Digital 8 Camcorders

By Carter B. Horsley

Consumer camcorders have come a long way in recent years and the bulky VHS camcorders are now rarely seen as most people have jumped on the far smaller, but superior digital format.

But for many consumers who started with 8mm or High 8 tape formats, the upgrade to digital can leave them without an easy means of utilizing all their old tapes, especially if they get rid of their old camera.

Sony's introduction over the last year of so of numerous "Digital 8" camcorders is a very interesting solution for such consumers as it plays back the old tapes and converts them to digital format if desired, which it is, as well as records and outputs in the same digital format as the more expensive, dedicated digital camcorders. Furthermore, it uses High 8 tapes, which are not only readily available but also considerable cheaper than digital tapes. It accomplishes all this by running the High 8 tapes at double speed during "new" recordings.

The Sony Digital 8 models just being introduced in the Spring of 2000 incorporate a lot of jazzy features from their upscale "digital cousins" such as longer battery life, bigger zoom lenses, LaserLink (a wireless method of transmitting video to a LaserLink module or LaserLink-ready video cassette recorder (vcr). The cheapest model comes with a small fold-out color viewing screen but only a black-and-white normal viewer and the more expensive models come with larger fold-out color screens, color viewfinders, and Memory Stick capabilities (which permit the capture of 640-by-400, 24-bit digital still pictures on a small cartridge that can be used in a special floppy disk adapter for easy transfer of the images into a computer. Some of the Digital 8 models also come with Night Shot, which is a feature that permits the camcorder to take infrared-like pictures, which happen to be mostly black, white and green, in virtually total darkness, a feature presumably of great interest to those intriguing by spying and voyeurism.

The street price for the better units runs around $1,000, or about half of what some of the better "prosumer" digital camcorders run for. The trade-offs are that the Digital 8 camcorders use only one CCD to capture images as opposed to three in the better digital camcorders and therefore are not quite as capable of capturing colors as accurately, and the Digital 8 lens are generally not quite as good. Indeed, the very best Digital 8 lenses may be capable of recording 420 to 430 horizontal lines as opposed to 500 or so in the digital format. VHS cameras can only record about 240 such lines while 8 mm got up to about 300 and High 8 got up to about 400. These are significant differences in picture quality, but the difference between Digital 8 and digital is not as vast and both Digital8 and digital tapes come close to broadcast quality to most viewers, which is to say that their quality is very impressive, though still short of HDTV standards which are quite extraordinary but still in their infancy in the United States, which is far behind the Japanese in this area.

While the obvious archival advantage of Digital 8 camcorders is very important as tapes can and do deteriorate over time but their conversion to digital format not only means that they can be easily replicated but also edited and manipulated with computer software and not only saved to hard disks but also sent back out of the computer as a pure, edited digital tape.

The Digital8 cameras now on the market seem to be not quite as well made as the better digital models such as the Sony TR900 or the Canon XLS, but their compactness and wealth of features make them quite superb units for many users. Many of the new Sony units, for example, feature 25 power zoom lens versus 10 or 12 power zoom lens in the digital models. (These figures refer, of course, to the optical quality of the lenses not the highly inflated and mostly unusable digitally enhanced zoom ratios that are often highly marketed but which produce generally poor results.)

Technology, of course, keeps advancing and the camera market has never had more models available, both traditional film and digital, and clearly the end goal is a camera that can combine superior still quality capabilities with video. Sony's TR-1 minature digital camera bested the still capabilities of the Sony TR900 by offering almost three times as much resolution, but still its pictures were only in the 1-megapixel range. The TR900's stills are excellent for use on the World Wide Web of the Internet and very small pictures, while those of the TRV-1 can produce reasonable 3-by-5-inch pictures. Digital still cameras are now available for about $1,000 that can produce pictures in the 3-megapixel range and those can produce generally good 5-by-7-inch pictures with good computing editing and manipulation. 4- and 6-megapixel cameras are certainly in the future and they will be capable of producing good 8-by-10-inch pictures although it should be remembered that most magazine covers are printed at about 2400 dots per inch and an 8-by-10-inch picture at that resolution runs into the hundreds of megabytes. With increased resolution, of course, comes increased demands for convenient memory storage and surprisingly the camera and computer industry has begun to make impressive progress in this area. A 16-megabyte Memory Stick, for example, can hold about 88 pictures and they are very small and there are even 64-megabyte Memory Sticks out and even larger capacities in other photo storage formats.

The Memory Stick remains at the moment only a Sony product, but they are incorporating it into various different products and Sony is a very major player. Meanwhile, the other major camcorder manufacturers, Canon, Pansonic and JVC, have not been idle and it is really very remarkable what is now available for the consumer who can spring for a couple of thousand dollars, or, by the time you add extra batteries, case, extra lens and memory cartridges, and taxes, you are likely to be up to the $2,500 range. Such units that are equipped with Firewire, as are the Digi8 models, can easily transfer the videos into Firewire-equipped computers that have sufficiently large hard disks for storage and with a couple of thousand dollars of software the consumer can produce extremely high quality movies with very impressive special effects, although the learning curve for some of the software will require patience and a lot of trial-and-error.

The general rule in consumer technology is to get the best you can afford and immediately forget that better models will soon be out. Some major manufacturers, such as Sony, have recently been updating their product lines every three months.

Digital is certainly the way to go because it does not degrade, is reproducible, and, most importantly, editable in computers. Digital 8 offers most of these advantages with a slight, but not terribly critical fall-off in quality, but it very importantly offers millions of consumers the ability to transfer their existing stockpiles of older footage into the digital format. Furthermore, they are definite advantages to having more than one camera as one gets more involved in video and as one has other family members who perhaps should not borrow the top-of-the-line unit.

A color viewfinder is a great aid despite all the glamor of the fold-out viewers and the Memory Stick is an excellent and very small storage device for still pictures. Some users, such as myself, use the still features of the Sony TR900 more than the video, in part because the zoom lens is much greater than is found on most digital still cameras and much of my work is for the Web.

Sony has introduced a Digital 8 camcorder that even includes a printer, so that it can act sort of like an old Polaroid for instant pictures, but such a feature adds bulk to the unit and most people will want to enhance their pictures in a computer before printing. Another new Sony camcorder includes a mini-CD recorder for storage, which is an approach that will probably be attractive for some especially as the still resolution capabilities improve.

Apart from stills, another manufacturer has released information about a camcorder that will record directly to a DVD disk in the camera, so stay tuned, but not miss out now on great pictures and take the plunge.


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