Best Cheap Camcorders
- Published on
- By Michael Sweet
There are plenty of good, cheap camcorders on the market, but if your budget is limited, you'll have to make a choice: a pocket camcorder that records video in high definition but lacks other features, or a full-size camcorder with more features but no HD. Not surprisingly, most well-known camcorder manufacturers are familiar names from the camera business, such as Canon, Sony, Vivitar, and Kodak. Flip Video is particularly well-known for its pocket models. Pocket camcorders range in price from about $75 to as much as $200, while the cheaper full-size camcorders go for $200 to $250 or so.
Cheap Camcorders Buying Guide
Before you spend too much time shopping, you should decide which type of camcorder best fits your style. Pocket camcorders are cheap, small, and very portable but lack some of the features found on full-size camcorders (such as optical zoom and image stabilization). The larger models have more features and can be considerably more expensive. Full-size camcorders that record in high definition start out at $500 and climb beyond $1,000. As an aside, if you're willing to buy a reconditioned camcorder, you can often pick one up for $50 to $100 below the price of a new model.
Camcorder Features.There are plenty of features to consider when comparing cheap camcorder models. Camcorders can use a variety of media to store video, including flash memory, small recordable DVDs, or even a built-in hard drive. Some camcorders have a high optical zoom range, whereas the pocket models are mostly restricted to digital zoom (more on this below). You'll also want to check out a camcorder's battery life, resolution, and microphone. Let's take a look at the features you should be familiar with when shopping for a camcorder.
Media Storage.One of the most important decisions to make about a new budget camcorder is which kind of storage it will use. There are several options. Flash memory is among the most popular. Flash memory is relatively inexpensive and durable, but due to its small size, it can't store quite as much data as other formats. However, its small size makes it ideal for pocket camcorders, and many cheap camcorders, such as the second-generation Flip MinoHD (starting at $199), include built-in flash memory or use flash memory cards. Cheap camcorders such as the Samsung SC-MX20 (starting at $205), often use a specific type of flash memory card, called SD/SDHC (Secure Digital/Secure Digital High Capacity). When shopping for flash memory for a camcorder, keep in mind that the memory should be rated for a certain speed. PC World's camcorder buying guide suggests SD/SDHC flash memory rated at Class 4 or Class 6 (the higher the number, the faster the card's speed). If your camcorder uses Sony flash memory, look for a Memory Stick Pro Duo card. SDHC and Memory Stick Pro Duo card prices vary quite a bit, depending on the storage size and class of the card, but most cost in the neighborhood of $20 to $40.
Cheap camcorders have been using another popular format, MiniDV, for many years. MiniDVs are tiny cassette tapes that store the video and audio. It's a cheap storage medium, which is perhaps its greatest advantage; you can buy a four-pack of 60-minute Maxell MiniDV cassettes at Walmart for a mere $9.84. The format has been around for a very long time and is being replaced by flash memory and other storage options, but you can still find a cheap MiniDV camcorder, like the Sony Handycam DCR-HC52 (starting at $250). MiniDVs do have some drawbacks, though. As consumer electronics experts point out, transferring video from a cheap MiniDV camcorder to a PC is a long, slow process. You can only fast-forward or rewind through your video sequentially, so there's no skipping directly to a particular part of the video as you can with other storage options. As you might expect, MiniDV tapes are also fragile; flash memory cards and DVDs are more durable.
When you think of hard drives as a storage medium, you usually think of PCs. But some camcorders, such as the up-market Canon Vixia HG21 (starting at $699) or Panasonic SDR-H80A (starting at $399), use small hard drives to store video. The biggest advantage of camcorder hard drives is that they have large storage capacities. It's also easy to transfer video from the camcorder's hard drive to your PC because once connected, the PC will detect the camcorder's hard drive as an external drive, letting you simply drag and drop the files from the camcorder's drive to your PC. Furthermore, you don't have to buy additional storage, like tapes or mini-DVDs. Once you've copied the video to your PC, you can delete any data on the camcorder's hard drive and start recording again. And, because camcorder hard drives have such large storage capacities, they're a good choice for recording high-definition video, which requires a lot of storage space due to the large file sizes of the video.
