Because of its reliability and durability, DV tape remains one of the most popular video archive media, but robust forms of flash memory such as Compact Flash are making serious inroads.

Twin-Lens 3D Camcorders ($1000 to $2000)

If you'd like to boldly go where few home-video enthusiasts have gone before—the third dimension!—then you might want to step up to a 3D camcorder. While it's possible to recreate a 3D effect in still images with a single lens, you'll need a twin-lens setup to record 3D video. A few options are available now: Full HD camcorders with two built-in lenses, detachable 3D conversion lenses for high-definition camcorders, and pocketable models with two built-in lenses.

Just remember, 3D is a different beast altogether. We have an entire guide devoted to 3D video capture and playback, but here are the major things to consider if 3D sounds enticing. First and foremost, you'll need a 3D TV or a 3D-capable computer setup for playing back your footage in full, three-dimensional glory. Second, in order to play back your 3D footage, you'll likely need to connect your camcorder to your 3D TV via HDMI and use it as a playback device. And third, you'll need to make sure that your video-editing software supports 3D footage if you intend to edit your clips.

At this stage, we'd recommend a 3D camcorder only for the unintimidated. If you're up to the challenge, you could become a true 3D video pioneer, because there isn't much competition out there in terms of 3D-minded directors. Besides, all the 3D video-capture devices on the market also shoot 2D video, so you're not locked into the third dimension if you don't get the hang of it.

Video-Capable Digital SLRs ($1000 to $5000)

Use a still camera to shoot professional-quality video? It’s not as crazy as it seems. The latest DSLR cameras are video-capable, capturing HD video as well as excellent still images. For the money, video-capable DSLRs offer exceptionally large sensors and very good lenses, so the user can produce excellent video.

The video is so good, in fact, that DSLR-shot video is cropping up in TV and film productions, including last season’s final episode of House and in a Formula One chase scene in Ironman II. HD video DSLRs offer a combination of small size and strong depth-of-field control, so users can shoot from locations that are too cramped for a bulky professional camcorder.

HD-capable DSLRs are not for everyone, though, especially for people interested in shooting and editing long footage. Most of these cameras shoot MPEG-2 video, which can choke home-editing station setups once file sizes get larger than a few GB (only about 10 to 15 minutes of full HD video). TV and film producers rarely feel limited by this size restriction, because they shoot short scenes, but casual shooters sometimes want to shoot longer footage. Many of these cameras offer only manual focus in video mode, which everyday shooters may find too much of a hassle to operate.

Professional Camcorders ($5000 and up)

Pro-level camcorders are very pricey, but they're an essential investment if you make video production your life’s work. You'll find a vast array of models designed for different types of shooting environments, but in general you'll get the highest quality components available in camcorders, especially lenses, and you can customize operation in many more ways than you can with less-expensive camcorder types.

Many pro-level camcorders let you swap lenses, so you can optimize your video acquisition for the shooting environment. For example, you can switch to a wide-angle lens for tight camera work in a small room or set, and then swap in a zoom lens for greater depth of field in outdoor shoots. Most pro camcorders are larger than other models, and they permit extensive customization via a wide range of programmable buttons, dials, and rocker switches that let you tailor the camcorder controls to your needs.

Pro camcorders offer redundant controls arranged around the camera body and handle so that you have convenient access to your important controls, whether you mount the unit on a tripod, set it on your shoulder, or hold it low for ground-level shoots. Most pro models come with built-in XLR connectors—no adapters needed—for clean, noise-free audio.

In the pro-video world, video archiving is critical. Many of these camcorders use hard-disk drives and tape for archiving and data durability, but camcorder makers are adding Compact Flash (CF) slots, too. CF cards are bigger than SD cards, and they’re easier to handle, faster, and more durable.

Key Features

Recording file format: Most camcorders save video to flash drives or another form of on-board storage, using the AVCHD (Advanced Video Codec High Definition) format.

The AVCHD format isn't as "lossy" as standard MPEG-4, restoring the original video to much of its original clarity and sharpness after compression and decompression. However, you need a powerful computer to handle the complex decompression process. Your PC should have at least a 2GB multicore processor with 4GB of RAM for smooth (or at least not too painful) AVCHD file editing.

