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What is a Digital Camcorder?

Digital Video (DV) camcorders provides up to 500 lines a resolution for sharp picture outlines with detailed colors obtained by recording a wide color frequencey band. It is a completely new format that is not compatible with all other analog formats. You also need a TV rated at more than 500 lines of picture sharpness, preferably with an S-video input, to fully appreciate the picture quality.

Specs: Recording digitally in a proprietary non-ATSC format but outputting in analog, DV camcorders offer the best video quality yet -- more than 500 lines of horizontal resolution, versus the 400 lines of Super VHS and Hi8, the 330 lines of analog broadcast television, and the 250 lines of VHS and 8mm. (Only HDTV broadcasting and D-VHS VCRs have higher resolution.) The blank cassettes are 1/12th the size of T-120 VHS tapes; 30- and 60-minute lengths are available (slow-speed recording reaches 270 minutes). The digital signal can be copied with no loss in quality, unlike analog formats. Audio is also digital, with a choice of either a CD-quality 16-bit stereo soundtrack and/or two 12-bit stereo soundtracks.

Most models have a single CCD (charged coupled device) as an image sensor; the best models have three. Since DV records digitally, up to 11 gigabytes of audio and video information can fit on a one-hour tape (equal to 8700 floppies).

Features: As the most expensive consumer camcorders available, these DV machines have all the features one expects: color LCD viewfinders, digital zooms, image stabilizers and digital special effects. Another issue is digitally editing your tapes. You can dub them to VHS but you'll lose a lot of quality. Since your material is digital, you don't lose any quality when you make another copy. You can also download video frames to your PC.

Buy the most pixels you can afford. Semipro cameras with three picture- capturing chips sample three times as much information as the standard one-chip models, resulting in sharper images with richer, truer colors. Even the single-chip models have widely varying resolutions, ranging from 380,000 to 680,000 pixels.

Focus on optical zoom. Optical zoom is true zoom - it provides better images than digital zoom. With optical zoom, you may lose some light-gathering ability as you zero in on your target, but you won't lose any resolution. Digital zoom uses image interpolation (a mathematical fill-in scheme) to approximate detail that isn't really there.

Big LCDs are convenient but expensive. Many DV camcorders feature both color viewfinders and handy swiveling LCD screens that let you shoot over your head or from the waist while keeping your eye on your subject. LCD sizes range from 2 inches diagonal to a full 4 inches.

Progressive scan means that whole frames can be captured at once, 30 times per second - great for sports or action shots. Progressive scan gives better still images. If you want to capture fast-action stills as well as full-motion video, look for a camcorder with progressive scan.

DV - digital video - camcorders records by using a digital format that bypasses the tape noise and dropouts that plague analog video. The improvement in quality is as clear as that of audio CDs over cassette tapes. To speedily move your digital-video images from the camera to a computer for editing, make sure your camera has an IEEE-1394 port also known as FireWire or i.LINK.

A Variety of Sizes DV camcorders come in different form factors: shoulder- mounted, like those the professionals use; handheld, like a 35mm camera; and hip-pocket-size - tiny 1-to-2-pound dynamos that are easy to carry everywhere. Hold the camera in one hand. Two hands work best for steady shooting, but use the one-hand test when buying. Your arm and hand should be in a comfortable position, with controls - especially zoom, record, and pause - easily reachable.

Look & feel: Every camcorder has its own individual look and feel and it's important that you hold any model you're considering in your hands. You must tighten the wrist strap as you would in real life, then toggle the zoom lens. Is it comfortable? Look through the viewfinder(s) and scroll through the on-screen menus. Are they easy to read and understand? Does it feel right? It should. Ask to connect a battery to get a true feel of the weight and balance.

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