High-definition camcorder group test

Introduction

Whether you’re shopping for your first camcorder or upgrading, there’s never been a better time to take the plunge. High-definition models that use the AVCHD video format are now well established, and camcorder makers are falling over themselves to offer more and more features.

Many of these ape, or are inspired by, features included in digital cameras – from face detection to multi-megapixel image sensors. Increasingly, camcorders are also offering manual shooting options: perfect for those who either want to take more direct control over the way they shoot, or override some of the automatic settings during certain types of filming. It’s like the difference between a digital compact and a fully fledged SLR camera.

Accompanying the scramble at the high end is a massive improvement in image quality. The shift towards 1,920 x 1,080 recording sounds like it should offer an increase in picture quality, but lots of other factors come into play, too – image sensor resolution, the video processor and lens, to name but three. Camcorder makers are pushing these boundaries, too, chiefly by incorporating larger image sensors that capture even more light and detail, but also by beefing up with higher bit-rates and better processing.

Some HD camcorder makers (most notably Canon) are making a push towards internal flash memory instead of hard disk drive storage. This helps make camcorders lighter and more robust, while also using less battery power; and flash memory storage is now available in large enough quantities and capacities to make it affordable and worthwhile.

All the camcorders in this test give you the option to record or copy to removable flash memory cards (chiefly SDHC) or, in some cases, to take advantage of both. This means you can switch seamlessly between both internal and external storage without needing to enter the camcorder’s options to tell it which one to record to; this means you can keep shooting even if one runs out space. Some even offer dual recording modes – enabling you to shoot both video and still images at the same time.

Getting HD footage into your Mac is also now a lot easier thanks to iMovie ’09, which should recognise most models when you plug them in via USB 2.0. You will, of course, also need to have an Intel-based processor – AVCHD isn’t supported on older Macs supporting PowerPC chips.

To help you discover which HD camcorder best meets your needs we’ve picked six flagship models from Canon, JVC, Panasonic and Sony. Each one has plenty to offer both newbies and experienced amateurs. So let’s dig right in.

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