How High-definition Camcorders Work

Even Katie Couric and the president of CBS News get broadcast in high definition. With a high-definition camcorder, you and your buddies can be too. See more pictures of cool camera stuff.
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There's nothing like popping in an old home movie and reliving great memories. True, you could probably do without some of the memories. But if such milestones must go on record, don't you think that Kodak moment of you falling down the stairs on the first day of high school would look so much better in high definition? High-definition (HD) camcorders make that possible.

Although the first HD camcorders were bulky and expensive, improvements in technology have brought the price range and size down to manageable levels. You can now buy good quality HD camcorders for less than $700, and some will even fit in the palm of your hand.


Like the HDTVs before them, HD camcorders represent a significant step up from their conventional digital counterparts. As the article How HDTV Works explains, high-definition digital technology produces better quality pictures and sound than standard digital and analog do. Even the best standard signals can only display a maximum frame size of 576 lines of pixels (the tiny dots that make up an image), whereas full HD resolution displays 1,920 lines, producing pictures with much more clarity and detail. Now when you film the birth of your baby boy, you'll actually be able to see the individual hairs waving on his head.

Before you put on your director's cap, though, you'll have to navigate through the maze of HD camcorders available. In this article, you'll learn which HD camcorder might be best for you by learning about the different models available. Find out what to consider when shopping for one of these devices next.


Comparing High-definition Digital Video Cameras

This high-definition digital video camera captures images onto a memory card.
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Like standard digital video cameras, high-definition digital video cameras (or camcorders) come in many sizes, price ranges and capabilities. One of the bigger differences you'll want to pay attention to is the camera's storage method. HD digital video cameras have four main storage formats:

  1. MiniDV tape is similar to other tape mediums. While it's more time-consuming to preview and transfer footage with the time-based tapes, they have the advantage of being their own self-contained storage mediums, and they're easy to transport.
  2. Because flash memory and memory cards are so small yet hold so much, they have enabled manufacturers to shrink HD digital video cameras and to speed up their operation. Memory cards come in a range of capacities, from 8 gigabytes to about 16 gigabytes.
  3. Internal hard disk drives (HDDs) are built into the camera body itself and can store a significant amount of data, depending on their size. However, the benefit of that extra storage capacity is partly offset by the camcorder's larger size.
  4. Recording directly to a DVD is appealing to many people because it's fast and easy; you're simply recording your footage directly to its final, playable storage medium.  

Some digital video cameras also allow you to choose between one of two storage formats: You can record either to the camera's internal flash drive or to a removable memory card. That's helpful in case you lose that little memory card and there's a family event that has to be recorded for posterity. This functionality is typically called dual flash memory. 


In addition to how you store footage, you'll want to think about how your video camera records it, right? Consumers depend on two main high-definition video formats: HDV, which was introduced in 2004, and AVCHD, which came out in mid-2006 and is still evolving.

HDV (high-definition video) records to miniDV tapes according to one or both of two HD standards: 720p (1,280 by 720 progressive) or 1080i (1,440 by 1,080 interlaced). The numbers refer to the resolution, while the terms progressive and interlaced refer to how the video is recorded: Progressive records video as an entire frame, whereas interlaced captures each frame as two fields. You can learn more about HD camcorder-related terminology in How HDTV Works and How Camcorders Work.

AVCHD (advanced video codec high definition) technology uses a different compression algorithm than HDV for capturing and shrinking the size of the data. It is much more efficient, so it requires significantly less storage space. The technology also allows you to transfer files from the camera to the computer up to 10 times faster than HDV and is easier to navigate than tape, which requires tedious rewinding and fast forwarding. Along with the two HD formats available to the HDV format, AVCHD can also record in full high definition, or 1,920 by 1,080 (for when you really need to see that angry red zit marking your high school graduation).

Perhaps because of such advantages, more manufacturers, such as Sony, Canon and Panasonic, are beginning to use AVCHD technology. HDV technology still has its benefits, though. For one thing, since AVCHD is relatively new, the image quality of HDV camcorders continues to surpass it. In addition, video editing software and other applications are just beginning to use the maximum potential of AVCHD.

Regardless of whether you choose the HDV or AVCHD format, your options abound. Check out some of the cool capabilities of HD digital video cameras on the next page.


More High-definition Camcorder Features

Sanyo's pocket-size Xacti fits in the palm of your hand.
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Advancements in technology never cease to amaze, and the newest HD camcorders are no exception. With options that can fit in your pocket and take professional quality still photos, you may find yourself ditching your still camera altogether. Who needs a camera when a high-def camcorder will do just as well? Some of them may even take up less space in your pocket than the wad of cash you use to purchase them.

