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Understanding Camcorders: Recording Formats

You're shopping for a new camcorder. You know what you want it to do, but how do you know which model to choose? In this article, we'll go over the various ways in which video is processed and stored, as well as the types of memory available to help demystify the different camcorder models. You can also get the scoop on other camcorder features in our article on finding the right camcorder.

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Built-in flash memory and hard drive storage

Canon VIXIA HF R32 camcorder
Camcorders with built-in memory give you ample storage capacity.

Hard drive and flash memory camcorders store videos as data files to a small built-in hard drive or microchip, similar to the way we store files on our computers or MP3 players. These kinds of camcorders come with varying amounts of memory, and their potentially enormous storage capacity is one reason for their increasing popularity. Plus, this kind of memory can be reused thousands of times without degrading.

A quick note on the difference: the advantage of flash memory is that it doesn't have any moving parts, so it's considered more durable than hard drive memory. It's less susceptible to recording errors if the camera is being moved quickly or jerkily. And camcorders with flash memory generally record and access media faster than hard drive camcorders. Given the tiny size of flash memory, these camcorders can be built smaller and lighter, too. Hard drive camcorders are currently available in greater capacities; however, they are becoming harder to find as flash memory's capacity has increased and cost has declined.

Camcorders that use videotape and DVD-based storage can still be found, but they are quickly giving way to the solid-state, file-based media revolution. You can safely assume that flash memory is most manufacturers' storage medium of choice.

Memory card Camcorder
Many camcorders offer a combination of on-board flash memory and memory card ports

Recording to memory cards

Memory cards, a type of removable flash memory, are especially handy when you want to add extra storage capacity to your camcorder. Almost every new camcorder on the market offers some form of memory card compatibility. When you run out of room, you don't have to pick which video segments you'll discard — you can just pop in a new memory card. The most common types of memory cards found in camcorders are SD cards and Memory Sticks®.

A camcorder with a memory card slot might also be a good choice if you're interested in sharing video clips online. These cams make it easy to record video clips and images to the memory card and then pop it into a memory card reader or card slot on your computer. Then you can upload clips to a video-sharing site, like Facebook® or YouTube™, or email them to friends and family. Memory cards are repeatedly re-useable, and with the cost-per-gigabyte of computer storage dropping, you can simply copy your video files to a big hard drive attached to your home computer once you've shot the card full. Then erase the card, and you're ready for re-use.

Safety note: As with your precious family photos or irreplaceable documents, it's a good idea to make another copy of the above-mentioned hard drive from time to time if you wish to have it properly archived. Even better, make a regular schedule for backup and then keep one of the drives in a different humidity and temperature-controlled location. You'll be covered in case one of your devices meets with harm. Cloud storage (the ability to back up your files to servers on the Internet), while a great thing for many kinds of files, is not a good choice for video due to video's large file sizes. The amount of data you'd have to transfer would be unmanageable.

File formats and codecs

No matter how you're recording your video, there are standards for how your video is compressed and encoded to make your data file. There's a huge alphabet soup of file types out there. Some codecs have better image quality than others. Some make larger file sizes than others. It probably won't surprise you that larger file size doesn't always mean better.

The consumer electronics industry as a whole is gathering around one general family of standards, the so-called MPEG-4 family. This group includes the subfamilies H.264 and AVCHD. These are very efficient codecs with fantastic image quality, and they deliver an impressive image-quality to file-size ratio. Other decent strategies are in the "motion JPEG" family. While the files you store may have a whole variety of other names as their extension (.mov, .mp4, .mts, etc.), the chances are high that the original encoding "under-the-hood" comes from one of these groups.

We should not ignore the effect of data rate. Regardless of codec, the total amount of data required per second to construct/reconstruct the video signal has an impact on picture quality. Higher data rate means higher picture quality. This means your memory device — hard disk or flash memory — has to be able to deliver the data rate the codec demands. For this reason, you're seeing faster classes of SD cards and faster hard drives with greater transfer speeds. Even computer video cards have limits on the data rates they can handle. It's important that you have the fastest storage devices you can reasonably afford for good video performance. The latest camcorders are offering significantly higher data rates for their top-quality capture profiles than were prevalent even a couple of years ago.

Future storage trends?

Adventurous enthusiasts and budget-conscious professionals are experimenting with specialized hard-disk and flash-memory recording devices that take a feed from a camcorder or digital camera's HDMI port, and record the video data with higher-quality codecs. As this trend develops, some aspects of this workflow may find their way into the consumer electronics world. While not currently embraced by most large manufacturers, it's worth keeping an eye on the marketplace to see if HDMI-based recorders emerge.

For more information on what to do with your footage after you've recorded it, check out our article on watching, sharing, and editing your home movies.

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