My New Cheap Camcorder —

  • My New Cheap Camcorder — How Good?
    Last week I received my Panasonic PVDV900 digital camcorder that I bought at auction on I’m a big believer in not paying full price for technology and gadgets, and also a big believer in not buying in at the top of the curve. You get far more for your money by buying a reasonably up-to-date device that isn’t the newest model full of the latest tricks. You are also far less likely to end up with a piece of hardware that may end up unsupported in the near future.

    But about the camcorder… I bought it because it was cheap — $350 — and also a decent model towards the top of Panasonic’s consumer line back in 1999-2000 (when it cost $800 – $1000). If you’re willing to buy on auction there a number of digital camcorders available in the $400 – $600 range, mostly from RCA, JVC and Sharp. The main problem with a lot of these models is their lack of microphone or headphone jacks. Sound is important in video–more than most video newbies realize. But the built-in microphones on most camcorders suck, and without headphones plugged in while shooting you can’t be sure if you’re getting any decent sound in the first place. The PVDV900 has both these important jacks.

    Like almost every other camcorder, the PVDV900 has a flip out LCD screen–this one is 2.5″. A decent size, but not great. The viewfinder is black and white, which I find to be superior to color, giving you more detail and making it easier to do manual focus. Manual focus is important for doing decent video, since autofocus deals poorly with motion, frequently hunting for something to focus in on, causing the picture to go annoyingly slightly in and out of focus. Doing manual focus is best on Sony camcorders because they give you a real focus ring around the lens, just like a SLR still camera, but this is an unusual feature. The PVDV900’s manual focus is next best, operated by a little wheel located just underneath the front end of the camera. With the focus adjustment located there you can keep one hand supported underneath the camera and focus, providing a little more stability and a shooting experience a little more like a good SLR. Canon’s under-$1200 DV camcorders also use a little wheel to adjust focus, but it’s located on the back of the camcorder, which I find difficult to adjust while looking through the viewfinder. The only problem with the PVDV900’s focus arrangement is that it puts your hand right by the built-in microphone, causing the potential for interference with the sound. That’s another good reason to use an external microphone.

    Although nice and sharp the viewfinder can be a pain to use because it doesn’t pivot or move at all. If you’re going to hold the camcorder anywhere but in front of your face you have to use the LCD screen to monitor your shot. Otherwise the cam is comfortable to hold and not too heavy or too light. I must admit that I’m pretty old school when it comes to camcorders. I really don’t like the little handheld “palmcorder” paradigm very much and pine away for the days of consumer-level shoulder-mount cams. It’s very difficult to hold the little camcorders stable in front of your face, and your arms get tired much more quickly. Shoulder mount adds a great deal of stability to your shot, and as long as you don’t have a 35 lb. camera, stamina isn’t much of an issue. Unfortunately, there is only one consumer-level shoulder-mount DV camcorder available–all other shoulder-mount cams are pro models costing in excess of $4000.

    Shooting control and ergonomics are important, but they don’t count for much if the picture isn’t any good. Yet, all too often I find that camcorder reviews give short shrift to the important element of picture quality, only repeating the printed specs and noting major flaws. There’s a lot more to picture quality than the big problems and what the manufacturer claims the resolution is. So with regard to picture quality the PVDV900 is good, but not great. In my short shooting experiments, all done outside in bright daylight, I find colors and contrast are pretty true. There is no manual white balance, but the sunlight preset seemed accurate to me. On a pro-level Sony 13″ video monitor I could see some artifacts and loss of detail along the edges of objects–most likely the result of the resolution (or lack thereof) of the cam’s single CCD (the chip that picks up the picture). I haven’t looked at the picture on a plain old TV, so I don’t know how visible this would be to the average viewer.

    My workhorse camera at work is a Sony PD-100A, which is a prosumer version of the consumer-level TRV-900. It’s a three-chip camcorder, which means that it employs a separate chip to pick up the three component colors of video: red, green and blue. I can clearly see the difference in picture quality between the PVDV900 and my Sony — the Sony is much sharper, with barely visible artifacts. Of course, the Sony retails for $2600–a big jump from $250.

    At work I also use two Canon camcorders: the Elura and the Optura Pi (isn’t it nicer to give camcorders actual names rather than numbers?). I’ve used the Optura the most, and I think that it’s picture quality is a hair better than the PVDV900’s. The Optura Pi is a 2001 model costing $1200 retail (but about $1000 on the street), so it probably benefits from slightly better, newer tech. But I’ll need to do a good side-by-side comparison to really come to a conclusion about which is better.

    Already, I do know this: the Panasonic PVDV900 is a damn nice camcorder for $350. Ubid seems to still have a bunch that they’re selling right now. It’s a auction, so your ultimate buying price will vary. Back stock and refurbished units are available all over the place–try doing a search on Pricewatch. Epinions also has some reviews (though not too in depth) of the PVDV900, along with links to sites selling it for cheap.

    I’ll think I’ll make this the first entry in my new reviews section once I’ve had a little more time with this cam and had a chance to compare it with the others.

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