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the best consumer video camera for Mac users

I’ve been established in the world of digital photography since 1998, but am new to video. I spent a great deal of time the last month or so doing research. I’ve learned a lot and hope to share some of that knowledge here. You’ll see which camcorder I recommend for Mac users on a budget.

Lemme just say that it’s been really, really hard trying to find sample videos of cameras I’m interested in. (I did manage to find great side-by-side comparison videos of my two finalist cameras. links below.) The world of digital photography features 5 very strong web sites and various print magazines that give you tons and tons of information on all the latest cameras on the market. Digital video pales tremendously in comparison. The only video magazines I could find focus solely on professional and semi-professional equipment. cnet.com and camcorderinfo.com are the major players in consumer video camera reviews. Both are slow in getting reviews online for the latest cameras. I’ve spent a lot of time on various user forums talking to people about video cameras. (Camcorderinfo.com’s user forums are excellent.) Read this blog entry and hopefully you’ll be enlightened if you’re on the hunt for a consumer video camera.

This review initially jumped right into the cameras, but after some thought, I’m going to start off with some background in some basic need-to-know stuff.

MAC USERS BEWARE!
LEARN YOUR RECORDING MEDIA OPTIONS!

MEDIA FORMAT CONCERN #1: CONVERSION
Macs can work directly with the DV format used on MiniDV. Download your footage from the camera to computer and you’re instantly ready to edit in iMovie or Final Cut Express. Macs don’t natively support MPEG-2 which is the codec for hard drives and SD cameras. (By the way, “codec” is just techie talk for the file format that the data is stored as.) If a Mac user has a MPEG-2 camera (hard drive or DVD), then the footage will need to be converted to DV so iMovie or Final Cut Express can recognize them. There’s plenty of freeware converters out there that will convert MPEG-2 to DV, but some quality is lost in the conversion process. Getting a freeware converter, like MPEG Streamclip, is easy enough, but you still have to pay $20 for the QuickTime MPEG-2 Playback Component. Plus, you’d be spending a fair amount of time converting all your footage from MPEG-2 to DV.

MEDIA FORMAT CONCERN #2A: DV IS BETTER QUALITY THAN MPEG-2 TO BEGIN WITH
MiniDV is better quality than MPEG-2, because MiniDV applies less compression to the video. The more you compress a video, the more quality you strip out of it.

So why would manufacturers be putting the lower quality codec on their new, fancy hard drive cameras? Good question. I don’t understand why manufacturers can’t offer camcorders that record in DV. Perhaps it’s because MPEG-2 files are much smaller than DV files and the big advantage that hard drive cameras have over MiniDV cameras is faster file transfer speed. When transferring footage from a MiniDV camera to computer, it transfers in real-time. If you have 45 minutes of footage, then it will take 45 minutes to transfer. Transfer speeds are much faster with hard drives. I’d guess it takes 10-15 minutes. (That’s purely a guess.) If hard drives recorded in DV instead of MPEG-2, then transfer rates would take a bit longer, taking away some of the luster of hard drive cameras.

MEDIA FORMAT CONCERN #2B: IS THE QUALITY REALISTICALLY BETTER?
I still would love to see side-by-side sample footage comparison of DV vs. MPEG-2. Everyone says DV is better quality, but I want to judge for myself how much better it is. I’ve read that the biggest noticeable difference is in footage of transitions and fast movements. Also keep in mind that if the final destination of your videos is on DVD, then you’re converting to MPEG-2. To view movies on a DVD they need to be in MPEG-2, not DV. This doesn’t mean you can’t store the raw DV footage on disk or on the original MiniDV tapes. But really, what good does it do? So you can view your better quality DV footage on a computer. How often does that happen? Most people view their videos on their TV via a DVD player. So I seriously question the logic behind the quality argument for DV.

DON’T FREAK OUT THAT MINIDV IS TAPE-BASED
I just want to take this time to steer you clear of the myth surrounding MiniDV. MiniDV is cassette-based. Now don’t think that MiniDV stores the video in the same manner as 8mm or VHS. The tape of a MiniDV cassette is simply a means for which to house the DATA. Yes, it’s computer data stored on a tape. Sounds strange, but it’s true. In fact, if you talk to any IT guy, they’ll tell you that it’s common for companies to back up the data on their servers onto tape. Keep in mind that MiniDV can be recorded over and over again unlike DVD disks.

