Buying A Digital Video Camera

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Free Advice
Remember when video cameras were so big you had to rest them on your shoulder? These days, MiniDVs are small enough to fit in your shirt pocket--and shoot dvd-quality video in virtually any light, while resting in the palm of your hand. Plus, you can find some for less than $500. So how do you buy one?

--Think small. Most MiniDVs are under 2 1/2 lbs., which is great for taking them on the road. But sometimes controls are too tiny or hard to find. When you see a model you like, hold it. Then try the buttons. The camera should feel comfortable, the controls laid out in a way that makes sense, even if you've never used one before.

--Check your computer. Digital video cameras are made to connect to computers--that's where you'll be editing your masterpiece. So if your computer doesn't have a FireWire port, get one. A FireWire (or IEEE 1394 or iLink) cable, which often comes with the camera, is the fastest way to get your footage into your machine. You're also going to need a lot of hard-drive space: Each second of digital video uses about 4 megabytes, so consider an external drive that's at least 60 gigabytes. Now, let the shooting begin.

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Beginner
THE QUESTION

How Much Does This Digital Camcorder Cost?
WHY YOU ASKED IT

Some brand-name digital camcorders can cost as little as $400. "Prosumer" models can cost more than $2,000

What You Want to Hear
This $600 machine is great for shooting the kids' recitals and ball games and gives you room to grow

[THE QUESTION]

What Kind of Tape Does This Digital Camcorder Take?
[WHY YOU ASKED IT]

The newest standard is MiniDV, but some recorders use 8-mm tapes or even record to DVD-RAM discs

[WHAT YOU WANT TO HEAR]

Although compact MiniDV tapes cost as much as $10 per 60-min. tape, the format is available worldwide

[THE QUESTION]

What Is the Video Resolution of This Digital Camcorder?
[WHY YOU ASKED IT]

Resolution indicates the sharpness of a digital image: the more pixels, the clearer and crisper the resolution

[WHAT YOU WANT TO HEAR]

Analog video is usually recorded at about 300,000 pixels; digital is higher. Don't get lower than 460,000

[THE QUESTION]

Does This Digital Camcorder Take Digital Still Pictures?
[WHY YOU ASKED IT]

Most digital camcorders can take still photos, but not all of them offer the same quality and storage capacity

[WHAT YOU WANT TO HEAR]

Get a camera that shoots stills at a minimum of 1 megapixel. That isn't film quality, but it's O.K. for the Web

Advanced
THE QUESTION

Does This Digital Camcorder Use a Firewire Cable?
WHY YOU ASKED IT

FireWire (a.k.a. iLink or IEEE 1394) can transfer video from a camcorder to a PC much faster than USB cable

What You Want to Hear
Most digital camcorders use FireWire. If your PC isn't compatible, consider buying a FireWire expansion card

[THE QUESTION]

What Is the Maximum Optical Zoom of This Digital Camcorder?
[WHY YOU ASKED IT]

Some camcorders have digital zoom up to 700x! But it's optical zoom that keeps picture quality consistently high

[WHAT YOU WANT TO HEAR]

Most MiniDV camcorders come with an optical zoom of at least 10x, but serious shooters should aim for 20x

[THE QUESTION]

Does the Digital Camcorder Have Built-in Editing Tools?
[WHY YOU ASKED IT]

In the olden days, onboard editing tools (text scrolling, etc.) were essential to the home-movie producer

[WHAT YOU WANT TO HEAR]

Any good camcorder will offer limited editing tools. But it's easier to edit on a computer with its bundled software

[THE QUESTION]

Does the Digital Camcorder Have an Image Stabilizer?
[WHY YOU ASKED IT]

If you do a lot of handheld shooting, you'll want a stabilizer to prevent that seasick, Blair Witch effect

[WHAT YOU WANT TO HEAR]

Most MiniDV camcorders have digital stabilizers. A few even have optical ones, but they're a pricey pro luxury