Hard drive camcorders tend to be relatively expensive and far beyond the Cheapism range. Although we did find the Panasonic SDR-h80 (starting at $259), which features a 60GB hard drive that stores as much as 14 hours of standard-definition video, splurging a bit can get you Canon’s Vixia HG21, with its sizeable 120GB hard drive and high-def recording at a resolution of 1080p. High-def HD camcorder reviewers on CNET, Digital Trends, and MacWorld praise this camera’s video quality, and the Macworld review notes that the Vixia’s hard drive can store 11 hours of video at its highest-quality recording settings.
There's yet another storage option you may come across when shopping for a cheap camcorder: DVDs. Models such as the Sony Handycam DCR-DVD650 (starting at $249) are generally a little larger because they have to accommodate the disc tray. Some cheap DVD camcorders, including the DCR-DVD650, record to mini-DVDs. (Mini-DVDs are tiny 8cm recordable discs, but you should still be able to play them in your DVD player.) DVDs do have a few weaknesses as a storage medium for camcorders. First, the discs tend to be a little more expensive than MiniDV tapes, and each disc typically stores only 30 minutes of video. Also, as a camcorder review in PC World points out, the video quality of cheap DVD camcorders isn't quite as good as that of other storage options.
Camcorder Lenses.Camcorders typically include several lens-related features, such as autofocus, zoom, and image stabilization. The focus feature on discount camcorders is relatively straightforward. Full-size models, like the Canon FS200 (starting at $250), Sony Handycam DCR-DVD650, and Samsung SC-MX20, sport autofocus, whereas the pocket-size Flip MinoHD and Kodak Zx1 (starting at $99) have a "fixed focus" lens that doesn't require focus adjustments.
Things get more interesting when it comes to the zoom. As you shop for a discount camcorder, you'll no doubt come across the terms "optical zoom" and "digital zoom." What's the difference between them? Camcorders with optical zoom work just like a telescope. When using optical zoom, you adjust the camcorder's lens so that it magnifies the image you're focused on, narrowing the lens's field of vision in the process. Imagine a birthday party in which a small child is surrounded by family at the table. You can use the discount camcorder's optical zoom to close in on the child's face as she blows out the birthday candles, but as you zoom in, the other family members are left out of the picture. Digital zoom works differently. Rather than using the discount camcorder's lens, digital zoom crops and then enlarges the pixels in a portion of the image, just as you might use a photo editor to crop and then enlarge part of a digital photograph.
Optical zoom is the better of the two options, and almost all full-size camcorders have some degree of optical zoom. For example, the Sony Handycam DCR-DVD650 has 60X optical zoom, the Canon FS200 has 37X optical zoom, and the Samsung SC-MX20 has 34X optical zoom; the larger the zoom number, the closer you can zoom into the image. If you're in the market for a budget pocket camcorder, you'll notice that most rely only on digital zoom because it's impractical to incorporate an optical zoom lens in such a small package. The Flip MinoHD second-generation pocket camcorder, for example, uses 2X digital zoom, as does the Kodak Zx1.
We mentioned image stabilization earlier, and this is a feature you should definitely look for, particularly in an inexpensive full-size camcorder. No matter how steady you think your hands are when shooting video, they're shaking at least a little, and you may see that "camera shake" effect when watching your videos. Image stabilization, as its name suggests, helps "steady" the video as you record it, greatly reducing the effect of camera shake in your video. It's a great feature, but isn't found on all low-priced camcorders, especially cheap pocket camcorders. However, we did find a few low-priced camcorders with image stabilization, including the Sony Handycam DCR-DVD650, Samsung SMX-C10GN (starting at $200), and Sanyo Xacti VPC-CG10 (starting at $149).
Resolution.With some of the newest camcorder models, high-def digital video recording has finally come to the masses. We found a few cheap camcorders, including pocket camcorders, that can record video at a resolution of 720p, which is the minimum resolution for high definition video. Some camcorders, such as the JVC Picsio GC-FM1 (starting at $130), can even record video at a resolution of 1080p, the highest video resolution currently available. 1080p camcorders tend to be very expensive, though (this JVC model is an exception), so don't count on finding one worth buying in the budget range for a while. Cheap camcorders can also record video at the standard-definition resolution of 640 x 480, which is the same resolution that TVs used before the high-def video era. Camcorders that exclusively record standard-definition video tend to be less expensive than those that can record high resolution video. Our picks for the top cheap pocket camcorders, the Flip MinoHD and Kodak Zx1, both record video at the high-def resolution of 720p; budget full-size camcorders like the Sony Handycam DCR-DVD650, the Canon FS200, and the Samsung SC-MX20, all record video at the standard resolution of 480i.