BUT IT’S OLD TECHNOLOGY, MAN!
So MiniDV seems like the way to go for Mac users, but I had a serious beef with buying the old MiniDV technology. All the major manufacturers made serious cuts in their MiniDV cameras in 2007. If you go to Best Buy, you’ll see that DVD and hard drive cameras greatly outnumber MiniDV. It’s painfully obvious that MiniDV is a quickly dying breed in the consumer camcorder realm. I just didn’t like the idea of spending $400 on old technology despite how much easier it is on the Macs. Plus, I’ve been crossing my fingers that Mac OS 10.5 (due out by the end of June) will support MPEG-2. I’m an Apple fan, but they greatly upset me when I found out their software doesn’t support MPEG-2.

THE THING ABOUT DVD-BASED CAMERAS
DVD-based cameras are terrible if you want to edit your videos. With DVD cameras, you record your video, then finalize the DVD when you’re ready to watch the DVD on your TV or any DVD player. That’s great if you don’t want to edit the video. In fact, my family bought my dad a DVD video camera for his birthday this year. He’ll never edit the videos on his computer so the DVD camera was best for him. Some day, I’ll write about my research on entry-level DVD cameras.

If you want to edit, then you need to copy the video to your computer from your DVD. Edit it. Then either store the video on your computer, external hard drive, or ANOTHER DVD. You can get video camera DVDs for as little as $2.50 each, but you can’t record over them once they’ve been finalized… not even DVD-RWs. DVD-RW (and DVD+RW) disks let you erase footage while the DVD is still in the camera BEFORE you finalize the disk. You can only view the DVD on a DVD player when the disk has been finalized. I eliminated all DVD cameras from this review because I think it’s pretty darn nice being able to edit the video footage on a computer.

HARD DRIVE/SD
If I were a PC owner, I’d seriously consider the Panasonic SD-H200. It can record video to an internal hard drive AND to SD disks. I’m skeptical about all these hard drive cameras on the market. Hard drives operate by spinning a metal platter at extremely high speeds. What does that mean? It means that all hard drives die sooner or later. Some die faster than others. That translates into a useless video camera if your only recording format is hard drive.

However! The Panasonic SDR-H200 can also record video to SD. I strongly believe that solid-state memory cards (like SD) are the wave of the future for video cameras. There’s no sound of a tape spinning like MiniDV. After time, some hard drives develop loud, whiny sounds which may interfere with your recorded sound. Also, solid-state memory cards have no spinning parts that could crap out on you like hard drives and MiniDV. Another big plus is that solid-state memory cards allow for much smaller cameras. That’s where the Panasonic SDR-S150 comes in. It’s a tiny camera cuz it runs solely on SD. Currently you can get a 4GB SD card (20 minutes recording time in highest quality) for $40. That price will drop dramatically in the next year. I expect it to easily drop in half. 32 GB SD cards will be out by the end of the year.

Oh, one other important thing on this discussion of hard drives and memory cards. Other manufacturers, like Sony, advertise that their cameras use hard drive and memory cards. However, the hard drive is used for the video and the memory cards are used for the photographs. They don’t allow you to store video on the memory cards. Pretty sneaky of them. Panasonic allows you to store video to the memory card.

WHAT CONSUMER CAMCORDER TO BUY FOR MAC USERS

My budget is in the neighborhood of $500-$750. This eliminates all the HD (High-Definition) cameras. They start at $800. You might say, “what’s an extra $50 beyond your budget when you can have HD?” I don’t like the idea of spending $800 for an entry-level product. Sure you can get an HD camera for $800, but rest of the camera doesn’t match up to the $800 investment. It’s like buying a car with a really fancy engine, but the rest of the car is cracker-box quality.

THE MANUFACTURERS
There’s 7 manufacturers in the video camera realm: Canon, Sony, Panasonic, JVC, Hitachi, Sharp, and Samsung. I immediately eliminated Hitachi, Sharp, and Samsung because they’re marginal players and every review I read about their video cameras report terrible cameras. JVC is a major player, but all the reviews have not been pretty. That leaves Canon, Sony and Panasonic.

