Danny Gorog December 2, 2011
The compact camcorder genre is a small but resilient one, with the devices still much-favoured by bloggers, journalists and consumers who don’t like tech that’s bigger than their hands.
Before we jump into the product reviews, it’s worth devoting a few words to their history, best defined by a discontinued product – the Flip.
The Flip, introduced to the US market as the ‘Pure Digital Point & Shoot’ in May 2006, was the follow-up product to a popular camcorder designed for one use only (similar to a disposable camera). A commercial failure, Pure Digital enhanced it by including a built-in USB port that made getting the movies off the camera easy. At the same time, it renamed the product ‘Flip Video’ and embarked on a successful advertising campaign.
David Pogue, a well-known New York Times columnist reviewed the Flip and all of a sudden its popularity sky- rocketed. At its peak, the Flip gained a 13 percent share of the entire US camcorder market.
So what made the Flip a success? Among other things it was just really easy to use. All you did to use the Flip was turn it on and hit the big red button to start filming. If you didn’t like that bit of footage you just captured you hit the Trash button to delete it. And that’s all there is to it. Literally. No mucking around with resolutions, white balance, focus, fade-ins or anything else that makes expensive video cameras so complex.
The other thing that made the Flip popular was the way you got movies off the device, which you did by ‘flipping’ up the internal USB adaptor, connecting to your computer and directly copying off the video files. The Flip was also relatively small (10.4cm x 5.7cm x 3.2cm). Like point-and-shoot cameras, it was small enough to fit in your pocket.
In 2009, Pure Digital ‘flipped’ (sold) the Flip to Cisco, which decided that it wanted a presence in the consumer electronics market. But as often happens with these corporate take-overs Cisco quickly tired of selling products in the consumer market and killed the Flip in April this year.
Still, as the defining product of the compact camcorder genre it’s important to measure Flip competitors with the same metrics that made the Flip a hit. For starters, the product needs to be simple to use, small enough to easily fit in a pocket, record high-quality video and be reasonably priced. Otherwise, it’s competing with other products categories like Smartphones and dedicated point-and- shoot cameras.
WHY YOU SHOULD USE A DEDICATED CAMCORDER
With your iPhone now able to shoot HD video, one of the questions I get asked often is why bother with a stand-alone camcorder?
It’s true, video and lens quality on the latest iPhone makes it a great substitute for a dedicated camcorder, but there are still some limitations to be aware of.
First, the maximum storage your iPhone has is 64GB, some of which will already be used for images, music and apps. Once it’s full you’ll need to remove the video. There’s no such thing as ‘swapping cards’, something that dedicated camcorders let you do. If you’re away from your computer there’s not much you can do but go through the video on the iPhone and start deleting.
Second, many of the portable camcorders now available have differentiated themselves by becoming more rugged. Most are water-resistant and some are shock and dust-proof, too. They’ve got the sort of resilience you need when you’re down by the beach or around kids.
It’s also important to remember that while image quality is determined by a number of things, lens size is of great importance. You simply get a better- looking picture if you have a bigger lens, and most of the better pocket camcorders have lenses much bigger than you find on even the highest- quality smartphones.
Last, if you’re using your phone as your sole video camera chances are that while you’re recording that killer scene someone will call, which means your recording gets paused. It doesn’t sound like a big problem, but imagine you’re trying to record your kid’s very first steps and the phone rings!
The Sony Bloggie Duo is a sleeker version of the Flip, loaded with innovative features that makes shooting video easy. Bloggie comes with 4GB of internal storage and records in full HD 1920 x 1080p video via its CMOS Sensor. As a refresher, the CMOS Sensor allows faster reading of more pixel information than a comparable CCD.
Sony says that combining its CMOS sensors with its Enhanced Imaging Processor results in a wider dynamic range, high sensitivity, low noise, high-speed reading and lower power consumption.
To begin with, Bloggie comes with a face-detection feature (similar to what you find in point-and-shoot cameras) that ensures the main subject you are recording is always in focus. In my testing this face detection worked as promised.
Bloggie also has an auto macro function that will automatically change the focus of the lens if you are recording close to your subject.
Bloggie Duo includes a special 360 attachment that means you can capture a full 360 video or high-resolution 5-megapixel images of your entire surroundings.
Like the original Flip, Bloggie comes with a built-in USB arm that makes transferring your movies and charging Bloggie easy.
Along with Bloggie Duo, there are a range of Bloggies to suit different budgets and requirements. For instance you might prefer the Bloggie Touch that comes with a 3in touchscreen or the Bloggie 3D, the world’s first HD 3D pocket camera that lets you capture images and video in 3D.
A nice camera that shoots high quality video.
Easy to use; high-quality video and stillsCons:
I’m still not quite sure how GE got into the business of making portable camcorders, but I guess as one of the world’s most diversified businesses anything is fair game.
The DV1, like the SportsCam, is designed to be rugged and is waterproof to 5 metres and shockproof to 1.5 metres. It’s the perfect camera for a trip to the beach with the kids.
The DV1 records in full 1080p HD at 30 frames per second. It can also shoot 5 megapixel stills – a handy addition which means it really can function as an all-in-one camera.
The DV1 is bigger than the SportsCam but about the same size as a largish mobile phone – think iPhone 4 with a bit more bulk.
Like the Bloggie, the DV1 has a large 2.6in LCD screen on the back face. Recording controls are neatly laid out and include a simple on/off button to control recording.
