Saturday, February 23, 2008

Video Camcorders: Cheap or Pricey? A comparison of the Canon ZR800 and HV20

I want to buy a digital video camcorder, and I've narrowed it down to two. But I can't decide whether to go cheap or expensive. The cheap model is $154.95:

Canon ZR800 MiniDV Camcorder with 35x Optical Zoom
Manufacturer Description
Canon MiniDV digital camcorders offer the perfect blend of performance and features. With the flexibility and versatility of MiniDV, you will enjoy a wide variety of advanced, yet easy-to-use features in compact and lightweight style. Canon camcorders are perfect for capturing all of your life's most precious moments, for beginners and advanced users alike, and make it easy to share your video with family and friends.

ZR800 Highlights

Genuine Canon optics with 35x optical zoom/1000x digital zoom Genuine Canon optics ensures that video and photos are clear and rich with color and detail. Canon’s expertise in designing lenses for photography and broadcast television goes into every camcorder we make.

Image stabilizer Shoot rock-steady video -- even when you’re at maximum telephoto without a tripod. It is even effective while panning or zooming.

DIGIC DV image processor Video and photos require different image processing. Unlike other manufacturers’ camcorders which process video and photos the same way, DIGIC DV treats them differently. This results in video and photos with exceptional color and clarity.

2.7-inch widescreen LCD A widescreen LCD and the new .35-inch widescreen color viewfinder allows you to see exactly what your camcorder is recording, and what your TV will display later.

Widescreen HR recording The ZR800 records true widescreen for picture-perfect video. Canon’s image processing system uses the entire width of the image sensor, capturing a big picture in true 16:9 widescreen so no one and nothing is left unseen. And Canon camcorders take advantage of more pixels to give you amazing quality.

Joystick The joystick makes using the camcorder easier than ever. Extra buttons have been eliminated, allowing you to control playback, focusing, exposure, and menu options from one convenient place.

Smooth zoom control Want to shoot like the pros? Three fixed speeds allow you to produce smooth video that will be enjoyable for everyone to watch.

Built-in manual lens cover A built-in manual lens cover gives you the ability to protect your Canon video lens without ever having the inconvenience of a dangling lens cap that’s easily lost.

Level shot control Even if you are a first-time camcorder user, you’ll never have to worry about shooting crooked video. A horizontal marker and center indicator always keeps you on track.

Grid display Achieve picture perfect composition every time when using the convenient Grid Marker feature. You can choose between two colors, white or gray, to best match the background.

Product Description
680,000-pixel CCD (450K effective) * variable-speed 35X optical zoom lens (digital zoom to 1000X) * advanced DIGIC DV image processor * 2-11/16" widescreen LCD * 16:9 widescreen video mode *

It also has a jack for an external mike, something unheard of in a low-end camcorder.

Here is a sample of it's video footage:

Around my home from Eugenia Loli-Queru on Vimeo.

It's very nice. Good quality. Similar to the kind of footage my old analog VHS video camera used to do. Probably even a bit better. And it has a wide screen mode too, which the old camcorder never had.

Who could ask for anything more? Well, if I were to ask, I might want this more expensive model for $738.00:

Canon HV20 3MP High Definition MiniDV Camcorder with 10x Optical Image Stabilized Zoom
Manufacturer Description
To tech-savvy, sophisticated, and discerning videographers who demand a premium quality camcorder, the Canon's HV20 enables the ultimate in HD video and still photo quality. The HV20 offers an unparalled combination of a 10x optical zoom, a 2.96-megapixel CMOS sensor, and a stylish design. With HD and SD recording modes, you can make the move to HD while retaining compatibility standard-definition equipment. Capturing meticulous detail and superior color reproduction, the HV20 raises the bar for HD resolution quality.

HV20 Highlights

HDV format The HV20 records true 1080 high-definition resolution video, and is capable of recording and playing back HD images using MiniDV cassette tapes.

Canon True HD CMOS sensor The HV20 features a Canon-manufactured CMOS sensor. Similar to its use in Canon's EOS-series digital SLR cameras, CMOS reproduces high-resolution images with true HD information in movies. Canon's CMOS sensor acquires image information at 1920 x 1080. Canon's HD CMOS Sensor also features on-chip noise-reduction technology. The low noise technology feature means that even in dimly-lit scenes, the signals from each pixel are as pure as possible, with minimal "noise" or other aberrations.