AVCHD has finally reached prime time. Most video editing programs now support it. Most AVCHD camcorders can record high-definition video at a bit rate of 24 mbps, producing video that virtually matches the quality of MiniDV tape cameras that use the HDV recording format.

Screen: The camcorder's LCD screen lets you see more easily what you're recording and lets you watch playback previews. Obviously, the bigger and higher-resolution it is, the better, but a bright, big screen will take a toll on your battery life.

Be careful when considering a camcorder's screen: Some don't work well in bright sunlight, an environment where you'll often use the device. It's more important than ever to choose wisely, because camcorder makers have dropped the viewfinder off of most of their consumer-level models, leaving the LCD screen as your only viewing option. What's more, some LCD screens offer a touchscreen interface for most in-camera controls, so try to get some hands-on time with the camcorder before you buy to make sure that any touch interfaces are responsive and intuitive.

Lens: Beyond the realm of pocket camcorders, every camcorder comes with a zoom lens that lets you get closer to your subject. Camcorder manufacturers don't always distinguish clearly between digital and optical zoom. The spec for maximum optical zoom is the more interesting figure: It gives the maximum zoom that the camcorder can achieve by moving its lens elements. Most modern camcorders have at least a 10X optical zoom, which should be more than adequate for general purposes.

A digital zoom crops and magnifies your footage after the optical zoom is fully extended, as the camcorder enlarges part of the image to fill the screen. This method leads to grainy, pixelated, and generally unpleasant-looking images. Sometimes, the quality is so poor that you can't see what you're taping.

Image stabilization: All camcorders perform one of two types of image stabilization--optical or electronic--to reduce jittery video caused by shaky hands. With optical stabilization, the camcorder's lens mechanism moves to compensate for external movement. With electronic image stabilization, the image captured by the lens "floats" on the sensor, and the camcorder uses internal circuitry after the image has been captured to interpret the video. Optical stabilization usually provides better results; in the past it tended to appear on more-expensive camcorders, but these days some moderately priced models have it too.

Batteries: The amount of recording and playback time you'll get out of a battery varies, but most camcorders should be able to record for at least an hour with the included battery. It's always a good idea to buy an extra battery and bring it with you on a long or important shoot; and keep in mind that repeatedly reviewing the footage you just shot will drain your camcorder's juice quickly. Additional higher-capacity batteries typically cost from $50 to $100.

Microphones: Sound can be as important to a video as image. We've found that camcorders with microphones mounted in the front tend to produce better sound than those with microphones on top of the unit. Top-mounted microphones often pick up the voice of the person operating the camera, drowning out everything else. Some camcorders offer zoom microphones that emphasize the subject's voice when the zoom lens is used, and some come with a socket for plugging in an external microphone. Either type of microphone can be very useful for recording presentations or speeches.

Still photography: Many digital camcorders can serve as digital cameras, saving still images to a memory card or to tape. Some can save images at the same resolution as a 12-megapixel camera (but watch out for models that produce interpolated high-resolution images from lower-resolution sensors). Nevertheless, none of the camcorders we've tested has performed as well at taking still pictures as a dedicated still camera—they simply don't provide the same level of control or the same image quality.

Controls: We have found that smaller camcorders can be a little more difficult to use because their controls don't naturally sit where your fingers fall, particularly if you have large hands. Of course, heavy, bulky models can become tiring to carry, so strive for a balance.

Low-light modes: Many camcorders have the ability to film in very low light, whether by using a special slow-shutter mode that makes the most of ambient lighting, or through built-in illumination from one or more LEDs. A few models include an infrared light that lets you film in total darkness, but these are generally going the way of the dodo. Low-light modes can be very useful in poorly lit settings, but video captured with these tools enabled won't look as good as video captured in bright or sunny locations. For example, slow-shutter modes may cause moving subjects to "smear" or "ghost," and infrared footage has an otherworldly effect, too (think Blair Witch Project).

The Specs Explained

While a camcorder's specs don't tell the whole story, they can help you narrow your choices. You can use the camcorder's price, along with specs like LCD screen size, weight, and type of microphone, to weed out the ones that won't work for you.

