A tale of two Cs
If you're choosing a camcorder these days, there is really only one choice - digital. Digital camcorders store sound and pictures as computer code and this offers many benefits over older analogue models. Digital recordings can be copied and edited with no loss of quality and it's also much simpler to transfer video from the camcorder to a computer. Another benefit is that digital camcorders are smaller and lighter than analogue models - and they offer much better sound and picture quality.
There are several digital camcorder formats on the market, but the choice basically comes down to two, Mini DV and DVD. Sony has a range of Digital8 camcorders, which can record and play in both analogue and digital modes, but unless you have a library of Video 8 tapes, you're better off with MiniDV, and not paying for a feature you won't use. Mini DV camcorders record on matchbox-sized cassettes and offer a wide range of features.
Fortunately, they all offer full automatic control (such as auto-focus, exposure and colour balance), so it's a case of pick up, point-and-shoot.
All Mini DV camcorders have a high-speed data connection which goes under a variety of names including DV OutIn, FireWire, i-Link, and IEEE 1394. A DV connection means that video can be transferred quickly to a computer with the same type of connection, such as those marketed by Apple and Sony. Note that some camcorders only offer a DV-out connection, which means you can't import images. This makes the camcorder less flexible, but then you may feel that it is a facility you can live without.
Over the past couple of years, prices of digital camcorders have plummeted and you can pick up a decent model from a major brand for around pound;400-500. Models worth considering include the Sharp VL-2100H (pound;350), Panasonic NV-GS22 (pound;450), Canon MV700i (pound;450), JVC GR-D73 (pound;500) and Sony DCR-HC20 (pound;550). All but the Sharp and Panasonic have both DV in and out sockets.
There are now a handful of camcorders that record on to miniature DVD discs rather than tape. Each disc holds between 30 and 60 minutes of video, and picture quality is similar to Mini DV. The benefits of using disc are that it's very easy to find specific recordings. Another bonus is that you can simply take the disc out of your camcorder and pop it into the DVD drive on your PC - although do check that the discs are compatible with your computer, as there are several recordable DVD formats. Examples of DVD camcorders include the Sony DCR-DVD101 (pound;620), Panasonic VDR-M50 (pound;650) and Hitachi DZ-MV550 (pound;700). You may also want to invest in some additional hardware, such as a tripod (to stop camera shake) and external microphone for better sound quality.