RGB Primary Color Filter Whether you're shooting video or photos, you will appreciate the HV20's stunning, high-definition image production. For rich, accurate color, the HV20 uses an RGB Primary Color Filter. It separates light into red, green, and blue color components, resulting in vibrant images with natural-looking tones similar to what you'd obtain from 3CCD camcorders.

Genuine Canon 10x high-definition video lens The HV20 comes equipped with a Genuine Canon 10x HD video lens. An aspherical lens is used to help achieve low aberration and high resolution. The HV20 lens also features super-spectra coating technology, which lowers flare and ghosting. A new gradation ND system is used for better exposure in bright shooting situations. The lens design creates true HD image quality.

DIGIC DV II image processor DIGIC DV II is Canon's exclusive DIGIC DV signal processing technology designed specifically for HD. Even though video and still images have different color requirements, DIGIC DV II HD digital signal processing ensures optimal image quality for both HD video and still images. Thanks to DIGIC DV II image processing, the HV20 produces video with improved color reproduction -- especially in skin tones, and dark and light scenes. It also uses a hybrid noise reduction system that employs two types of noise reduction, for images that are crystal clear.

Super-Range Optical Image Stabilizer The HV20 features Super-Range Optical Image Stabilization (OIS). Utilizing a hybrid detection method (combining vector and gyro detection method), it corrects camera shake instantly for steady shots -- even when they're handheld at long focal lengths, or taken with the camera in motion. And unlike electronic stablization, which can cause a loss in image quality, the optical system corrects the shake while preserving the quality. It is even effective while taking photos.

24p Cinema Mode 24p Cinema Mode is a feature demanded by professional filmmakers and previously only available on pro-level camcorders. 24p Cinema Mode enables all aspiring moviemakers a professional "film look." This mode is actually two different features, which can be used independantly or together, depending on the user's preferences:

* The frame rate changed to 24p -- the same frame rate as movie film
* The HV20 changes the color and tonal characteristics to make you feel like you are watching a movie in the theatre.

Instant AF (Auto Focus) Instant AF is Canon's new and advanced autofocus system. Using a Hybrid Control system that combines an external sensor and a TVAF, Instant AF makes it easier to focus on previously difficult subjects. It dramatically decreases the time it takes to achieve proper focus and increases accuracy, especially in low-light and high-brightness situations.

HDMI terminal The HDMI terminal transports high-definition video signals (with audio in one cable) to your HD television.

Built-in electronic lens cover A built-in electronic lens cover automatically opens when the camcorder is turned on and closes when turned off. There is no dangling lens cover to lose.

Advanced accessory shoe terminal The advanced accessory shoe allows the use of additional accessories such as a video light and directional microphone.

Simultaneous photo shooting While shooting an HDV movie, you can simultaneously capture a 2-megapixel photo to a memory card by simply pressing the photo button. It's perfect for any time you don't want to miss a moment.

Histogram display Commonly used in Canon's line of digital SLR cameras, the HV20 features a histogram display. With just one push of a button, the brightness information of a still image is revealed. This allows you to monitor image quality so you can make adjustments for the next shot.

Program AE mode The HV20 gives you settings that automatically result in the best exposure settings for different conditions. Secen modes include: Portrait, Sports, Night, Snow, Beach, Sunset, Spotlight, and Fireworks. Each adjusts your camcorder's settings to compensate for different lighting conditions and different subjects.

9-Point Ai-AF mode Auto Intelligent Auto Focus ensures sharp images and creative flexibility. Even when your subject isn't in the center of the frame, the HV20's Ai-AF function will automatically select from 9 metering frames on the screen to help bring images into sharp focus.

Built-in flash Capture superb images in low light and indoor photography settings.

Built-in Ultra Video light Increase your low-light capabilities even further by shooting with the HV20. Featuring an Ultra Video light, the HV20 enables you to shoot subjects in color in low-light at distances up to 4.9 feet away.

Mic/headphone terminal The HV20 features a microphone terminal for attaching an external microphone. The audio/video terminal doubles as a headphone terminal for monitoring sound while recording. The HV20 also offers manual audio level adjustment, giving the user precise control.