Keep in mind that while a big LCD screen and lots of extra features justify a higher price, ease of use and overall size are also important considerations. Even the lightest camcorder won't do you much good if the controls are too small for your hands, so always try the camcorder out before you buy. Remember that the lightest cameras may sacrifice other features, and they'll often have a top-mounted microphone simply because there's nowhere else to put it. Then again, weight may be an important enough consideration to justify those trade-offs.

The more optical zoom, the better. Most modern camcorders come with at least a 10X optical zoom. Don't pay too much attention to the digital zoom, which simply enlarges the image the lens captures; the optical zoom is far more important. In the semi-pro range, you can expect to get a lens with higher-quality optics.

Important: Weight

A camcorder's weight affects how easy it is to use even more than you'd expect. The heavier it is, the more likely you'll leave it at home—this is why pocket camcorders are so popular despite their comparatively poor video quality.

Somewhat Important: Microphone Placement

Look for a front-mounted microphone, if possible. But if you have to settle for a top-mounted mic, look for one with an audio-zoom function. Also look for the ability to connect an external microphone, especially if you anticipate shooting stationary subjects.

Somewhat Important: Low-Light Modes

Long shutter modes or special infrared lights allow you to shoot in very little light. Higher-end models include battery-thrifty LED illumination built into the camera, but this method doesn't work nearly as well as a dedicated, external video light.

Somewhat Important: Screen Size

A larger screen makes it easier to see what you're recording and facilitates playback. But keep in mind that the screen size will take a toll on your camcorder's battery life, especially if the camcorder uses that LCD as its only viewfinder. Simply put, a big, bright LCD will drain your camera's battery more quickly. Though some models have whopping, 3-plus-inch screens, those big LCDs make the camcorder larger, too. As for touchscreens, that's a personal call; many new camcorders offer access to menu items and playback controls via a touchscreen LCD.

Minor: Geo-tagging

Have you ever watched video you took years ago, and wondered where you shot it? This problem grows worse over time, especially now that we no longer have DV tape boxes to label, and instead let video clips pile up in flash memory and hard drives, and forget to give those clips meaningful file names. Some camcorders sport GPS receivers that attach geotags to tell you exactly where you shot the footage.

Minor: Ports

Most camcorders have USB 2.0 ports for transferring video to your computer or for connecting external hard drives for backup. Most also offer HDMI ports so you can connect your camcorder to an appliance like an HDTV and watch your video. Many HD camcorders allow you to downconvert HD video to SD, which you can then hook up to and view on a standard-definition TV using the camcorder's S-video or composite connectors.

Camcorder Video Formats Explained

You've shot your video, hooked your camcorder to your TV, and watched your creation in vivid, big-screen HD. Now you’re inspired to do more with it. You may want to jazz it up in video-editing software, view it on your PC or smartphone, publish it on Facebook or YouTube, or back it up to a hard drive, DVD, or Blu-ray disc.

To make such jobs easier, your camcorder saves footage in a particular digital video format, such as MPEG-4, AVCHD (Advanced Video Coding High Definition), HDV, or MPEG-2. At the core of each video format is a chunk of software called a codec (a term derived from coder/decoder). HD video file sizes are already beefy; but without a codec, the files would be even more cumbersome chunks of data.

Each codec squeezes down a source video file to make it easier to store and faster to transfer from your camcorder to an external device. On the other end of the transfer, the codec decompresses the file and restores it to the highest quality possible. However, the compression that consumer camcorders use is “lossy,” meaning that after the codec has its way with your file, you’ll never get the same-quality footage as you did before your video was compressed. That said, in many cases the dip in quality after compression/decompression isn’t noticeable to the eye.

The Big Two: MPEG-4 and AVCHD

For most camcorder shoppers right now, the choice of file formats comes down to either MPEG-4, a popular format for pocket camcorders and digital cameras, or AVCHD, a format growing in popularity among those using conventional HD camcorders and some digital cameras. Older, tape-based camcorders use HDV, but camcorder makers have largely abandoned tape for SD flash storage. MPEG-2 endures, but at the margins: Some higher-end HD camcorders and HD-capable digital SLRs use the MPEG-2 format. MPEG-2 is the also the main format in standard-definition camcorders, which have mostly ceded the limelight to their HD successors.