PANASONIC
I’m starting with Panasonic, because they have a unique position in the consumer camcorder market. Panasonic is a great option because their 3CCD system is superior to just 1 CCD. 3CCD means there’s three imaging chips. 1 chip for Red, 1 chip for Green, and 1 chip for Blue. Cameras with 1 CCD chip gather the Red, Green, and Blue info on 1 single chip. Generally speaking, more chips result in richer, more accurate color. None of the Canon or Sony consumer video cameras have 3CCD. Most of Panasonic’s consumer cameras have 3CCD. Also, I love the manual controls on the consumer Panny cameras. (Those in the know like to call Panasonic, “Panny”.) If manual controls aren’t for you, then there’s always the “AUTO” button on the Panasonic cameras. Easy as that.

First I examined Panasonic’s 2007 models and narrowed it down to three cameras: the SDR-S150, SDR-H200, and PV-GS320. I’ve been avoiding spending over $750 so the H200 was pushing it. The S150 is currently at Fry’s for $700 and Amazon.com has it for about $720. The GS320 can be had for just under $400.

COMPARING THE PANASONICS (SIMILARITIES)
So, I put together a quick chart comparing the three cameras. I was shocked at how similar all three are despite their large price difference. All have 10x optical zoom, 37mm lens, 3CCD, 800k pixels on each CCD, 1/6″ chips, Optical Image Stabilization (O.I.S.), and just about the same amount of manual controls (iris control, shutter speed control, white balance control, backlight compensation, and MagicPix). If you have any questions about any of these items, then just leave a comment on this blog entry! No registration is required.

COMPARING THE PANASONICS (DIFFERENCES)
Now, the differences are found in the prices, the sizes of the cameras and the media they record on. The S150 is the smallest by far with a tiny footprint of 3.8″ x 3.2″ x 2.1″. The H200 is 4.8″ x 3.2″ x 3.0″. The GS320 is similar to the H200, but a bit longer at 5.8″ x 2.9″ x 2.8″. The S150 records to SD cards only. The H200 records to hard drive and SD cards. The GS320 records to MiniDV.

LOOK WHAT MINIDV SAVES YOU!
I was shocked by my chart because I’d be saving over $300 by going with the MiniDV (GS320) camera instead of the $700 S150 or $760 H200 and the main difference was just the recording media. Well, all of a sudden my “buying old technology” concern is seriously small now. Plus, once you add up the facts about MPEG-2 and MiniDV for the Mac (MiniDV having higher quality and no conversion required) and the “buying old technology” argument becomes less of a factor. I could buy the GS320 and have an extra $300 in my pocket. Maybe I’ll use that money to buy the ultra-slick Canon PowerShot TX1. I’ll cover the TX1 later cuz this camera just blows my mind. Though I bet the Macs will have a fun time trying to deal with the TX1’s unique MJPEG codec. Heck, they can’t even handle MPEG-2. Shame on you, Apple. Get in the game. I’m embarrassed to say I’m a Mac user and I’ve never been embarrassed to be a Mac user before.

camcorderinfo.com’s review on the GS300. There’s cosmetic differences between the GS300 and GS320, but both have the same imaging core.

ONE STEP CLOSER
Ok, so I figured out that the Panasonic PV-GS320 is the smartest Panasonic for me. I still have to see what Sony and Canon can offer.

CANON
The Canon ZR850 is a direct competitor to the Panasonic PV-GS320 and is dirt cheap at $275. And it’s Canon’s top-of-the line MiniDV camera. However, the reviews I’ve read aren’t all that great and Canon’s 2006 ZR series is notorious for motor noise and it only got worse in 2007. Canon currently offers no hard drive cameras. So Canon is now out of the picture completely.
camcorderinfo.com review of the ZR850

SONY
The Sony DCR-HC96 is a direct competitor to the Panasonic PV-GS320. It’s slightly more money than the $390 GS320 at $525. Ouch. The Sony lacks the manual controls found on the Panny. Double ouch. And the Sony has only 1 CCD to the Panny’s 3 CCDs. Triple Ouch. So I bet you’re surprised that I’m actually going to buy the Sony. Yea. What makes the Sony so much better? The Sony has a 1/3″ CCD while the Panny is 1/6″. For the mathematically-challenged those figures convert to 0.33″ and 0.67″. The 1/3″ chip is twice as big. This makes a huge difference in low-light situations. When a room has little light available, the CCD chip can struggle to interpret the light. One way to get a CCD to grab more light is to make the chip bigger so the thousands of individual sensors on the chip can grab what light is available.
camcorderinfo.com review of Sony DCR-HC96

