Best low-end camcorders

Mike Hollingshead

We always seem to cover the basics of the real nice more expensive cams. Most of us can't afford those and I'm certainly one. I just started looking for a decent video camera for under $800 and here is what I briefly found. I thought maybe this would help some and maybe some would have info on a couple of the cameras.

I'm considering getting this camcorder:

It is the sony DCR-HC90 mini-dv. Why did I stop on this one? CCD size. It has a big 1/3 inch CCD with the advanced HAD system for noise. My last two camcorders both had 1/6 inch CCDs and SUCK for storms. Most all of the cheaper new video cameras have tiny 1/6 inch ccds. I have a digital 8 TRV-340 which always had worse video than the models before it like the 310 and 320 which both had the larger 1/4 inch ccds. This shows a lux of 5. This seems pretty good for a $699 camcorder. I've been wanting something cheap to get by until I can afford a top of the line HD camera(like the HDR-FX1....but that is $4000) but I did not want to waste more money on POS camcorders with 1/6 inch ccds. I'm likely to get this one as a "cheapy" method of getting by.

In comparison here is a cheaper 3 chip camcorder.

It is the sony DCR PC1000. It is a bit more at $849, but it is a 3 chip camera(3 chip will give you better colors). The problem is the size of those chips....1/6 inchers......grrrrr. That 3 chip camera just became a whole lot less appealing to me.

HC90 seems like a great choice for those of us on a small budget. There is an HC1 that is a HD version of it more or less, but at $1500 an HD with 1 ccd isn't very appealing to me.

This was just a Sony browsing as I have Sony batteries, lol. Any other cheap nicer methods out there via other makers, feel free to post them.

That Sony looks to be a nice 1 chipper. We all know that single chip cams are just like digital cameras, getting closer and closer to the holy grail of the triple chippers.

Don't forget the other big names: Canon, Panasonic, and JVC. All these companies have been in the video business as long as Sony and all have some great offerings.

Make sure to get all the reviews on the cameras you select. I know what I did was find 10 cameras in my specific price range, then narrowed it to 8 looking at the features, then norrowed it to 3 looking at the reviews. I finally settled on the one I have for Brand Loyalty more than anything else.
Mike, since you're just looking at a temporary cam to get by until you upgrade, have you thought about a used camera? You can get a decent used TRV900 for between $700-$900. 3 chips and a 4 lux rating. Even though I have upgraded my camera gear, I still kept my 900 - it's a great chasing cam.
Mike, since you're just looking at a temporary cam to get by until you upgrade, have you thought about a used camera? You can get a decent used TRV900 for between $700-$900. 3 chips and a 4 lux rating. Even though I have upgraded my camera gear, I still kept my 900 - it's a great chasing cam.

I just recently bought a Sony DCR-TRV900 from a pawn shop for $300, it works flawless and is in great shape. Much better video than my DCR-TRV510.
Granted that that price was way too cheap for that camera but deals are out there if you are willing to go look. There are a few TRV900's on eBay.
Maybe if I could get one dirt cheap. My camera is only 2 years old and already has head problems where it'll cut out or give me alternating bars over the image. It'll go away if I clean them but you can only clean them so many times. It recorded 5 minutes of nothing on the Hill City chase. Thankfully it did it when it did and that the zoom was zooming itself all the way in, or I'd have never known something was wrong and gotten zero from the Stockton tornadoes. So, I'm not thrilled with getting used stuff, no. My last two cameras have given me about 2 years each. The TRV-900 is an ollllddd model, as you know. It is a good camera though as I always loved Roger Hill's video quality when he was using it. The 950 did like the rest of the newer version and lost quality from the 900. I wish they wouldn't work backwards.

But anyway, I think I'd rather spend $700 on the new one chipper with a 1/3 inch ccd than say $400 for a used TRV-900. If you could find me an unused 900 then yeah, I'd go with it, lol. Used just scares me.
I've put my 900 through the wringer. It has fallen over, while on the tripod, 3 times during storms - once hitting pavement and once landing in mud (with the portabrace on). Impacts bent the LCD hinge. It has survived 4 hurricanes - once getting wet enough to temporarily short out the buttons on the inside panel. Been on four Plains expeditions, serving as a primary cam, secondary cam and a dashcam duty at various times. Been soaked (with portabrace on) in many, many downpours. Been encased in glaze ice during freezing rain (again with portabrace). The LCD hinge screws worked loose and I had to surgically re-attach them. Has recorded over 300 full tapes. Ran head cleaners on it only once in 3 years. Very few dropouts and no catastrophic failures. As long as it is protected with the Portabrace, this camera is an absolute tank and I can't believe it still ticks after what it has been through. The prosumer grade cameras are made to last longer and are less likely to have frequent problems. A used 900 with low hours is probably one of the most trustworthy used cameras you can get.

