Four Steps to Finding and Buying Your Dream Digital-Video Camera (Butterfly)

(Click to see video about this post)

Each day someone asks me what digital camera to buy. Each day, I promise myself I’ll write a blog entry that reviews my favorites. For most of my 300 plus online videos I’ve used a Panasonic PV-GS120. I now use a Canon HV20. I researched them both vigorously.

My system for finding a good camera has 4 stages:

First, ask yourself what you’re after. If you need to update your digital still camera and don’t mind lower resolution video, you may want to get a combination (still and video) device like the Digital Canon A630-A640. If you want high quality HDTV, you’re looking at the Canon HV20 as the lowest-cost entry (or some Panasonic prosumer choices that are elegant but a bit bulky). I loved the Panasonic but I wasn’t about to carry a camera that made me look like a pro.

If you’re like most people, you’re somewhere in the middle and want a decent $300-$600 digital video camera.

Next, see what experts like. I start with independent, credible aggregators like ConsumerReports (which often lags on reporting electronics), ZDNet and PCMag‘s “editor’s choices.”

  1. pcmag.jpgConsumerReports is my most trusted source, but I’ve found it lags on electronic reviews (sometimes by a ridiculous period: This link is to a thorough review available by subscription only. But it’s dated November 2004). The website will provide thorough buyer’s guides and thorough comparison charts (some require membership). The non-profit has started to provide more real-time reports on certain electronic categories. Here’s the digital camera reviews & buying guide.
  2. PCMag is my overall favorite source, but it’s tricky to navigate. I hone in on a few models that share high rankings (and then compare its editor choices with those of other sources). For instance, here’s the PCMag editor’s choice on digital video cameras (and here’s the reviews for digital still cameras). They’re in love with Sony, but I’ve never been a fan since I made the horrible mistake of buying digital still cams by Sony. Be careful as you navigate PCMag, because one minute you’re reading an editorial review and the next you’ve stumbled into some low-rent site hawking cheap electronics. The lines between editorial and ads are as faded as my 8-year-old’s jeans.
  3. Then you can validate your models via ZDNet’s digital photo and video reviews. I can’t attest to the objectivity of this site, but it’s easy to use and fairly thorough. You’re never far from a price and a crappy vendor that will sell you the product for curiously low prices (if you don’t mind having it with no internal parts).
  4. CNet has its own digital video camera and camcorder reviews’ site. It’s okay.
  5. PCWorld has a dated but nice piece on miniDV camcorders.

Third, read the consumer reviews. Most online retailers like Amazon will invite consumers to rate the devices. Often you can find some rich reviews like those of ePinions before they “jumped the shark” and became a commerce site that stopped attracting good reviews. You need to be especially careful reading these and focus on patterns. NEVER let one review shape your opinion because they could be a disgruntled customer or a review placed by an employee of the manufacturer.

Finally, don’t under estimate where you buy. As much as I love buying from the web – especially Amazon.com or B&P – I tend to frequent Best Buy and Circuit City. Best Buy is low pressure, but Circuit City sometimes tries to upsell you. The prices are reasonable at both stores, and the weekly shopper has really good deals. The selections are streamlined, and the employees are (with some exception) fairly informed. I like asking the electronic employees what model they own, and which one they’d buy if they bought today. Most importantly, if you can stomach the overpriced guarantee programs then you know that you can return your camera if you have problems. Without having to get on the phone and ship things.

If you’ve recently researched $300-$600 digital video cameras, please post what you selected below. I haven’t been through that process in a while, but there’s a great demand for guidance here.

Butterfly: Using this tag word so people can find this post from a video I’ve done on this subject.

Update Sept. 29 2007: Blog post about Consumer Reports.  

Author: Nalts

Hi. I'm Nalts.

17 thoughts on “Four Steps to Finding and Buying Your Dream Digital-Video Camera (Butterfly)”

  1. This is one of my fields of expertise. in the $300-$600 range there is nothing that compares to the Panasonic 3-CCD Mini DV cameras. nothing.