WHAT YOU’VE BEEN WAITING FOR. COMPARISON VIDEOS!
I was perplexed when I saw the Sony had the bigger CCD chip, but less manual controls and a higher cost. I knew low-light shooting was going to be better, but how much better? I’m going to be doing a lot of shooting indoors when baby Maldre arrives soon. Well, I was fortunate enough to come across some great sample footage from the Sony DCR-HC96 and Panasonic PV-GS320 from n3ok318 of camcorderinfo’s message boards. He took five minute sample videos in his house with the Sony in one hand and the Panasonic in the other hand. Now the Panny he used was the GS300, not the GS320. However, the GS320 uses the same imaging core as the GS300. They only differ cosmetically. Here’s links to his sample footage:

Panasonic PV-GS300 in daylight

Panasonic DCR- HC96 in daylight

Panasonic PV-GS300 with no daylight

Panasonic DCR- HC96 with no daylight

These are Window Media files. Windows Media Player for the mac only allows you to view one movie at a time. You can’t view them side by side. So I downloaded Flip4Mac WMV 2.1. It allows you open .wmv files in QuickTime. That way, you can view n3ok318’s movies side-by-side in QuickTime.

MY RECOMMENDATION
After viewing the videos, I’m convinced the Sony DCR-HC96 is the right camera for me. It is clearly the superior camera for low-light environments. Plus, I felt it did a much better job of interpreting whites. The Panny’s whites were sometimes pinkish and sometimes yellowish. The Sony did a great job of maintaining clean whites. The Panny had slightly richer colors in bright light environments, but only marginally so. The 3CCD system didn’t blow away the single CCD in the Sony in terms of vibrancy. So I’m willing to sacrifice the manual controls of the Panny for the Sony’s superior low-light performance. Though I’m not happy at all about losing the manual controls, but priorities need to be set when making such decisions.

Now, if you’re a mac user on the market for a reasonably priced video camera, then the Panny might be better for you. It depends on your shooting needs. If you plan on shooting mostly indoors, then the Sony DCR-HC96 is best. If you plan on shooting mostly outdoors, then the Panasonic PV-GS320 is best.

———————————————-
The Sony camera and related products

Firewire cable to transfer video footage on your mac
B00005NIMR

MiniDV tapes. I bought two 5-packs.
B0009HGVZW

cleaning cassette for the MiniDV drive
DVM12CLD

512 MB Memory Stick Pro Duo
B0002Z4572

———————————————-
The Panny

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ckoehring
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ckoehring

Great review.. I’m not sure of the date you wrote this.. Please advise if anything has has changed… I’m a mac user.
I want the camera to take pictures of my pups which will be mostly indoors until they are a bit older, so hey, I’m not even going to look further.. Thanks so much for doing all the work for me! Cindy

Jimmy FitzPatrick
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Jimmy FitzPatrick

GREAT REVIEW! And much appreciated. I’ve been in the trenches of Camera research and it’s burning my eyes out! What a debacle of excessive options and formats… Here’s one thing you’ve forgotten though: I would jump on either the Panny OR the Sony BUT neither of them have mic inputs and that means relying solely on the in camera mic which is unnacceptable when pursuing even minor league film making. Sadly, the GS300 WITH mic input (BEST non high def/camera in this price range) is virtually exntinct! I can’t even get this thing on ebay without importing it from Austrailia!… Read more »

Jill Rand
Guest

Thanks for your extensive research comments. I also have been researching…and your blog helped me…however, I could not view the sample clips on my macbook pro..even though i do have flip4mac…at least i did…maybe it needs to be udated.

Anyway, is there a way to send me a clip of the sony dcr-hc96 in action.

