SHIFT: How the Flip killed camcorders

As Congress debates the controversial bailout/bridge loan/taxpayer-money-down-the-drain for the Big Three American automakers, be glad camcorders are made by Asian companies.

Why? Sony, Canon, JVC, Panasonic and Samsung are sliding down the same razorblade of doom as the Big Three have these last 20 years. Like GM, Ford and Chrysler, the camcorder Big Five insist on continuing to sell bulky and expensive camcorders that use expensive "fuel" (i.e. DVD-Rs, MiniDV tape and hard disk drive recording media) in a new age when pocket-friendly $200 high-def models "run" on cheap flash memory. If the camcorder Big Five don't change their ways, they may be unable to compete in the new video recording world. And there'll be no Federal bailout.

What are the camcorder Mini Coopers, Priuses and Scions of the future? Follow the link below and see.

How I Roll
I love HDV camcorders. I currently use the Canon Vixia HV30, a compact $899 HDV model that records 1080i HD video onto standard MiniDV cassette tapes. HDV video isn't compressed like HD camcorders that record on DVD-Rs, hard-disk drives or flash memory using either MPEG-2 or MPEG-4 H.264 compression, which eliminates most artifacts and leaves you with the best original video possible. If you're serious as I am about the quality of the personal memories captured for posterity, HDV camcorders are the best consumer camcorder money can buy.

But who's really that serious about HD video recording? That ex-A/V club nerd who shoots weddings and bar mitzvahs on weekends? Bigshot Hollywood directors who want to seem high-tech cool by shooting an indie-style flick on digital video? Rich parents capturing their precious little ones flubbing their lines in the third grade version of Macbeth?

Me?

How You Roll
You and other regular folks don't give a crap about what kind of expensive camcorder I and other recession resistant hoity-toity types use, and you're right to not give a crap. You shoot some vacation footage, you'll watch it once, then it'll sit unwatched and unedited on a shelf, in a drawer or in the closet for the next 10 or 20 years.

Most folks are happy to flip open a cellphone and shoot barely watchable 15-frame-per-second, 176 x 144-pixel video to post on a Facebook/MySpace blog or CNN's iReports, or grab a Flip Mini or some other simple sub-$100 VGA-capable camera or Web cam to shoot for uploading to YouTube.

How It Rolls
But now HD camcorders come in small economy sizes, about the size of a deck of cards, priced around $200. In the last month or so, Flip has unveiled its MinoHD ($230), Kodak started selling its Zi6 ($180) and, earlier this week, Creative Labs announced its Vado ($230), which joins the market's first such compact HD cam, DXG's 567V ($179).

All these compact camcorders capture either 720p or 1080i video via H.264 compression to flash memory. The flash is either built-in, on a removable SD card, or both — no messy tape or DVD or messy USB cables involved and no video software needed. They are stupid simple to operate, they run on a couple of AAs, have a flip-out USB jack for simple PC/Mac connections, have cheap plastic lenses that'll remind you of the little magnifying glass often found inside eyeglass repair kits, and they fit in your pocket.

How Does It Roll?
How good is the video? For what they are and what they're designed to do — short point-and-shoot video clips — they're better than anything else out there (e.g. cellphones, VGA pocket cams, digital camera video). They don't do low-light well, there's not a lot of zoom, not much of a viewfinder, etc. etc. Whaddya want for 200 bucks?

But comparing these cheap HD compact camcorders to the Hummers of the camcorder world from Sony, Canon, JVC, Panasonic and Samsung is like comparing pocket-sized point-and-shoot digital cameras to expensive DSLRs. In fact, makers of these cheap HD camcorders don't even call their wares "camcorders." They're "video recorders."

But judge for yourself. This is a 720p clip of Billy Joel singing Allentown at the last-ever rock show ever at Shea Stadium a few months back, shot with the aforementioned DXG 567v.

How It Will Roll
For less than $200, that's damn good video. A far cry from the results I would have gotten from a fancy HD model from Sony, Canon, JVC, Panasonic or Samsung, but are slightly better results worth four to five times the price, plus the extra weight, plus the cost of blank media in this economy?

Plus plus, these compact cams are actually kind of Polaroid cool — merely whipping one out of your pocket will draw oohs and aahs and lots of mugging as you pan-and-scan the scene.

So Sony, Canon, JVC, Panasonic and Samsung better get their camcorder acts together. Or they may be facing the same grim world the Big Three carmakers are facing now.