What’s a pocket camcorder?

Compact digital cameras may all be starting to sprout HD movie capability but they're by no means the only devices able to capture your life in high definition. Driven by the popularity of video sharing on YouTube and FaceBook, a new class of devices has sprung up, offering an even more simple way to record and share the important, interesting or simply funny things going on around you - the pocket camcorder.

Recording video is often as simple as pressing a large red button.

These devices have become one of the fastest growing areas of the imaging market in the past year or so and their key distinguishing features give clues to their appeal: they tend to be small, around the size of a cell phone, they usually feature a built-in full-sized USB-A connectors so you don't need to find a cable to connect them to a computer and finally, they generally feature very simple external controls, dominated by a large red 'record' button. Many now offer full HD capture too. With this simplicity and easy connectivity, it's no surprise that they've also become known as 'shoot and share' cameras.

If shooting and sharing appeals to you, what are the features on offer and what should you be looking for?

More Facebook than Fellini

As well as the instant connectivity offered by built-in USB-A connectors (the same connector as the USB sockets on your computer), most pocket camcorders come pre-loaded with software that they offer to install each time you connect them to a computer. This means you can use them with the laptop of the friends you're visiting, or drop into an internet cafe and know that you'll be able to handle the video files you've just shot.

Most of these devices come with built-in USB-A connectors - no searching around for chargers or connecting cables.

These pocket camcorders aren't about capturing the whole of the school play or trapping friends in front of your TV to re-live your most recent holiday - they're about harnessing the potential of ever-faster internet connections and the popularity of social networks and video sharing sites. As a result the included software tends to be very much targeted at those needs.

The software included on most devices will allow you to edit clips down and easily upload them to popular sites (which tends to means YouTube and often Facebook). Some models also include simple tools for connecting the edited clips together into your own movie. And, as with most creative media, some people will achieve amazing results despite the tools at hand, but most people harboring ambitions of movie mogul-dom will probably want to look beyond the provided software.

Mac owners will need to check whether there's an Apple-flavored version of the software included, but will at least have the option to fall back on the probably greater capabilities of iMovie. Most manufacturers appear to be assuming that Linux users will enjoy the challenge of finding their own solutions.

What’s out there?

Just as happened with MP3 players, the big electronics players are arriving to challenge the first movers. As a result, there are an increasing number of models from well-respected brands to compete with the third-generation devices from companies like Cisco (Flip) and Creative. Full HD is the current trend, with most of the latest devices offering 1080p in addition to the near universal 720p standard. Panasonic's latest model also offers 540p, a quarter-sized version of 1080p called iFrame designed to offer smaller files for faster editing and uploading.

iFrame may not offer the high-definition detail needed to impress on a 720 or 1080 HDTV but the smaller files are easier to edit and share.

Because of their ease-of-use/ease-of-sharing ethos, the other near-universal feature of pocket camcorders is the storage of their data in widely-used, easily handled file formats. All the devices from major makers use H.264 compression and AAC audio compression (both of which are part of the MPEG-4 standard) with everything bundled up in either an MP4 or MOV wrapper. The two wrappers are very closely related so they're essentially equally easy to use. There's fractionally more widespread support for the MP4 format in terms of editing software but not to the degree that it's a reason to choose one over the the other (unless you're set on using a specific piece of software).

In addition to true pocket camcorders a number of companies make small camcorders with optical zooms rather than the fixed lens units featured here (including Sony under the same Bloggie branding it uses for its pocket camcorder), however the increased size and complexity of these models is enough for them to really count as a separate class of devices.

What are the key specifications to look for?

Given that all the cameras use the same compression method, there are three major specifications that can affect video quality - bitrate (how heavily compressed the data is), aperture and sensor size. Just as with cameras, the bare specifications don't tell the whole story, but you can get some idea of how the performance will compare by looking at these three figures. They're not always quoted by manufacturers, which doesn't help either.

Bitrate is the amount of data used to record each second of video and is usually specified in megabits per second (mbps) - the higher the bitrate, the more detailed your videos are likely to look. Note that this is thousands of bits, not bytes (one bit is one eighth of a byte), so don't worry too much the rate you'll fill the memory. Also, most of these camera employ variable bitrate encoding - the complexity and level of difference between frames will dictate the actual bitrate.

However, bitrate isn't just dependent on the degree of compression - it's also dependent on how much data is being compressed. As a result, you need a higher bitrate to give 1080 video at the same quality as a piece of 720p video and higher again for 60fps video rather than 30fps. Even so, knowing the nominal bitrate will give an indication of the quality of the end result. However, the flip side of retaining lots of detail is that the files are larger, which will start to increase upload times.

The Flip Mino HD (8GB) shoots 720p30 video at 9mbs, earning it a reputation as one of the cameras to beat. Higher frame rates and resolutions require higher bitrates to offer the same video quality.