Of the two leading formats, MPEG-4 files are generally smaller and easier to work with, especially in video-editing programs. Both MPEG-4 and AVCHD use the same H.264 codec, but the MPEG-4 format includes much less data, which helps keep files comparatively slim and fast. MPEG-4 has also been around for many years, so it enjoys broad compatibility with applications, Web-based sharing services, and operating systems. That minimizes the time necessary to convert MPEG-4 files into other formats: Since most laptops can easily handle MPEG-4 files, users can quickly move MPEG-4 video onto a PC for editing, and then upload them to the Web.

AVCHD offers more features, but at the expense of larger file sizes, more-processor-intensive editing, and a possible need to convert clips to another format to get them to play nicely with your software or operating system. Each AVCHD file includes the ability to add metadata for each clip, thumbnail images, presentation tools such as navigation menus and subtitles, and a file system that lets you easily save video files to Blu-ray discs. The actual video clips save as MTS files.

AVCHD's rich extras add up to particularly big video files, so you may need to pump up your computer’s hardware to handle them. Your PC should sport at least a 2GHz multicore processor plus 4GB of RAM and a good graphics card for smoother (or at least less painful) AVCHD file editing.

Compatibility remains an issue when it comes to AVCHD. Panasonic and Sony launched AVCHD just a few years ago, and software is still playing catch-up. You may have to upgrade your video-editing programs and poke around for third-party applications to convert between AVCHD and other video formats. Windows 7 is the only PC operating system to offer native support for AVCHD; earlier OSs require you to install additional software even for file playback on your computer.

Also, some websites still require you to convert such files to a compatible format before you can post the video to them, although YouTube handles MTS files natively. All that said, support for AVCHD is steadily growing. Even some affordable editors, such as Vegas Movie Studio HD Platinum ($95) and Pinnacle Studio HD ($39), now support AVCHD. But video editors can vary widely in how much they support AVCHD, and in how well they wrangle these massive video files.

The situation is fast evolving. Check in with us for the latest video hardware and software reviews, and read up on the latest user experiences working with AVCHD files in forums at video-production sites such as,, and

Quick Camcorder Shopping Tips

Are you ready to buy a digital camcorder right now? Like, soon enough that you don't have time to read through this entire article? Here are some lightning-fast tips to help you find a camcorder that's right for you. Print this page and head to the store!

Check out the LCD screen in daylight, if possible. Some screens will wash out in bright sunlight, and you'll want to make sure you can easily see what you're recording under any conditions.

Look at the lens's optical zoom ratio instead of its digital zoom ratio. With a digital zoom, the camcorder is merely enlarging the image in the viewfinder instead of giving you a genuinely closer look. The optical zoom spec is much more important--you'll want at least 10X optical zoom.

For longer recording times, buy an extra, higher-capacity battery. The battery that comes with most camcorders may last only an hour or so. For $50 to $100, you can buy a longer-lasting battery, so factor that into your cost if you think you'll need it. (Remember, though, that larger batteries add to the camera's weight.)

Front-mounted microphones get better results. Top-mounted microphones tend to capture the voice of the person using the camera, drowning out everything else. If you want the best sound on a conventional camcorder, factor in an extra $50 to $100 for an external microphone. Make sure, of course, that your camcorder has a place for you to plug it in.

Try out the camera's controls before you buy. Sometimes the smallest camcorders can be hard to use, especially if you have large hands. A larger model may work better for you if it's more comfortable to handle. Make sure that a touchscreen-based camcorder has a responsive and intuitive interface.

Check out exposure controls. All camcorders offer a fully automatic mode, but some models have manual and semi-manual exposure modes. For example, some models let you shoot at slower shutter speeds than others, or have aperture settings that allow more light in. Many also offer scene modes, which you may be familiar with from digital still cameras.

Low-light options let you shoot in dim settings. Many cameras offer a long shutter mode to help you capture images in darkness, and a few offer an infrared light for shooting in total darkness.

Pump up your PC for AVCHD. Editing your HD video may mean that you'll need to bulk up your computer. Your PC should have a 2.0GHz or greater multicore CPU and at least 2GB of RAM; 4GB or more would be much better. You may also need to update your video-editing package for full AVCHD compatibility.

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