by Laurianne McLaughlin

My Escape from Digital Camcorder Buying Hell

Apr 21, 20087 mins

Finding a new digital camcorder for my parents in time for a family vacation

I just finished what should have been a simple job: Finding a new digital camcorder for my parents in time for a family vacation. (When your title is “technology editor,” you can’t refuse family requests for tech support or tech shopping.) Fair enough. I speak microprocessors and virtualization fluently. I can navigate techno mumbo-jumbo. I thought this camcorder shopping job would be a one-night effort. Wrong! Memo to camcorder vendors: You guys still don’t get it. And I mean you really don’t get it. Buying any technology product in 2008 should not be this complicated.

Here’s a look at what I learned. Maybe it will help some of you readers who will similarly be asked to sort through camcorders in time for summer vacations. And maybe it will wake up you consumer electronics vendors and retailers. If my experience is any indication, you guys are not thinking like your customer. (Note to CIOs for these companies: I sure hope that you’re investing in technology to help the business mine and analyze customer comments in online forums.)

The starting scenario: I wanted a digital camcorder of medium quality from a well-known vendor. (I didn’t need the world’s fanciest model, but I never buy cheapo models, or from unknown manufacturers.) I wanted one that would play nicely with Macbook laptops (since this is what my parents and I both use at home) and with Apple’s iMovie 08 software (since I wanted to use this for the video editing.)

I thought, before I researched, that we’d end up spending about $500. The “sweet spot” for most kinds of consumer electronics gizmos is $299, and has been for years; but digital camcorders are still kind of new, so I expected to pay a premium.

I go online and start researching digital camcorders. I find out that first I have to decide which kind of media I want the camera to use: There’s a confusing array of options here, such as miniDV tapes, hard drives, and removable memory cards. None of the vendor sites make it clear to me what the pros and cons of each type of media are. I start reading articles from CIO’s sister publications, PC World and Macworld, and I sort out the media question. MiniDV is older, but the pros seem to outweigh the cons.

Then I start reading about people buying camcorders only to find that the video output can’t be edited by Apple iMovie software. This is what I want to avoid. I start to research this issue and get drawn into forum discussions by confused consumers about video codecs, especially something called AVCHD (advanced video codec high definition), affecting certain Sony and Panasonic cameras. Due to this hitch, one article tells Macbook users to avoid hard drive camcorder models completely. Another article says Macbook owners can use some hard drive camcorder models, but not others.

I give up for the night and apologize to my mother that this is taking so long. She pipes in (innocently) with “well, the guy at the [deleted to protect the guilty] store says Apple Macbooks are the best, they work with everything, and not to worry.” Uh-huh. I bet he did.

Next day, I keep reading online, but remain confused. I put out a request to my Facebook friends, many of whom, as you might guess, write about technology. Any advice for me on camcorders and Macbooks and iMovie 08? Nope. I spam my work colleagues at CIO. Any help there? Nope. None of them understand this topic yet, either. “Tell us what you learn, please!” a couple of them write back.

Finally, I find the first truly coherent blog I’ve read on this topic, at CNET. I learn that if I want a camcorder that does HD quality video (which I do since I have an HDTV), I should not pick many of the new camcorders that use the AVCHD technology, because this does not play nicely with most video editing software for PCs or Macs. People who buy these cameras may be stuck with the bundled editing software (which is not satisfactory) or may be stuck in compatibility hell. The user forums I read are certainly full of people confused about why a certain camera won’t work with X or Y software. As the blogger notes, this situation is utterly ridiculous. Consumers don’t care why the software hasn’t caught up with the hardware: They just want a new camera that works with their software.

My additional two cents: As a consumer, you should not even have to read the words “video codec,” never mind research them.

Via a Macworld forum post, I find a definitive list of what camcorders Apple says will work with iMovie ’08. Eureka. This is helpful (though still, there are some caveats buried in here).

I now examine reviews of the top three vendors who make HD-quality camcorders with miniDV tapes and find lots of complaints about flimsy plastic and bad usability features. Hmmm. Not promising. Still, it’s a relatively young product category, so not surprising perhaps. Finally, after reading several reviews, I settle on a Canon model, the HV20, only to find when I go to buy it online that it’s an end of life product, and not available from major online retailers anymore. It has been replaced with a slightly-revised model, the HV30, that will cost me a whopping $800 to $999, depending on the retailer. Argh.

Back to the drawing board I go. I find there is a gaping chasm between $300 to $400 and $800 to $1000 in this product category. You want to spend about $500? Tough luck. The vendors are telling us that we can buy a non-high-definition camera for $300 or we can pony up $800 for a high-definition model with miniDV. No middle ground.

Note to you vendors: I just hate that. It’s like going to the car dealer and being offered the base model or the luxury package with no in-between. Not a smart strategy, guys. Lots of folks at this point will say, “Well, I’ll wait a few months and see what happens, price-wise.” You’re losing them here, I have no doubt.

$800 seemed like a lot of cake to me for a camcorder. But I couldn’t wait. We were going on this trip, which was going to have some truly priceless video. So I went ahead after finding the new Canon in the $800-range from Amazon.

The good news: The camera showed up on time and worked fine. Still, for $800-plus, I still had to go out and buy the first pack of tapes (sheesh, you’d think they’d throw this in) and the right kind of firewire cable, which was also not included. Give yourself a couple of nights to make sure you have all the pieces and play with the camcorder before going on a trip.

More good news: The camera was mom-proof on vacation. She took 3 tapes worth of video without any snags, though she needed us to do the video transfers and needed heavy coaching on how to play the video on her TV. (The night video quality wasn’t that great, either, but I’m guessing there’s a setting there that we’ve yet to master.)

The bad news: You’re going to need an external hard drive to store all these huge video files. So build that into your “can I afford the camera?” question.

More bad news: I am what you consumer electronics vendors call an early adopter. I am the one that people come to and ask for buying advice. And I am going to tell them to wait, if at all possible.

My bottom line belief is that in this age of Google, online product reviews, and, you should be able to research and buy any consumer technology product, including a digital camcorder, in an evening. Maybe throw in a day to ask your circle of friends for tips. But that should do it.

This took me too many evenings. Too much wading through compatibility discussions. And too much agonizing over a price that, in the end, was more than I wanted to pay. You guys don’t get it. And I’ll bet your digital camcorder sales figures show it.