Digital Camcorders

The following is somewhat reformatted from a recent discussion on Cnet about DVD camcorders.

I know many people are considering a digital camcorder for the first time, as their old 8mm and VHS-C cameras start to die. Many people think that a DVD camcorder is a great idea, because it’s so simple: just record to the disk, hit the “finished” button, and play it on a DVD player (although you’ll be recording about 20 minutes on that disk, not the two hours you expect from a full-sized DVD). That works great if you want the exact same capability you had with a simple analog video camera. If you want to produce nicer video, though, the story is quite different.
There are some people who don’t edit their videos, who don’t mind that their home videos look amateurish and contain fingers over lenses and heads blocking shots and poor audio. For those people, a DVD camcorder is a great fit. They neither want nor need the editing quality they are denied by recording in a lossy format; they need and want, however, the ease of taking their videos and dropping them in nearly any DVD player and watching them.

Recording to a DVD in DVD-standard formats means lossy compression and the joys of MPEG formats that anyone who has tried to edit an MPEG can understand. The MiniDV camcorders can dump uncompressed video to your computer, where you can delete the scenes that look bad, you can punch up the color balance and contrast, you can add a music soundtrack if you like. All these things are wonderful, and I do them with all my home videos, producing slick DVDs with titles and transitions and menus for my relatives. That niche is where I want to be.

DVD is a great medium to VIEW video with. It’s even a great medium to shoot video if you understand its limits.

DVDs and MiniDV and hard drives and flash memory all record digitally. So, talk of capacity should include RAW storage in bytes, not just in minutes. Any talk of minutes gets you embroiled in compression issues.

A MiniDV tape holds 13 gigabytes of data. An 8cm DVD (the smaller ones used in camcorders) holds 1.4 gigabytes. An expensive SD card holds 4 gigabytes. A hard-drive based camcorder holds (as of today) around 30 gigabytes. That’s the actual storage capacity, folks. Now, how much do each cost? Well, the best price per gigabyte is the tape, as it has been throughout digital media history.

The cheap nature of tapes convinced the DV forum to make DV standard very close to uncompressed. This makes it easy to edit without losing quality.

The low capacity of 8cm DVDs, and the need to make them compatible with DVD players, means that DVDs have the worst video quality (among hard drives, DV tape, and DVDs at least – some of the flash recorders are toys). The compatibility of DVDs is their greatest asset. Hit “done” on that camcorder, and two minutes later you can be watching your home movie on a big screen. Not so with tapes.

DVD format does have an inherent flaw – lossy compression.

Tapes still exist for every high-capacity recording system in use today. High-end video recorders use tape. High-end data backup systems use tape. The reason is simple: high density at low cost.

If the video was recorded to the DVD as an uncompressed video file (like the DV standard used on tapes), you’d swap disks every six minutes. Also, the DVDs would be DVD-ROM format, and wouldn’t play on your DVD player – which is the selling point for most DVD recording camcorder users.

When you export a DVD format video to edit it, you are taking an MPEG (with I, B, and P frames) and editing it into a different compression scheme for whatever your target system is. If it’s DVD again, you compress an MPEG to MPEG, each generation producing another set of MPEG compression artifacts.

So, you can get high capacity and high quality on tape. You can get easy compatibility with DVD. You can’t get both. If you want DVD-player compatibility, then the DVD camcorder format has an inherent flaw – MPEG.

The hard drive recorders, at least those that you see marketed for typical consumers, use compressed video because they don’t generally have removable hard drives. With a fixed disk, you want more capacity than a single tape, obviously. So, the JVC Everio and others have MPEG-compressed video and the same issues with editability as the DVDs.

To me, the DVD camcorder is to video what the point-and-shoot camera is to photography. Just because we geeks want the best quality and ease of editing, doesn’t mean that “good enough” matched with “really easy” is a bad thing. So, if you know what you want to do with your video, that makes all the difference in the world for what type of camcorder to buy.