Camcorders: High-Def, No Tape

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The future belongs to tapeless high-definition camcorders. But the future isn't quite here yet. We evaluated six high-definition camcorders--five storage-based models and one miniDV model--and found that tape remains worthy of consideration for several reasons: ease of archiving, lower camcorder costs, less-processor-intensive editing, and a lack of format compatibility issues.

One major difficulty involves the process of working with the AVCHD (Advanced Video Codec High Definition) format, the most common tapeless high-def output format. Right now, AVCHD isn't as easy to work with as HDV, the output format that most tape-based high-def camcorders support.

You can edit HDV content on a computer with a modest 2-GHz Intel Pentium CPU and 2GB of RAM, and you can use more video editing applications (including Microsoft Windows Movie Maker HD and Apple iMovie). But the power required for AVCHD typically starts with a 2.66-GHz Intel Core 2 Quad system. You also have to work with mediocre bundled software, endure transcoding to another format, or purchase an AVCHD-compatible editing program such as Pinnacle Studio Plus 12 or Adobe Premiere Elements 7.

Nevertheless, AVCHD camcorders provide many benefits. For one, you won't have to keep buying tapes (though you will need to maintain plenty of storage space to offload your files). Tapeless models are smaller and lighter than tape-based camcorders, too. And because you don't record to linear tape, you can save time transferring video to your PC by accessing clips at random.

Another major advantage, at least in the near future: AVCHD should make for better-looking HD video. AVCHD allows data-transfer rates of up to 24 megabits per second (mbps), which translates into more recorded data per frame of video and sharper HD footage.

The AVCHD cameras we evaluated, however, choke data capture down to 17 mbps or less, generating video with roughly the same image quality as that from 25-mbps high-definition HDV tape camcorders. That limitation changes with three new AVCHD camcorders released during our testing (too late for inclusion in this roundup): Canon's latest AVCHD camcorders--the Vixia HF11, the Vixia HG20, and the Vixia HG21--have 24-mbps bit rates, and they're available now.

As for the six models we examined in the PC World Test Center, here's the tale of the tape...and the tapeless.

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