Disc Direct

Straight-to-DVD Camcorders: Worth the Money?

 Q: I'm shopping around for a camcorder, and I'd like to dig one up that records straight to a DVD—you know, skip that whole intermediary step of transferring the footage to a computer. What are the options for an inveterate sluggard like me?

Though there's a smattering of direct-to-DVD camcorders on the market, with another few models set to break this spring, Mr. Roboto's hesitant to affix his seal of approval to the technology. You'll pay a big-time premium for the luxury of burning in-camera discs, and there are too many hoops to jump through if you'd like to indulge in some as-you-shoot editing. Yes, there's a certain no-muss, no-fuss appeal to popping your home-brew DVD straight from camcorder to player. But you'd have to be really lazy to put up with the attendant headaches, not to mention flush with cash.

Hitachi was the first to offer a DVD camcorder, back in 2000, but it was a total clunker—way too cumbersome and pricey, plus there were some picture quality issues. The field is now three players deep, with Panasonic and Sony offering competing models. Hitachi, meanwhile, just announced the upcoming debut of two new DVD camcorders, the DZ-MV550A and DZ-MV580A. Both should hit these shores around May, with the lower-end model retailing for a hefty $800. That's a good $400 more than a traditional entry-level camcorder, but still about $200 less than the overpriced Sony DCR-DVD100.

illustration: John Ueland

The phrase "DVD camcorder" is a slight misnomer, perhaps, as the cameras don't use the standard-sized discs you know and love. Instead, they use discs about 25 percent smaller than what you rent at Video Blitz, though they'll still work on most DVD players (more on the nuances of that in a moment). A big problem with the discs is storage space, with only about 20 to 30 minutes of footage at the best possible quality settings. So if Cousin Gunther's wedding runs long, and you forgot to tote along another blank disc, you can kiss those precious memories sayonara.

Of course, part of the fun of owning a digital camcorder is being able to carry out some light editing while you're shooting, right? Mr. Roboto's not talking about adding a Muzak version of "Wind Beneath My Wings" to Cousin Gunther's wedding, but rather, little twists like toying with the scene sequence. Well, you can do that with a DVD camcorder, but not without some difficulty. First off, you'll need to use DVD-RW or DVD-RAM discs, depending on which model you're dealing with. (Sonys use the former, the Hitachis and Panasonics the latter.) These cost a bit more than DVD-Rs, which you should choose if in-camera editing isn't a big deal to you; the DVD-Rs retail for $8 or $9, the DVD-RWs $10 or $11, and the DVD-RAMs for a wallet-busting $20. Sort of goes against the whole concept of how the digital revolution was supposed to liberate picture-taking humans from the burden of expensive media, eh?

Pretty much every stand-alone DVD player or computer drive accepts DVD-Rs, but lots of them spit out DVD-RWs and DVD-RAMs. So you'll have to make sure your current playback hardware is simpatico with the camcorder before making any purchases. DVD-RAMs are a particular headache, as very few of the DVD players found in America's living rooms embrace the format. To get a usable disc, you'll have to transfer the files to your computer via a USB 2.0 connection, edit them with whatever software you've got, then burn them onto a DVD-R. Not what an inveterate sluggard like you wants to hear, Mr. Roboto's guessing.

In the end, then, the convenience factor is limited to DVD-Rs, and that means your digital camcording experience will be sort of stunted. The advice here is to abstain from the DVD camcorder market until the format wrinkles have been ironed out and prices have dropped a good bit—maybe by 2005, if electronics history is any guide. In the meantime, MiniDV and Sony's Digital8 options are worth a look. Sure, you'll have to deal with transferring the files to a computer if you wanna get them onto DVDs, and you'll need a burner too. But does not a little hardship and toil make life a sweeter, more enriching experience? A thought to ponder, courtesy of Mr. Roboto's philosophical subroutine.


Input questions at bkoerner@villagevoice.com.

 
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