I'd never be able to sell mine if just for the fact that no one would touch it after hearing about its history with me :)
Don't count out Hi8s for a good rough-and-ready camera. They can be picked up fairly cheap and if it has a quality lens and high-resolution CCD, the picture quality can be on par with a low-to-medium range digital. My uncle and I can't tell the difference between my Hi8 footage and his Digital 8. Of course you are left with the problem of converting it to digital via a USB or Firewire adapter for non-linear editing.
I have never used the abrasive tape head cleaners. And i realize that professional head cleaning can be expensive and surpass the value of the camera you are considering after a few times.

I would say one good alternative is to find a do it yourself headcleaning instructionary website or manual. i have seen it around somewhere on my online haunts.

A good professionally done head cleaning i feel would breathe new life into your troublesome head issues.
Currently we have two video cameras at my house: the oldest one is a Curtis Mathis HQ VHS analog camera from the late 1980's; it has good quality video, but it is bulky and heavy (it weighs eight pounds!), but suffers from issues that come with the VHS territory (i.e. no stabilzation control!) and is seriously obsolete. :)
The other is a Panasonic Palmcorder VHS-C with Photoshot, Advanced Digital EIS Stabilization, 300x Digital Zoom and 26x High Definition Zoom Lens. I've used this one for recording tornadoes and severe thunderstorms just out my back door and it has great video quality. The EIS system works great, as I have shot in 40 mph + outflow winds and there was hardly any noticeable shake in the video. But we got the Palmcorder back in 2001, and it is limited by the 30 minute only length of the VHS-C tapes, and so I'm looking to relegate it to dash cam duty and get a new or gently used higher quality camcorder to serve as my primary video camera in the field.
I'm looking for something in the $300-700 pricerange, might be able to stretch my budget to $900 if my parents have enough money available in the spring.
A question: do you believe Mini-DV or DVD-RAM/DVD-R camcorders are better? If there is any camcorder in these price ranges you have had good experiences with for chase video quality, etc. please give your recommendations, as I am going to start looking hard in the next few weeks for my new video camera for Chase Season '06, and I want to make sure I get a really good one, since I probably won't be able to afford another one until college. Thanks. :)
The dvd method camcorders or even harddrive methods now scare me as they use mpeg2. Something tells me I'd rather record to tape(digitally) and work in lossless AVI on the computer, rather than starting off in compressed format, mpeg2. I guess they do have mpeg2 editors now that will keep the quality from dropping too much and maybe allow you to edit them losslessly(surely that is spelled wrong). I don't know that much about them so my comments may be useless. I think minidv or digital 8 is a safer bet. I think CCD size is the most important aspect to look at. Yeah 3ccds are better but I really question that when they are smaller CCDs than a single larger one. Larger 3 ccd cams get pricey fast.
MiniDV and VHS are really incomparable once you have seen them side by side.

I used a VHS-C camera (Panasonic Palmcorder) for 4 years back when I was more focused on 35mm slide film for lightning. By today's even most lax quality standards, VHS is not going to be an acceptable way to capture storm footage if you plan to do anything with it. I would put VHS on par with what a cell phone camera would be able to catch- not really useful for much other than small web movies.

Here are two examples:



Of course, MiniDV in itself doesn't mean 'great picture', the lens and CCD still matter, but in general MiniDV cameras are beyond comparison to VHS.
Hey Mike. Hurry up and buy one and tell me if you like it! :)

I was thinking of getting a new camcorder as I'm using an old school Sony Hi8 VHS. $800 is much better than the $1500 I was thinking of spending. (Im not in it for selling videos so I don't mind the presumed minor loss of quality)
Well I decided to look around at other brands and their ccd sizes at what prices. I found some canon optura models with 1/3.4 inch ccds for around $400 and was excited and thinking about making the switch to canon even though I have a bunch of Sony batteries and would ahve to stock up Canon batteries.

Then I looked at a couple reviews. This is a very useful site and probably just saved me from wasting money again.

Check out the quality difference at 15 lux between a 1/3.4 inch ccd canon optura 60($650...they have a similar optura 50 for $445) and the 1/3 inch ccd sony HC90($700). Look way down on these review pages for the color chart that has 15 lux on it.

Optura 60($650 at bh)

Sony HC90($699 at bh)

From that article:
15 lux is the point at which most camcorders fail to produce a usable image. With the AGC off, the picture was completely black. No problems there; with a quick stroll through the menu, the AGC can be turned on and the results are remarkable. This picture is better than what some camcorders can do at 60 lux. In Auto A, results were even better, though if this was a moving image, the picture would be terribly blurry, so we aren't really using Auto A in our score. Results are also posted for 15 lux with the shutter speed at 1/60.

This is indeed a nice camera but I doubt it is going to do that well in low light. Most cams give you the option to crank up the gain, but ideally you don't want to have to turn up the gain in low light to bring out a picture (more grain).

All of the 3CCD prosumers are very capable cameras (JVC, Panasonic, Canon) and produce excellent pictures - but the advantage the Sonys have is their low light performance. The Sonys are far beyond the others in low light, at least within the same price range. The VX will surprise you on how dark it can get and still get a useable picture of a storm.

Best Buy has some of these cams on display that you can try them out side-by-side in person.