    Examples:

    http://www.bhphotovideo.com/c/product/477103-REG/Panasonic_PVGS320_PV_GS320_3_CCD_Mini.html

    http://www.bhphotovideo.com/c/product/480669-REG/Panasonic__PV_GS320_3_CCD_Mini.html

    Or even these Flash/HD based models:

    http://www.bhphotovideo.com/c/product/477308-REG/Panasonic_SDR_S10_SDR_S10_1_CCD_DIGITAL_CAMCORDER.html

    http://www.bhphotovideo.com/c/product/477389-REG/Panasonic_SDRH200_SDR_H200_3_CCD_SD_Camcorder.html

    Shop around for prices… you’ll find good deals on these everywhere. Stay away from the DVD cameras, though! I’m more than willing to help on this subject, too.

  2. So you made the “horrible mistake of buying a sony still digital cam” too? I hate mine and I paid 400 bucks for it just last April!! It’s what I currently use for videos but I want a real video camera, especially since the sony sucks. The sony was an impulse purchase. Hate it.

  3. The cheaper Sony’s have touch screen controls like FOCUS how insane is that. My Sony is ace but it is a VX2100.

    Where Nalts mentions using a Canon a630/a640 that is a pretty good idea, i just bought a Canon G7 and its video spec is similar to that of the a640 and it is amazing for a still camera if you only intend to do web video i’d say it was better than a “proper” video cam because it shoots in Progressive Scan (if you half the interlace picture of a regular video camera it works out at less res than the Canon still cam in video mode!! ) like regular motion picture cameras do, so you get really sharp film like video rather than the interlaced “mice teeth” of regular video.

    If i could pick any cam it wouldn’t be a HD right now it would be a Panasonic DVX 100b as it shoots in Progressive Scan at full broadcast res, but they are pretty expensive.

  4. The cam i picked up was the Sony DCR-HC48 Mini DV (Australian model) nice little unit, very light, very small and very cheap ($350 USD) but i do have 2 issues with it.

    1/ It pics up tape whine in low noise situatons most of which can be taken out in editing (if you have that sort of time and energy)

    2/ It has no accesory ports so i cant plug in external mic’s etc.

    But even with those 2 issues i love it as an entry level cam. Small enough to fit in my pocket, 25x optical zoom, touch screen LCD, night shot mode and it handles low light reasonable well (still grainy but ok)

  5. Sukatra- I could create a whole blog about nightmares with Sony still cams. But if Davideo bought a Sony video camera that must be a different story. And VelvetElvis01 seems happy. For me I’m driven insane by the proprietary accessories.
    Psychomeody- what did you say?
    Jischinger- TOTALLY live on the shopper.

  6. Ooopsee, Um, well, my bad, the Red One isn’t quite in the $300 to $600 range… I’m just a little excited about it…one day…it will be (weeps with joy).

  7. I bought the Sony DCR-SR42 hard drive camera recently. I recomend it if you plan to shoot video in 4:3 full screen mode, because wide screen just crops out parts of the video, losing resolution. If I had done more research, I probably wouldn’t have bought it.

    Another downside is the still photo feature. The pictures are really bad. If you take a still frame from a video taken by this camera, and compare it to a picture taken by this camera, you’ll see that the still frame is better. So don’t buy it for the picture taking capabilities.

    The video quality isn’t that great. A mini-dv camera of this price would be alot better, sadly, I don’t have a fire wire port on my computer, otherwise I’d buy one of those cameras in a second.

    This camera has some cool features, however:

    Night mode: take video in complete darkness!

    40x optical zoom: no picture quality loss!

    30GB built in memory: never run out of tapes/dvds!

    If you have a fire wire port on your computer, consider buying a mini dv camcorder instead. They usually have better quality.

Comments are closed.