So, should you stick with standard-definition video or opt for high-definition? In this era of HDTV and Blu-ray, a high-definition camcorder certainly seems appealing; high-definition camcorders capture sharp, clear video. But as reviews in PC World note, high-definition video can be difficult to work with. First, you'll need a video editing program (such as Pinnacle Studio HD, starting at $49.99) to handle HD video, particularly if you record that video in the new AVCHD format, as do the high-end flash- and hard drive-based HD camcorders. You'll also need a fairly stout computer to edit the large, complex HD video files (PC World recommends a PC with at least a 2.66GHz Intel Core 2 Duo CPU for AVCHD files, or a 2GHz Pentium CPU for the HDV files that HD MiniDVs use). Bottom line: If you typically upload your videos to YouTube, email short clips to friends, or just burn the occasional video disc, then you probably don't need a high-definition camcorder. However, if you're a die-hard videophile who loves to edit home movies and wants to work with the best, highest-quality video, then HD is for you.
Battery Life.The battery life of any electronics product is always something to consider when shopping for a new device, and generally speaking, the longer the battery life, the better. Full-size camcorders, like the Samsung SMX-C10GN, often use a rechargeable lithium-ion battery that lasts a couple of hours, perhaps a bit longer. Some pocket camcorders, such as the Flip MinoHD, also use a lithium-ion battery that recharges when plugged into your PC's USB port. Other pocket camcorders, such as Kodak's Zx1, use rechargeable AA batteries. As you might expect, a cheap pocket camcorder's small batteries (whether lithium-ion or AA) won't record hours upon hours of continuous video, but these little camcorders are designed to record short, quick clips anyway, so it's not a serious issue.
Camcorder Ports.Cheap camcorders, whether large or small, have at least one (and perhaps several) ports so you can transfer your video to a PC or TV. Many camcorders, such as the Samsung SMX-C10GN, include a basic audio/video port to transfer video directly to a TV. A handful of discount camcorders, such as the Kodak Zx1, may even include an HDMI port to transfer high-definition digital video to your television. HDMI is the best quality connection for high-definition video. Most budget camcorders also include a USB port so you can connect your camcorder to a PC. In the case of the second-generation Flip MinoHD, the USB connection will also recharge the unit's battery.
LCD Panels.One of the coolest features of cheap digital camcorders is the flip-out LCD panel that lets you watch the video you're recording. The LCD panels on bargain camcorders is usually at least two inches (a common size for pocket camcorders), and most, like the Canon FS200, have a 2.7-inch LCD panel. Naturally, a larger LCD is easier to see.
Most camcorders also have a viewfinder in addition to the LCD panel. A viewfinder is convenient for a couple of reasons. First, using a viewfinder in place of the LCD extends your camcorder's battery life. Second, some LCD panels can be hard to see in bright daylight. Use the viewfinder instead to clearly see the scene you're shooting.
Camcorder Audio.Camcorder users are more concerned with the quality of the video than the audio, but it's still nice to be able to capture good-quality sound. The audio from budget pocket camcorders tends to be poorer than that of full-size camcorders, although it's still adequate. Some camcorder users opt for a separate external mic that does a better job picking up the audio; an example is a Sony zoom mic (starting at $70) that's designed for Sony Handycam camcorders. If you think you'd like to buy a separate mic for your camcorder, make sure the camcorder has a mic port. This is a pretty common feature on cheap full-size camcorders.
Most camcorder users seem pleased with the cheap camcorders they purchased. We did, however, find plenty of consumers who had reservations about their camcorders, most of which concerned the audio quality of the built-in mic and the unit's performance in low light conditions. Still, it's clear that even though some budget camcorders may have a few shortcomings, there are good values to be had.
Video Performance.The most important aspect of any camcorder is how well it records video, and we found that most camcorders meet users' expectations in this regard, at least when shooting video in daylight. An expert camcorder review on CNET notes that the Flip MinoHD (2nd generation) pocket camcorder, with its high-def capabilities, records high quality video even in low light -- a common stumbling block for cheap camcorders, because video shot in low light often looks grainy. A camcorder review at Digitalcamerareview.com praises the sharp video quality of the Kodak Zx1, particularly when recording at its highest setting; not surprisingly, the review says the Zx1 performs best in bright light, which is true of most camcorders, especially pocket models.