But, again, the TRV900 is the only 3CCD camera under $1k that gets you down to 4 lux, and unfortunately it has been discontinued - used is the only way to get it now. Its successor, the TRV950, is 7 lux - still good but you'll notice the difference between 4 and 7 when you're out chasing.
I'm starting to think the Panasonic GS65 will be the best bang for the low-end buck. At $400 to $450 for a 3 chipper I think it will be hard to beat. I do kind of like the sony HC1 but I'm not sold on the HDV format(colors do look quite good for a 1 chipper...cmos I believe). I think if I want to bother with HD and get a cam it is not going to be shooting in HDV. Something just doesn't add up when the bit rate is the same as SD DV.
Originally posted by Mike Hollingshead
I'm starting to think the Panasonic GS65 will be the best bang for the low-end buck. At $400 to $450 for a 3 chipper I think it will be hard to beat.

Did you go with this model, Mike? I'm in the market for a low-end camcorder and I'm very interested in your opinion of this unit.
No I haven't done anything yet. I'm completely sick of looking at them all. I wish they had tests on for my Sony trv-19 so I knew what I was judging against. On top of that the partial review of this camera says it has a 1/4 inch ccd which I'm rather sure it wrong. That makes me wonder more about their testing. But I guess if I had to buy something under $500 that'd probably be it. If I had $1000 to spend I might be pulled to get that sony HC90 with the big 1/3 inch ccd. It looks noise free but those colors seem a bit flat to me throughout all the lux ratings.

What I'm thinking will likely happen with me is I'll just close my eyes and push the "send payment" button with a credit card on the Sony HC1. It is $1500 at bh and like $1350 or so at some of those others. It has the big 1/3 inch cmos sensor and is HDV. I still don't know what to think about HD and all the problems one will come across trying to make a HD product, but I guess I'd rather start getting stuff in HD now.

It is all a nasty cycle that you don't feel like you did something right until you just go and buy the camera with all the plusses. You slowly get talked into paying a bit more rather than a lower, but still good chunk, amount on something you aren't happy with. It is driving me crazy because I'll get to this HC1 level and be prepared to now spend way more than I had planned and I'll still be thinking of the next step up. I can't stand thinking of getting something amazing and not having the best recording device on it, as I know I will regret it then(June 9, 03 comes to mind as I didn't go and buy a nice video camera the day before like I wanted to). All that said I'm really not sure I'll get the GS65. Course if I owe a bunch in taxes then I may yet. I'm also currently thinking I need a digital camera with even more resolution and have Canon 5D on the brain. LOL, that doesn't help.

I will know 3 or 4 days before the first big(looking) chase of 2006. Then I'll overnight whatever it is. I'll then warn everyone that that is a bust day as I just blew a whole credit card on the FX1 and overnighted it(or even the pro version of that! can't believe they now have a version above that in the prosumer range).
Well, budget is always a big deal, but one thing I've discovered, at least with camera equipment, is that it's always worth spending slightly more to get what you know is good than it is to spend slightly less to get what you're unsure about. All the lenses I've purchased, for example, at one point or another I've looked at and wished that I'd bought the Canon L equivilant. It seems like a lot of money when you first spend it, but when you use the equipment a lot (and lord knows you do), you start wondering why you hemmed and hawed over a couple hundred bucks. I know when I was standing at the rim of the Grand Canyon, having laid down money for airfare and car rental to go on a bit of a nomadic photo safari, I was thinking "why in the world did I buy this crappy Sigma lense?!".
Mike Hollingshead wrote:
If I had $1000 to spend I might be pulled to get that sony HC90 with the big 1/3 inch ccd. It looks noise free but those colors seem a bit flat to me throughout all the lux ratings.

Yeah Mike, I'd say I'm looking real close at that camcorder too. It's not too pricey considering a used TRV900 is about $700 on ebay. It's getting really frustrating for me too. I'm dealing with a Sony TRV350 with a 1/6'' CCD, not the best for storm footage. Anyone have any experience with the HC-90. I was curious to hear some reviews from storm chasers rather than someone reviewing camcorders on for aim and recording of everyday events.
The more I look around and wonder the more I see I keep coming back to the Sony HC1(HDV, 1/3 inch cmos sensor, cam). It looks like it would do a fine job and dbuys has it under $1400 now. I'm mentioning this camera now as has a thing on there mentioning the HC3 and how it is replacing the HC1 in early April. It sounds like the HC3 will be a step backwards from the HC1 other than some direct HD tv support of some kind(hdmi or something like that). The HC3 loses the focus ring that the HC1 has. Sony loves to go backwards for the sake of point and shooters and it looks like they plan to do it again with this camera. Soooo, I would expect the HC1 prices to start dropping as well as the camera becoming harder and harder to find at the same time. Now I guess the question becomes, when is the best window of opportunity to buy it.

I wonder how exactly that works. I'm guessing before the new model comes out Sony completely stops producing the old one. So many stores may run out and not be able to replace it before the new one is released. Just an idea and possible heads up I guess.
My same thoughts Mike. When I couldn't find the GS400 I went looking and kept coming back to the HC1. I can't decide when to buy either...I don't want to cut it too close to chase season and not have enough time to play with it..but don't want to buy too early and waste a couple hundred bucks.