Here’s the most versatile camcorder of the bunch, letting you record 28 minutes of its best-quality video per 3-inch DVD. If you don’t feel like dealing with discs, you can cram 80 minutes of HD footage on an 8GB SDHC flash memory card instead. If you do record to a DVD, you can pop that disc into a compatible Blu-ray player (our Sony BDP S-300 played the disc perfectly) or play the disc back directly from the camera. But the DVD format has its drawbacks—it’s slow to read when you turn on the camera, taking seven seconds from a cold start. And once you’re done shooting, unless you’re using DVD-RAM, you’ll need to finalize the disk before you can read any of the files on the computer or play them back, which takes about five minutes for each minute of footage shot.
This Handycam felt rock solid and provided the best optical image stabilization. Its stop/start button is in the perfect place, but the zoom control is positioned right where your middle finger rests—bad idea. We like the “easy” mode, which, with the push of a button, takes care of exposure and focus for most situations.
If you don’t mind dealing with miniDV tape, the Canon HV20 is a fine choice. However, we prefer having nonlinear random access to shots, rather than rolling through an anachronistic tape to find a shot. We also don’t care for the cheap, plastic feel of this unit or its “advanced accessory shoe” cover that pops off with little provocation. But the HV20’s HDV format is a lot easier to edit, with that same familiar, comfortable workflow you get with DV tape: Capture clips on the PC via a FireWire port and then you’re off and editing without a lot of annoying steps in between.
With its stylish square lens hood and beautiful design, the HD7 just begs you to pick it up and start shooting. We especially like its focus ring (it’s just like what’s on pro lenses), which you can use to manually focus the lens. However, we don’t much care for the lens cover that makes you shift a lever to move it out of the way. Nor were we impressed with its optical image stabilization, which didn’t seem to do much of anything. We also didn’t care for the break in the audio between each shot when we played back output via HDMI on our HDTV.
The HDC-SD1 was the smallest and lightest camcorder we tested, and the easiest one to use. It offers few buttons to confuse you and no viewfinder, but wait a minute—that’s a frickin’ 3-inch viewscreen, which seems huge compared to the others’ 2.7-inchers. And it’s bright enough to show you its crispy video even on the sunniest of days. The zoom lever gives you just the right amount of speed right when you need it, and the navigational joystick is right there under your thumb. Its optical image stabilization holds those shots rock-solid unless you zoom all the way to 12x.