Focus Assist function When shooting high definition, a properly focused subject is more critical than ever. With one push of the Focus Assist button (during manual focus setting), video zoom and peaking (for emphasizing image contours) are displayed. Not to worry, this is automatically cancelled when recording starts.

Level and grid markers It's easy to keep your D120 level for more professional-looking video. Simply press the Level Shot Control button, and a horizontal marker appears in your viewfinder. Line up any horizontal lines in your shot to the marker and you know your camcorder is level. Also, the grid marker is very convenient for setting up the special balance in your shots. Since background colors vary, you can select from two line colors to make the lines easily visible.

Variable zoom speed control with 5 presets With this innovative feature, you can always be sure of smooth, steady, professional-looking zoom shots. Simply select one of five pre-set zoom speeds.

3.1-megapixel photos Capture stunning 3.1-megapixel photos in 4:3 aspect ratio to a miniSD card, or 2-megapixel photos in 16:9 aspect ratio.

Capture 2-megapixel still images from tape While playing the recorded movie, you can capture 2-megapixel still images onto a miniSD card, simply by pressing the Photo button. If you prefer, you can even capture 2-megapixel photos while recording HD video to tape.

2.7-inch widescreen LCD and widescreen color viewfinder A widescreen LCD and widescreen viewfinder lets you see exactly what your camcorder is recording, and what your TV will display later.

Print/Share button For fast, easy, one-touch printing of your photos at home, simply press the camcorder's Print & Share button. The button can also be used for one-touch downloading of your images to a computer.

Product Description
You've heard of HDTV and expect to get one if you haven't already. Here's a camcorder that lets you record your own HDTV-compatible images. The stylish Canon HV20 gives you the ultimate in HD video and digital photo quality with advanced features. Its 10x optical zoom lens, 2.96 Megapixel CMOS image sensor and Canon's advanced DIGIC DVII image processor ensures meticulous detail and superior color reproduction. 24p Cinema Mode brings Film-Look options to the HV20 owner. And, with its HD and Standard Definition recording modes, you can make the move to HD without making your SD equipment obsolete. The HV20 is easy to use and delivers the high level of performance you've come to expect from Canon.

Focal Length - f=6.1-61mm Zoom Speed - Variable/3 Fixed Zoom Speeds Max. F/Stop - f/1.8-3.0mm Filter Size - 43mm 2.7-inch Widescreen LCD Screen (Approx. 211,000 pixels) and color viewfinder High Definition miniDV (recommended) (63 minutes) or miniDV Cassette Recording Media Microphone Terminal - 3.5 mm Stereo Mini Jack HDMI USB 2.0 Full Speed Terminal for fast transfer of photos Analog-Digital Converter lets you share the precious video memories you have stored on analog videotapes

Advanced Accessory Shoe Terminal - Attach extras such as a video light or directional microphone without additional wires or batteries to raise the production value of the video you shoot

Dimensions - Width 3.5 x Height 3.2 x Depth 5.4 inch Weight - 1.2 pounds without lens and battery pack

Canon 1 Year Parts And Labor Limited Warranty

It's a camcorder that offers much more than your average consumer video camera. People who've bought it mostly give it high marks, and rave about the high quality video output when seen on an HDTV.

Here's a sample of it's video footage:

Foster City from Eugenia Loli-Queru on Vimeo.

I think it's quite easy to say that the more expensive HV80 is the better camcorder. It was even selected as "Camcorder of the Year" for 2007 at the website. So the choice has to be made based on how much fancy camera features I want or need right now, and how much do I want to spend.

I actually NEED a Digital Video tape camera soon, because I want to convert a bunch of old 8mm and Super 8mm films to Digital Video (MiniDV), so I can use those masters to copy the footage to my computer's HD, edit it and burn copies to DVDs.

The company I want to use to do the conversion copies the films onto MiniDV master tapes, which I can make high quality copies from. For THAT purpose, I think the cheaper camera would do just fine.

The more expensive camera offers a lot of attractive features and extra options; it has long term advantages. Wide-screen High Definition video is the future, and it does it, AND it does standard Digital Video too, in standard size screen or wide screen.

