When camcorders first hit the market in 1984, there were two formats: VHS and Beta. Either way, you shot your footage, removed the tape and played it in your VCR. There were no cables to connect and no files to download. But those camcorders were large, used up batteries quickly and the image quality was really poor.
A few years later, camcorder manufacturers created smaller tape formats to make the camcorders smaller while improving image quality and battery life. Smaller camcorders meant more people would take them on vacation. This of course led to more sales for camcorder makers. There were several tape formats (like 8mm and VHS-C) to choose from, and none of them were compatible with the other.
Then came digital and you guessed it, more tape sizes and choices. But the image quality leaped ahead. Today, the choices go beyond small tapes. Camcorders can record on tapes, built in hard drives, small DVD disks and memory chips. The small size of most camcorders, ease of use and relatively low prices of entry level models are close from brand to brand.
Playing back the video is the real challenge today. Unlike the early camcorder models that used the same tapes as a VCR, most of the new camcorders require some sort of connection to the TV or computer in order to view or edit your video. Some models try to make the connection easier by offering a fitted base. You plug the wires from the base into the TV once, then you rest the camera in the base. The connection are made automatically to the TV and the AC charger. But you need another base at every other location you want to play your videos.
So what's best for you? The answer depends upon how you plan to use the camcorder and how technically inclined you are. First, how much time do you need to record? Tapes offer about one or two hours at best. You need to pack several of them if you go on vacation. Other pitfalls of tape are that they can jam up in moist climates or mis-track and not play back properly. On the plus side, digital tapes use less compression than hard drives or memory cards (at least for now), so the quality is marginally better, especially in scenes with a lot of motion.
DVD based camcorders allow you to shoot video and play the disk back on any DVD player anywhere without connecting wires between your TV and camcorder. But first, the DVD disk must be finalized before it can be played back anywhere other than the camcorder. If you finalize the disk, you can not record any more video to that disk. So you really need to fill up the disk with video (or close to it) before you finalize it. Finalizing sounds easy, but until you learn the menu of your camcorder, it can be frustrating to do it the first few times. The disks only hold 30 minutes of video, and most can't be re-recorded over. The ones that can are expensive, about 15 dollars each half hour, or 30 dollars per hour of video. Editing DVD's later is not an easy task, as you'll need to re-convert the DVD files back to something your editing software can use. After you edit them you need to convert them back to the DVD format and copy them back to a standard two hour DVD. Did I mention if you scratch a DVD in the wrong place, you may never be able to play it again?
Hard Drive camcorders record on a hard drive which is built into the camera. Newer models can record eighty hours on the hard drive, so you can just keep on shooting that vacation footage without ever looking for tapes. Hard drives are weather sealed so moisture isn't a problem for them, although your lens may fog up in high humidity. That would happen with any camcorder regardless of format. An added bonus of hard drive recording is you never have to worry about accidentally erasing footage. Any time you press record, it just finds the last video segment and records after it. Until the disk gets full. Then you have to download your video to a computer and back up those large files so if your computer fails you don't lose your family memories. After that, you can edit it, copy it to disk or connect your camcorder to your TV and watch the video. But you can't lend your video to someone without lending them the whole camcorder. That is, until the video is later copied to a DVD.
The latest camcorder format uses a flash memory card. It offers the advantages of hard disk recording, but with less time. In addition, the camcorder can be smaller in size because there is no mechanical hard drive, no disk drive or tape transport. And there are no moving parts. No moving parts means greater reliability. That's a huge advantage. Unless you lose the tiny memory cards. So far, the cards can record about 15 hours on a 16 gig memory card that costs about eighty bucks, or nearly two hours on a two gig card for about ten bucks. The good news is the cards keep getting bigger in capacity and lower in cost. Most new computers come with a card reader built in, so that eliminates the need to connect wires from the computer to the camcorder as you need to do with tape based or hard drive based camcorders.
Personally, I see the hard drive camcorders as being the best choice for continually shooting several long video segments such as a two or three hour events. But memory cards allow smaller camcorders which are easier to stash in a pocket. With HDTV becoming mandatory in a few weeks, that will put an additional load on the memory size, as the files to record HDTV are much larger than current video files for regular TV. With all this technical complication, it makes places like Fine Art Video in Tequesta, Florida a boon to the average camcorder user. They can convert your footage from tapes, disks, chips and hard drives to conventional DVD's or iPod video files that can be easily played, copied, e-mailed or shared with friends and family.