The GE DV1 has some nice features that should make your recordings look better. These include electronic image stabilisation, red eye removal (from still images), auto brightness and face detection to ensure that the faces of the people you’re shooting remain in focus.
The RRP is a very affordable $199.
I’m still not sure what GE is doing making camcorders but this one is high quality and well priced.
Image stabilisation; face-detection; quality video
User interface could be better
If you’re looking for a truly ultra- portable camera then you can’t look past the Swann SportsCam. When I say ultraportable that’s what I mean.
While the other cameras in this review are designed to be portable (pocket sized), the SportsCam is designed to be mounted to something like your helmet to capture of all your adventures in the first person.
If you’ve ever watched a first-person video of someone skiing or surfing then you’ve probably already seen footage from the SportsCam.
Unlike the other cameras in this review the SportsCam isn’t a HD recording solution. It captures video as 640 x 480 AVI files, and can take still pictures at a maximum resolution of 1280 x 960 in JPEG format.
SportsCam captures data on a microSD card. You can retrieve the videos by either connecting a USB cable or by inserting the microSD card in to a larger SD card adaptor and then inserting it in to your Mac. SportsCam supports a maximum card size of 16GB.
Using the SportsCam is simple. In fact, the most complicated thing I found in my testing was actually using the included straps to tie it to something. Once attached there are really only four switches to worry about. Slide on the power and then press either the video or still image buttons to capture data. The only other option is the VOX switch that enables sound recording too.
SportsCam also comes with its own waterproof housing which means it’s the perfect camera to take to the beach. According to Swann, the waterproof housing means the SportsCam is protected in up to 20m of water.
When I showed a friend he even suggested he might get one to attach to his head while fishing!
I must admit, I’m not an avid sportsman but I did try attaching the camera to my small remote controlled helicopter. Unfortunately I couldn’t get the camera in the correct position to balance the chopper when I was taking off. Needless to say, the experiment didn’t end well.
Small, light and inexpensiveCons:
Controls a bit finicky; low-quality video
At the other end of the product line from the Swann SportsCam is the Contour+, a compact camcorder designed expressively for extreme sports junkies. The Contour+ is literally chock-full of technology. Let’s start at the top.
There’s a 2.8in aperture, 170-degree wide-angle rotating lens that delivers full HD high quality video and images (5MP) with minimal distortion and a fish-eye effect. It records videos on to a micro SD card, but also has the capability to stream video. The Contour+ has built-in Bluetooth that works with iOS and allows you to use your iPhone as a wireless viewfinder and to configure the camera in real-time from your iPhone.
Next technology up is GPS, which you’ll find baked into the Contour+. It lets you track your speed, location and elevation four times per second.
Contour+ comes bundled with two rotating flat surface mounts plus a profile mount. However, there are additional accessories you can buy from Contour including a waterproof case, bike mount, rollbar mount, vented helmet mount, headband mount, surf-wake mount… you get the point.
As you might have expected, the Contour+ isn’t designed to be used as a camcorder to record your kids at the beach (unless you’re the sort of person who likes to attach their young child to the tip of their surf board), and it’s priced
like that too.
Contour+ starts at $699 and goes up from there depending on the accessories you choose. There are also cheaper models in the range including a Contour HD Adventure for $249 and Contour GPS HD Adventure for $399.
The ultimate in sports cameras, but pricey.
Great video quality; handy featuresCons:
Like Sony, Panasonic normally plays in the high-end camcorder space. It has managed to take a lot of its learnings and squeeze them into the HX-WA10, a full-HD camcorder with the ability to take 16MP (yes, 16!) still pictures, too.
The HX-WA10 features a 2.6in-wide LCD monitor that rotates a full 285 degrees,
so finding the right viewing angle is easy. There’s also a 12x wide range optical zoom and a 10x-120x digital zoom.
To ensure your HD video comes out looking great, Panasonic has integrated its iA, or intelligent auto technology – this means you can capture perfect looking images and video every time you hit Record.
iA integrates another technology called Intelligent Scene Selector that analyses your shooting situation and automatically switches to the correct scene mode.
Last, a combination of Face Detection and Electrical Image Stabilisation ensure your subjects are always in focus and can correct blurring caused by excess hand-shake.
At $499, the HX-WA10 is still one of the pricier options in this selection but a real winner if picture quality and toughness are your most important criteria.
High quality but expensive.
Great quality video in the latest iPhone, what more is there to say?
High-quality video; iCloud; image stabilisationCons:
Not as durable as some others here
To address a different part of the market, Panasonic also has the HM-TA20, a less expensive ($299) portable camcorder.
The HM-TA20 is special thanks to its triple-tough design, which, according to Panasonic, means ‘it is waterproofed down to three metres, able to withstand a 1.5 metre drop and boasts a dustproof body’.
In practice, Panasonic says, ‘you can throw the HM-TA20 in your wet beach bag after an exciting day of filming underwater, let it get dirty taking action shots out on a sports field or even take it climbing without worrying about the camera dropping from your hand’.
The HM-TA20 is also equipped with Night View Mode that allows you to shoot your movies in lower-light scenes – perfect for shooting clear video in a dark room such as you might find at a party or a nightclub.
At 156g, the HM-TA20 is light enough that you won’t even feel it in your bag. If you’ve got an older Mac without a built-in iSight camera you can even use the HM-TA20 as a webcam with Skype.
There’s also an IC Recorder function which means when you’re away from the beach in a boardroom you can even use the HM-TA20 to record the audio from business meetings.
Unfortunately, there’s no kitchen sink, though.
Great balance of features and price.Pros:
You’d better like orange or blue