Aperture and sensor size in this context relate to low-light capability, rather than depth-of-field control. A large aperture will let in more light and, as with stills cameras, the values are represented as F numbers (the ratio of focal length /diameter of aperture). As such a smaller F number represents a larger aperture and more light gathering capability. But it's important to remember that F numbers are non-linear: F2 lets in twice as much light as F2.8.

Sensor sizes are named in the same slightly obscure manner as they are in compact digital cameras but again the key thing to remember is that, in general terms, for low light performance, bigger is better. This picture is muddied by the fact that some of these cameras use native HD sensors (each output pixel comes from one pixel on the sensor), while others capture more pixels and either combine the results from adjacent pixels (binning) on the sensor.

Sensor size (type)DiagonalApprox. dimensionsArea
1/4.5" 3.9 mm 2.4 x 3.1 mm 0.07 cm²
1/4.1" 4.4 mm 2.6 x 3.5 mm 0.09 cm²
1/3.2" 5.7 mm 3.4 x 4.5 mm 0.15 cm²
1/2.5" 7.2 mm 4.3 x 5.7 mm 0.25 cm²

Even the largest sensors here are a fraction smaller than the 1/2.3" sensors used in most compact stills cameras (which have an area of around 0.28cm²) meaning they can't really compete as stills cameras. They also tend to lack any real control over stills shooting parameters. However, just like camera phones they have the great advantage that they're convenient enough that you're likely to have them with you when interesting things happen. And, of course, the easy connectivity provided for the easy sharing of video is just as useful for still images - so you can easily illustrate your latest social network update even if the result doesn't then make it onto your Smugmug, Flickr or Zenfolio account.

Another key thing to consider, when trying to choose a pocket camcorder is the inclusion of image stabilization (IS). The construction of all these devices is so simple in order to keep costs down that none of them is able to offer any physical image stabilization (lens or sensor shift). Instead some models offer digital image stabilization. The versions we've examined haven't been terribly effective (the footage remains very shaky) but are still better than nothing. Even with digital IS, you can expect all your video to have a distinctly cinéma vérité quality to it - the only way you're going to get really steady footage is with a tripod, and that rather spoils the point of having a pocketable, carry anywhere camera.

 
HD resolution 720p30 720p30 720p30 720p30 1080p30
720p60
1080p30
720p60
720p30
1080p30
720p60
720p30
1080p30
720p30
1080p30
720p30
1080p30
720p60
720p30
Memory 4GB int* 4GB int* 8GB int* 8GB int* 128MB int*, SD/SDHC 128MB int*, SD/SDHC 20MB
int*, SD/SDHC
microSD SD/SDHC
/SDXC
MS/SD
/SDHC
Sensor size ? 1/4.5" 1/4.5" 1/4.5" 1/3.2" 1/2.5" 1/2.5" 1/3.2" 1/4.1" 1/2.5"
Stabilization No No No No No Digital Digital No Digital Digital
Lens aperture F2.0 F2.4 F2.4 F2.4 F2.8 F2.8 F2.8 F2.2 F2.8 F3.6
Focal length (equiv) ? ? 50mm ? 55mm 1080
42mm 720
61mm 1080
46mm 720p
48mm 1080
36mm 720p
? 49mm 1080
49mm
720
47mm 1080
Digital zoom 2x 2x 2x 2x 4x 4x 4x 2x 4x 4x
Stills output 0.9MP N/A N/A N/A 8MP 5.3MP** 5.3MP** 8MP 8MP** 5MP
Recording format

H.264 AVC MP4, AAC

H.264 AVC MP4, AAC H.264 AVC MP4, AAC H.264 AVC MP4, AAC H.264 AVC MOV, AAC H.264 AVC MOV, AAC H.264 AVC MOV, AAC H.264 AVC MP4, AAC H.264 AVC MP4, AAC H.264 AVC MP4, AAC
Bitrate (largest video) ? 9mbps 9mbps 9mbps 12mbps ? ? 17 mbps 12mbps ?
Audio Mono (Stereo with jack) Mono Stereo Stereo Mono Mono (Stereo with jack) Mono ? Mono Mono
Built-in USB Yes Yes Yes Yes Socket Yes Socket Yes Yes Yes
HDMI Yes No Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes No No
AV Yes Yes No No Yes Yes Yes No Yes Yes
LCD size 2.0" 1.5" 2.0" 2.0" 2.0" 2.5" 2.0" 2.7" 2.0" 2.4"
Battery

