Jeremy Beadle has a lot to answer for. After watching his popular television programme You've Been Framed, you could be forgiven for thinking that camcorders are simply designed to record life's hilarious moments. But camcorders can do much more than this. Video companies have coined the phrase "moving memories" to describe the difference between a camcorder and 35mm film camera.
A photograph will let you record children opening their presents, but only a camcorder will let you see them tear the packages open and hear their squeals of delight, or keep a record of a toddler's walking and talking.
Today's camcorders are smaller, lighter and much easier to use than models launched just a couple of years ago. All have automatic focus, exposure and colour balance, and you can simply point and shoot. Many also include fool-proof features which make it more difficult to make mistakes.
Buyers used to worry about what camcorder formats to opt for, but the market has now settled down. There are basically two systems on the market: Video 8 and VHS-C. Both offer similar picture quality and use small-sized camcorders which are easy to carry around. The main difference is that VHS-C tapes can be placed in an adaptor which comes as standard with all the camcorders and played on an ordinary VHS deck, whereas Video 8 recordings are played back by connecting the camcorder to the TV set, or copying recordings (via a lead which you may have to purchase separately, about Pounds 10) on to VHS. This is no major problem, because many camcorder users copy or edit their tapes anyway to remove unwanted scenes.
Video 8 and VHS-C also have high-band versions called Hi-8 and S-VHS-C respectively. These offer stunning picture quality and high-band copies look as good as first generation VHS or Video 8 recordings. This makes the formats ideal for copying and editing tapes.
The camcorder market used to be divided by price, with stripped-down budget models at the bottom end and highly sophisticated (and expensive) models at the top end. But more and more companies are aiming camcorders at specific types of users. Hitachi, for instance, markets a weather-proof model that is designed for sports and outdoor enthusiasts. The result is that there are now different types of camcorders at the same price level.
Video companies have taken a leaf out of the photographic market and introduced camcorders with foolproof features. One of these is anti-ground shooting. It is very easy to leave a camcorder accidentally switched on, so that it records the floor as it swings from the shoulder strap. A number of models now contain sensors which detect when the lens is pointed downwards and when no controls are being operated. The camcorder will then automatically switch off to save you power and embarrassment.
As camcorders get smaller and lighter, so the risk of camera shake increases. More and more models offer anti-shake systems which detect camera movement and use electronic or optical devices to reduce shake. Liquid crystal displays, which look like small TV screens are becoming more common. These allow the camcorder to be used like a miniature video deck and some models even offer optional TV tuners.
Editing can be a time-consuming process, but some models now have a feature called auto assemble editing. Assemble editing involves finding the start and finish of an edit point and then copying it on to a second tape. The process is repeated for the next edit point and so on. Auto edit systems allow users to program up to eight edit in- and out- points, and once these have been set, the camcorder automatically plays them back. This leaves you free to go away and make a cup of coffee while the editing operation is in process.
Short battery life is the bane of many camcorder users. Camcorders use re-chargeable batteries and most video companies suggest that the battery should last around 30-40 minutes before needing a re-charge. But treat any claims with great caution. The figures quoted are based on someone using a fully-charged battery in perfect condition, and with the camcorder continuously switched on. But real life is not like that, because batteries do deteriorate over time. And switching the camcorder on and off, or replaying shots to check your recordings will quickly drain the battery power.
Most camcorders use nickel cadmium batteries (Nicads), but more and more models are using a type known as lithium ion. This offers a number of advantages over conventional Nicads. Lithium ion batteries have shorter charging times and longer lives, and unlike Nicads, can be "topped up" without shortening battery life. But lithium ion batteries are more expensive, costing around twice the price of a Nicad.
There are dozens of video accessories available, including editing decks which give super-accurate edit points and offer numerous titling and graphics effects, starting from about Pounds 100. Check that any edit deck is compatible with your equipment. A spare battery should be top of anyone's list.
If you are planning to use your camcorder for serious work, then a tripod is also useful (from about Pounds 50). Although most camcorders work well in low light, a video light (which sits on the camcorder's body, from around Pounds 30) can greatly improve picture quality.
*** Best buy ** Good buy * Worth considering
JVC SV3 0 ** VHS-C camcorder Pounds 800 JVC 081-450 3282 There aren't many camcorders that let you watch yourself being videoed, but JVC's SV3 (dubbed the Infocam) is one of them. It has a 3-inch colour LCD screen, that can be swivelled around to the front. This device isn't just for narcissists, but can be used as a video messaging system. You use the screen to check that you're in the picture, press a button and the SV3 records a 30-second message (a built-in speaker is provided for sound playback). The SV3 is held like a compact camera, but you have to be careful not to put your fingers in front of the lens. The LCD monitor also allows you to check your shots while out in the field, and there's also an optional TV tuner. This is a nice-sized camcorder and easy to carry around. It's got a good set of features but be careful not to touch the lens or LCD panel accidentally.
Panasonic S70 *** S-VHS-C camcorder Pounds 800 Panasonic 0344 853943 This is one of the cheapest high-band camcorders on the market, with Super VHS picture quality (it can also play and record VHS-quality tapes). The S70 includes hi-fi stereo sound and an auto power saver, which automatically switches from record-pause mode to power save, when the camcorder is pointed downwards.
The S70 is good to handle, with control buttons that are well spaced out. A single-switch control turns on the power and puts the S70 straight into record mode. There is also an index marking system which lets you find shots quickly and easily on a suitably equipped VCR.
It's got very good sound and pictures, and the anti-ground shooting system works well. The S70 is a good all-round performer and at this price, very good value too.
Sharp Viewcam VL-3 ** Video 8 camcorder Pounds 900 Sharp 061-205 2333 If you've seen any television adverts recently, you can't have missed the Viewcam. Its revolutionary design replaces the conventional viewfinder with a colour LCD screen. The VL-3 is the latest and cheapest model to appear. You hold the Viewcam with both hands, in a similar way to handling an accordion. It takes a little getting used to, and some users may not like it. However, picture quality is good, and there is also a remote control handset for armchair control. An optional TV tuner is available and next year Sharp will introduce a box of tricks which allows the Viewcam to be used as a video phone.
I liked the picture quality and the controls are well set out. The LCD panel is handy for replaying shots because you don't need a VCR. I'm still not sure about the handling, though.
Canon UC-X1Hi *** Hi-8 camcorder Pounds 1,500 Canon 081-459 1266 You can control this camcorder without using your hands. The UC-X1Hi offers a remarkable eye-controlled focusing system, which uses smart microchips to calculate what your eyes are looking at, and focus on the subject. The system works well, and can be switched off for the times when you want to survey a scene before shooting. The eye-control system can also be used to call up time and date information, and operate the fader and titler.The UC-X1Hi also has an anti-camera shake device which works well, and there are lots of pre-set controls for various shooting conditions (such as sand or snow). The eye control is good fun to use, although there were times when I was glad to press the off button. This is a classy camcorder and offers excellent performance.
Sony CCD-FX730 * Video 8 camcorder Pounds 800 Sony 0932 816000 This is another camcorder with a colour LCD screen, although this one can be folded away when not in use. The CCD-FX730 has a 12x zoom lens and a remote control handset.
It handles well and offers good low-light shooting. You get a good range of automatic features, but little else in the way of editing or creative features.
This model can be powered by conventional Nicad or lithium ion batteries.
Picture and sound quality are good and the CCD0-FX730 is ideal for the person who wants a no-fuss camcorder that is easy to operate and won't confuse you with lots of buttons.
The CCD0-FX730 is a good, solid performer, which most poeple would soon get to grips with. The LCD panel is neat and I particularly like the fact that it can be folded away.