I don't have a wide screen High Definition TV... yet. I expect I will one day, they keep getting cheaper all the time. So the more expensive camera could be more useful in the long run. Yet all this technology is changing so fast. If I get the cheap camera now, and buy a fancier one later, $800 dollars in the future will probably buy me an even better camera.

And I have to say, $800 cameras make me kind of nervous. When I was a teenager, I worked hard and saved up my money, and bought a really nice Chinon Super 8mm mover camera for $800. I loved that camera. I took to to college with me... and it was STOLEN.

If a cheap camera gets stolen, or gets sand in it at the beach or you drop it or have an accident with it, you say oh darn and you replace it. If you loose or break a really costly camera, well... OUCH! that REALLY hurts! You typically don't just rush out and buy a new one; replacing it is a purchase you will have to plan for. So at this point, I'm probably leaning towards the cheaper camcorder. The other may have to stay on my wish list for a while yet.

Anyone facing a similar decision might want to read this article by Eugenia Loli-Queru:

Advice on camcorder purchase
[...] Having researched the market, I think I can offer some useful advice regarding where the camcorder market is going and hopefully save you a few bucks.

The idea is this: if you already have an old camcorder, hold on to it. If you just want “a” camcorder, get the lowest-end DV Canon one, which is usually selling at around $230. If you want to buy an HD camcorder wait 2-3 more years. The reason I am suggesting this is because the HD camcorder landscape is going to rapidly change in the next few years and so it’s wise to wait for this change to happen and then buy. We are currently living in a transitional stage.

The “tape”-based DV/HDV camcorders are going the way of the dodo. That much is a fact, no matter what the fanboys will tell you. The new standard is AVCHD and all major companies are going for it (including Canon which is keeping mum so far about it). It is a more convenient format for the user, as only SD or CF cards are needed instead of big, boring, last-century tapes. Additionally, because AVCHD uses USB 2.0, it will be the final strike against Firewire (main reason why Macs always come with firewire is video support). [...]

There's lots to consider. If I buy the cheaper ZR800, I can use the savings to have all my films tranfered to MiniDV. With camcorder technology in such a state of flux right now, I figure the longer I wait to buy the Camcorder of my Dreams, the Dreamier it might be by the time I get around to buying it.

Related Links:

The New School of Videographers

Canon HV20 HDV Camcorder Review

Death of a camcorder? Time to move on?


chad said...

This is a great post. I *just* came down to the same dilemma, and narrowed it down to the same two camcorder models! I'm going to DisneyWorld in April, and my current camcorder is having focusing issues, so I need to replace it. I think I'm leaning toward the ZR800, since I can pick it up for $149 from Amazon, and perhaps use some of the savings to upgrade my little point-and-shoot still camera so I don't have to carry the DSLR with me too. Plus, as you've mentioned, the HD stuff is sort of in flux, and I'd rather wait until they're another generation or two older :)

Thanks for this, it just cemented my decision. Make sure you post a followup and let us all know which one you buy and how you like it!

Chas said...

Glad you found the post useful Chad. I recently ordered the ZR800 from, as well as a Audio-Technica ATR25 Stereo Condenser Microphone, which was recommended for the camera by one of the reviewers in the comments section at Amazon. I also ordered the Sima Video Bracket, and the Cannon accessory kit with extra lenses, a battery and recharger, firewire cable, tapes... did I leave anything out? :-)

All that came to just over $300. Not bad. I will be sure and follow up with a review once I've gotten to use it for a while. Feel free to post your opinions here when you've gotten a chance to use yours. I hope it works out well for us both.

Anonymous said...

There's a big difference on the images when you use the cheap vs. the expensive cameras if you could just see it closely and it's features. If you only want to take a photo with a daily basis then go buy the cheap one. But if your a professional photographer i'll say go buy the expensive camera. It's just the matter of the effect and the light to have a perfect image you want to capture.

Chas said...

I included video samples in this post to compare the quality. The footage from the more expensive HV20 camcorder has a much more professional look; very clear and beautiful. There is no question that it's the better camera; you get what you pay for.

But for my purposes, at this time, it would be hard to justify the expense. I'm not a professional, and I'm not sure how much I'll be using the camera. If I end up doing a lot of videography, then no doubt I'll eventually upgrade to a better camera.

For now, the ZR800 is very affordable, and I think it's a good start. I will probably do a small review of it soon.