Built-in
Li-ion

Built-in
Li-ion
Built-in
Li-ion
AA/
Li-ion
Li-ion Li-ion Li-ion Li-ion Li-ion Li-ion
Other features       U/W case available     Water-proof Swivel lens LED light Swivel lens
Dimensions 58 x 99 x 16mm 50 x 100 x 16mm 50 x 100 x 17mm 56 x 108 x 30mm 53 x 97 x 17mm 62 x 113 x 22mm 58 x 113 x 20mm 58 x 109 x17mm 53 x 104 x 18mm 58 x 108 x 19mm
Volume 90cm³ 80cm³ 85cm³ 181cm³ 87cm³ 150cm³ 127cm³ 105cm³ 99cm³ 111cm³
Weight 93g 94g 116g 170g 95g 110g 128g 88g 114g 130g

*Internal memory also used for storing built-in software.
** Stills output is interpolated from lower-resolution sensor

The final key specification to consider when considering a pocket camcorder is the angle of view it offers. This is another specification that isn't always quoted by manufacturers, which can make it a little bit difficult to compare models. However, where the figures are available, most of them stick to around 48-50mm, which would be considered 'normal' on a stills camera. However, we're not looking at stills here, and in movie shooting these focal lengths end up feeling moderately wide-angled, giving a useful degree of flexibility. Anything much longer than 50mm risks being a little limiting in terms of capturing scenery or groups of people.

Most models offer some degree of digital zoom but, as on stills cameras, the effect on image quality can easily outweigh the benefits of the apparent extra reach it offers. (We were pretty unimpressed with the results when trying to zoom the highest resolution videos). However, most of the full HD cameras can also shoot in 720p, which leaves them with enough pixels on their sensor to allow some digital zoom without dropping below the point at which each output pixel corresponds to one sensor pixel. Once you drop below this level the camera has to try to calculate data for more output pixels than it's actually capturing data. This process, called interpolation, can produce some fairly low-definition results, so don't assume that high digital zoom numbers are always a bonus.

The digital zoom applied towards the end of this sequence shows the effect of interpolation and the loss of clarity that comes with it.

What other features should I consider?

Connectivity is a key consideration - it's all very well being able to connect the USB plug straight into any computer you encounter but the ability to play back your output can be equally valuable. If you own an HD TV or HDMI-compatible monitor, you're likely to appreciate an HDMI output socket, which many of the devices feature. However, if you value the ability to re-show your videos in situations where you can't depend on such modernity, a conventional standard definition AV connector may be of use. These are understandably less common on these HD camcorders, since the playback will either be cropped or shown in a letterbox format of an already low resolution screen (hardly a great use of an HD recorder)

Another consideration is battery type. Some of the camcorders on the market have built-in, non-changeable rechargeable batteries, others have removable lithium ion batteries while at least one comes with a rechargeable battery that can be swapped for standard AA cells. In theory having replaceable batteries means that you can have a fully-charged spare battery ready if the one in the camera runs out. However, because most of these devices act as chargers, you can't use the camera while you're trying to charge your spare battery. Genuine own-brand batteries can also be fairly expensive, again detracting from the appealingly low cost of the camcorder itself. Some people will appreciate the ability to just grab some AAs if they've forgotten or exhausted the supplied battery pack. There's a size and weight penalty for that convenience, though.

Different manufacturers have gone down different routes when it comes to batteries and storage. Whether you'd rather use internal memory is likely to hinge on whether you already own some fast SDHC cards.

On such inexpensive devices removable batteries only become truly useful if spares are affordable. Alternatively some units accept AA batteries but have to be larger to accommodate them.

Beyond this, there are some specialist features that only appear on one or two models. If you have specific requirements these might dictate your purchase, but overall they are unlikely to be crucial for most people. LED lighting for instance is can be useful for low-light work so is worth considering if that's going to be the main focus of your shooting. However, just like the flash units on compact cameras, the range is severely limited so it's more likely to be an occasionally useful feature than an indispensable one.

There are also at least two models offering lenses that can rotate back so that you can video yourself while still being able to operate the camera, which again is likely to be of niche appeal. Finally, there are waterproof models and ones with optional underwater cases. It's unlikely that these little devices are suddenly going to come into their own below the waves but, if you are specifically after the ability to shoot under water (or even just at the beach) without the bulk of a conventional camcorder (plus housing), then this could be the decisive feature for you. And, even if you don't fancy yourself as the next Jacques Cousteau, a waterproof or ruggedised model can be used in more challenging situations or simply without the same degree of care and attention (perfect if you have a child who's decided to be your director of photography).

It won’t replace your camera but...

With their small sensors, fixed lenses and currently limited resolutions (5-8MP is the best you can hope for from the current crop) these pocket camcorders are unlikely to displace your favorite compact camera, particularly if you have any real enthusiasm for stills photography. However they are less expensive than most good compact cameras, making them particularly attractive to younger buyers and encouraging worry-free use in social situations.

The quality might not always be to Hollywood standards but pocket camcorders can be great fun to use.

Whether you're a member of the core social networking market looking to shoot and share, or simply someone hoping to dabble in HD video, their combination of pocketability, low cost and, above all, ease of use makes them a fun, accessible way to start documenting the world around you.

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