I will be filming mainly indoors….lectures, teachings…

concerned a bit about the 10x zoom…have been using a friends camera with 20x (a sony dcr hc-21)…do you find the 10x zoomy enough..

thanks again,

Jill

Larissa Doyle
Guest
Larissa Doyle

Thanks very much for all of the information. Like the others, my eyes are burning out from sifting through the seemingly endless info …

Quick questions – do you know if lower end Sony DCR-HC series (e.g. 28 or 38) cameras are also compatible with Final Cut Express and Final Cut Pro? Also, I’ve read comments on the net regarding problems with Sony firewire connections, can you please comment, if possible? Thanks again!
Larissa

Mauricio Uribe
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Mauricio Uribe

Thanks for the advice. It’s quite reassuring to find out my best choice was also picked as such in such a methodical and orderly way.

Dan
Guest
Dan

Like everybody else, thanks so much for this review! It was timely and helpful. You research just like I do.

🙂
Danny

Mauricio Uribe
Guest
Mauricio Uribe

One word of caution: Make sure your FireWire cable does work. I spent hours trying to figure out what the problem was (computer didn’t recognize the camera), until I replaced the cheap cable I had for one with the $20 apple logo on it… but it works beautifully!

Lyla
Guest
Lyla

Thanks so much for taking the time to write this review – it was very helpful!!

Stijn
Guest
Stijn

Hi,
excellent review, a very nice compilation of all the points to look out for.

So, could you give a follow up comments how the camcorder has fared over the last 8-9 months of use? Any reason to go for the GS#@) in teh end?

Thanks for your time and effort.

Kind regards,

Stijn.

Adam Hearn
Guest
Adam Hearn

Fabulous information! Thank you for taking the time to post all of this for us newbies 🙂 I know you posted this in April, ’07… now that it’s January, ’08… as far as you know, has anything changed? Would you still suggest the same camera for a Mac user?

Thanks in advance…

Mark R
Guest
Mark R

Just an FYI to those of you trying to get your camcorder to work with your Mac. The new version of iMovie that comes with iLife08 does support the MPEG format which is very helpful. No conversion necessary. Also, if you are using a Hard Drive camcorder, the camera may show up as a disk rather than a camera when you connect it to your Mac. Lastly, if you are still experiencing trouble getting your camera and Mac to communicate using the included USB cable, try plugging it into a different USB port on your Mac. For some reason, that… Read more »

Anna
Guest

What a great review – now bookmarked. So thorough and all my questions answered. I’ve been tearing my hair out since my old JVC miniDV camera died. My friend lent me her new JVC which uses a memory card and I was shocked to run into the incompatibility issue.

Apple
please get your act together.

Thank you so much, Unlikely Moose. Here in the UK I shoot a lot of indoor movies (stage, comedy, music) so I suspect it should be the Sony for me.

Helen
Guest

Wow, this is great. I stupidly waited till after the baby was born and rushed out an bought the SONY DVD108 without doing any research – mostly because I was running on zero sleep! Anyways turns out it does NOT work with Mac at all. It usues some weird VOB files. I bought the conversion software but as you mentioned in your blog the conversion process is time consuming and loses quality. I am selling it on ebay with plans of buying a new camera. This time I plan on doing the appropriate research. My main concern being that it… Read more »

Dave Heaven
Guest
Dave Heaven

Thanks heaps for the info dude. Really helped me out.

Anna
Guest

I finally went for the Sony HC62E mini dv and I’m so pleased with it. There’s a major difference in low light recording.

Thanks so much for your clear thoughtful advice.

PAM
Guest
PAM

Great review. It’s now 2010 and I have a mac book pro. What do you recommend? Preferably something slim and easy to edit on my computer with iMovie, and a good optical zoom. Also I will need to record from the back of the camera – do they cater for that?

Steve R
Guest
Steve R

Great report, what is the up date any better video cameras at the same price range now Dec 2010 as your report is dated 2009.
If not I am going with your recommendation. Thankkkkkkkks

Cindy Koehring
Guest
Cindy Koehring

If anyone is interested in purchasing this camera, please let me know. I bought it and don’t use it.
Will sell it relatively cheap.

Mel
Guest
Mel

I am also a Mac user and yes I am ashamed of Apple for not keeping up with video technology. I know your review was done some time ago but I think I still learned some stuff. I wish you would do another one that is more current, ha. There are so many more camera options for Mac and IMovie now. Nice job, thanks for sharing!

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