If you desire a small, lightweight piece of equipment, you're in luck. As you learned earlier, flash memory allows camcorders to come in small packages but perform just as well as their larger counterparts. Some of the HD video camcorders are so light you might forget you're holding them. Sanyo's Xacti HD1000 is the lightest of the bunch at a mere 9.5 ounces and 16.6 cubic inches. Its vertical design allows you to hold it with only one hand. Don't let its small stature fool you: This little device is capable of full HD recording. Samsung's SC-HMX20C, another lightweight device, is smaller than a soda can at 10.9 ounces and has the advantage of both built-in flash memory and removable memory cards. 


Not only do HD video camcorders take excellent quality video, but many of them can take impressive still photos as well. Sony, for example, offers a pair of HD camcorders that can take 10-megapixel photos. The $1,400 HDR-SR12 comes with a 120-gigabyte hard drive, while the $1,200 HDR-S11 comes with a 60-gigabyte hard drive. Slightly more affordable are Canon's Vixia HF10 at $1,099 and the Canon Vixia HF100 at $899. These two camcorders both take 3.3 megapixel still photos, which is considerably fewer pixels than Sony's but nevertheless still respectable for the casual user.

HD video camcorders have several other interesting abilities as well. Some of them, like the Sony HDR-HC9 and Panasonic HDC-HS9, also support xvYCC, a color standard that achieves more vibrant and accurate colors. This standard claims to produce 1.8 times more reds, greens and blues than standard color.

Bragging rights also go to the Sanyo VPC-HD1000 and Panasonic HDC-SD9 (both around $799), which have face recognition technology that automatically recognizes faces within the frame and makes adjustments to exposure, contrast and even skin tone for the best result. The Panasonic, which also supports xvYCC, also incorporates the Intelligent Shooting Guide. This feature supplies hints to the photographer to help make better videos; it's like having your own personal photo instructor in your back pocket.

One final desirable feature to look for in an HD video camcorder is a 3CCD processor. All digital video cameras use CCD -- charge-coupled device -- processors to capture light and produce the resulting image, but using three processors (one for each primary color) is new. HD video camcorders with three processors produce images with even richer colors and more vivid detail.

When it comes time to watch your creations, there's really not much to it. If you want your videos to pop even more, you can edit your HD video footage as well. Learn about viewing and editing basics on the next page.


Editing and Playing High-definition Camcorder Footage

You can connect your HD camcorder to your computer to edit the footage.
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There's nothing like reliving life's greatest moments in high definition. Before you can watch your life in astonishing detail on that giant screen, you'll want to transfer the video from the camcorder to your television or your computer. HD camcorders come with a place to attach a video cable to connect to your HDTV. Sometimes the cables aren't supplied, so you may have to buy one at the electronics store. Just connect and play. In addition, most HD camcorders also come with a FireWire output and/or USB port for connecting the camcorder to your computer. You can usually hook the camcorder up to a standard television set as well, typically using the same cable.

If you're an aspiring Spielberg, though, you may want to tweak your video footage before displaying it. Editing high-definition video is actually similar to editing standard definition video, which you can learn about in How Video Editing Works. The main difference you'll encounter when editing HD video is the size of the files. They're mammoth. The higher the quality of the picture, the more size the information takes up, so understandably HD data takes up a lot of room. In addition, since both HDV and AVCHD use high compression, decoding that information requires a powerful computer processor.


Luckily, several software applications compatible with HD facilitate the editing process. Many camcorders supply their own software, but other options include Apple's iMovie HD and iDVD HD, Pinnacle Studio and Adobe Premiere Pro. You may have to search around to find one that works with your particular camcorder and computer, but odds are there's one out there or soon will be.

If you're not into editing but still want to make minor changes to your videos, like combining or deleting scenes, some cameras, like the Hitachi DZ-BD7HA, allow you to perform these minor edits directly on the device. This particular Hitachi model can record directly to a Blu-ray disc, which you can instantly play on a regular Blu-ray player.

As the technology behind high-definition camcorders evolves, more impressive equipment will keep appearing on the horizon. Until then, there's plenty of gear to keep you and your creative genius entertained. You can learn more about HD camcorders and related technology by exploring the links on the next page.


Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

More Great Links

  • Adobe Systems Incorporated. "Understanding and Using High-Definition Video." 2004. (June 13, 2008)
  • Harris, Tom. "How Camcorders Work." HowStuffWorks. 2008. (June 13, 2008)
  • Stafford, Alan. "Corel Ulead VideoStudio 11 Plus and Pinnacle Systems Studio 11 Ultimate." June 27, 2007. (June 13, 2008),133300/article.html
  • Stafford, Alan. "High-Definition Camcorders Make Video Pop." PC World. August 2007.
  • Waring, Becky. "How to Choose a Future-Proof Video Camera." PC World. May 7, 2007. (June 13, 2008),145439/article.html
  • Wilson, Kim. "High Definition Camcorders: Your Vacation in Hi-Def." E-gear. June 2008.
  • Wilson, Tracy. "How HDTV Works." HowStuffWorks. 2008. (June 13, 2008)