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What to buy a shooting star

Children enjoy recording school events and watching their film. George Cole is candid about camcorders.

There is a world of difference between watching a pre-recorded video and watching one that you have created with a video camcorder. The delight and excitement pupils experience when they first see their own video footage is something to behold. Camcorders can be used to record a wide range of activities: drama productions, sports, field trips and science experiments.

A camcorder is a combined video camera and sound recorder in a lightweight, portable package. All automatically adjust for focus, contrast and colour balance, allowing point-and-shoot recording, so even the youngest pupil can operate one.

Recordings are made on video tape, which can be used and reused. If you make a mistake, you simply rewind and start again. Many camcorders have a colour liquid crystal display (LCD) screen, which allows users to watch (and hear) their recordings without having to link the camcorder to a television. Pupils can gather around a camcorder and view their footage instantly.

Cut-throat competition in the camcorder market means that prices have fallen and the number of features has risen. Most camcorders offer a zoom lens for wide-angle or long-range shots, most offer optical zooms of 20 times, some have digital zooms of up to 500 times. As camcorders become more compact, there is a danger of camera shake, but many models offer image stabilisation systems which help to keep the image rock-steady.

When it comes to buying a camcorder, schools are spoilt for choice, and there are also around half a dozen formats or systems to choose from - each has its pros and cons. The VHS-C system uses a miniature version of the full-size VHS cassette. The advantage is that by using an adaptor you can play it in any VHS recorder. JVC's GR-AX280 (pound;350, all prices are approximat) and Panasonic's NV-RX14 (pound;350) are well worth considering.

The 8mm video or Video 8 format uses video cassettes the size of audio tapes. This format offers similar picture quality to VHS-C and comes in a wide range of models. You can't play an 8mm cassette in a VHS recorder, but as most camcorder shots are edited by linking to a VCR, this is not a big problem. Models include Samsung's VP-M50 (pound;250), Sony's TR425 (pound;300) and Canon's G1000 (pound;350).

There are also hi-band versions of VHS-C and 8mm video that offer much better picture quality, although they also use more expensive tape. JVC's GR-SX20 (pound;450) is an S-VHS-C model with lots of editing features. Hi-8 models include Sharp's VL-H860 with a 3 inch LCD screen (pound;550) and Samsung's VP-L500 (pound;350).

There are also two digital camcorder formats, which record sound and pictures as computer code. Digital camcorders offer the best sound and picture quality and all are easy to connect to a computer.

Sony's Digital8 format can play 8mm and Hi-8 video tapes. Bear in mind that Digital8 recordings use Hi-8 tape and recording time is reduced by a third in this mode. The DCR-TRV320 (pound;800) uses a memory card storage system to store still images.

The MiniDV format uses matchbox-sized cassettes and offers super-compact camcorders. Panasonic's DS8 (pound;500) is one of the cheapest models on the market. Samsung's VP-D60 (pound;630) has a 2.5 inch screen. JVC's GR-DVF1 is larger than most MiniDV models but good value at pound;700.

The secret to buying a camcorder is to shop around, compare prices and make sure to get a full demonstration. And if possible, take along a pupil or two to see what they think of your intended purchase.

* Canon, tel 01737 220000

* JVC, tel 020 8450 3282

* Panasonic, tel 0990 357357

* Samsung, tel 020 8391 0168

* Sharp, tel 0800 262 958

* Sony, tel 0990 111999

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