We found several reports about sub-par performance in low light conditions. Users posting camcorder reviews on Amazon.com about the pocket-size JVC Picsio GC-FM1 gripe that the video appears grainy when shot in low light. This assessment is echoed in a comparative camcorder review on Macworld.com, which concludes that the Flip MinoHD (second generation) easily outperforms the Picsio in low-light conditions. A Best Buy user review also pans the full-size Samsung SMX-C10GN for poor performance in low light. One full-size camcorder that wins qualified approval for its low-light performance is the Canon FS200; a camcorder review at About.com comments that despite some graininess when shooting in low light, overall video quality is still quite good.
Users also experience trouble with camera shake in camcorders that lack image stabilization. Camcorder reviews on CNET, for example, say one downside of the Canon FS200 is the absence of image stabilization. In fact, the only model on our list with image stabilization is the Sony Handycam DCR-DVD650; the Samsung SC-MX20 does incorporate this feature but the model is slammed in camcorder reviews for poor video quality. Image stabilization is not common on bargain pocket-size camcorders, although we did find one camcorder that supports it: Sanyo's Xacti VPC-CG10. Consumers whose budget camcorders do boast image stabilization don't mention camera shake as an issue in their reviews.
Another feature cheap pocket camcorders often lack is optical zoom, which is something many users value. Samsung’s SC-MX20 garners mixed reviews overall, but several consumers posting comments on Amazon point to its 34X zoom as one of the features they like best. An expert camcorder review at CNET mentions the 37X optical zoom on the Canon FS200 as a notable feature. And you’re not likely to find a cheap pocket camcorder that even comes close to the Sony Handycam’s DCR-DVD650’s massive 60X optical zoom; the only budget model we found with an optical zoom is the Sanyo Xacti VPC-CG10, with a 5X optical zoom.
Audio Performance.One feature on many cheap camcorders, the built-in microphone, often leads to disappointment, according to camcorder ratings by users and experts. The mic issue crops up most often with small pocket camcorders. Kodak's Zx1 garners praise from most users and experts for its other features but gets panned in a Tech Hive camcorder review for its weak microphone. JVC’s Picsio GC-FM1 also takes a hit for its audio quality, with a Macworld reviewer noting that it recorded a lot of hissing during testing -- obviously not a desirable quality.
We didn't come across many reviewers, expert or otherwise, who go out of their way to praise the audio quality of these budget camcorders, so this seems to be a common problem in this product/price category. A couple of users posting on Newegg.com, however, like the audio on the 2nd generation Flip MinoHD, noting that its audio quality is surprisingly good. Such praise, however faint, for low-priced camcorders’ audio is hard to come by.
Ease of Use.Many users of smartphones and digital cameras struggle to learn all the ins and outs of these devices, and we expected to see similar concerns expressed about cheap camcorders. Indeed, camcorders can be pretty complex. For the most part, however, budget camcorder users found them quite manageable, especially the pocket models that are designed to be basic video recorders. Walmart shoppers lavish praise on the Flip MinoHD's simplicity, stating in reviews that this model is not just easy to use, but "extremely," "incredibly," and "super" easy to use. Sony's Handycam DCR-DVD650, a full-size camcorder, attracts similar accolades from users posting camcorder reviews on Best Buy.Of course, consumers and experts have their fair share of complaints. Almost all camcorder reviews we read concerning the JVC Picsio GC-FM1 -- in Macworld, and Camcorderinfo.com -- note that the camcorder's buttons can be tricky to use because they're nearly flush with the camera body and hard to press. Camcorder reviews on Amazon likewise note problems with the buttons. One Amazon poster mentions that the Picsio’s body feels pretty fragile and light, and another says this low-cost camcorder feels, well, cheap.
Sanyo's inexpensive Xacti VPC-CG10 generally receives good marks for most of its features, but it stumbles a bit around ease of use. A pocket camcorder review on Camcorderinfo.com mentions that the Xacti is more complicated to use than most pocket camcorders largely due to a "convoluted" menu system, and further notes that the joystick controller is "imprecise." Lefties may have difficulty using the Sanyo Xacti VPC-CG10, according to a review on Amazon, which explains that the LCD flips out from the left side of the pistol-grip handle. And it took a long time for the reviewer at Tech Crunch to figure out how to delete video clips from the Xacti. Put simply, this cheap camcorder isn't the most intuitive model out there. In most cases, though, consumers say their camcorders' controls are intuitive and award them good marks for ease of use.