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cameras

LEFT TO RIGHT: The Digital Concepts 3.1MP Digital Video Camcorder won’t dazzle you with quality, but at $40, it’s kind to your wallet and works for YouTube. At the other extreme, the semipro Canon Optura Xi lets you record onto MiniDV tape (optimum quality) and flash memory cards, but costs almost $2,000. The Sanyo Xacti range looks like a good-quality compromise.

A year ago I recommended Sanyo Xacti solid-state camcorders for creating video clips that can be uploaded simply by plugging in a USB cable. Sanyo’s decision to use flash memory for storage, instead of tape or discs, eliminated unreliable moving parts and enabled a palm-sized camera. This was relatively unusual at the time. Good news: many similar competitors are now available.

Go to the Camcorder section of Amazon and search for “MPEG-4” (the compression format commonly used with flash memory) and you’ll see what I mean.

Of course, more options create more shopping dilemmas. First you have to decide whether you want the traditional 4:3 picture shape, or a wider HD picture. HD does entail some compromises, because it requires more pixel data. Personally

I still prefer the quality of a 4:3 picture on current consumer equipment.

You also need to decide whether your main purpose is to save videos onto a hard drive to watch on a monitor, or burn DVDs to watch on TV. Computer monitors have square pixels and will display non-interlaced pictures. A format of 640×480 pixels looks good. Traditional TV pictures (and many HD formats) are interlaced, and a typical 4:3 digital video picture uses 720×480 rectangular pixels.

Conversion between formats is automatic in most software, but you lose quality as resampling occurs. Several of the Sanyo Xacti models are clearly intended for use with computers, since their pictures have square pixels and are non-interlaced. If you want to email video clips to your friends or upload them to websites, this is the way to go.

Lastly I suggest you look for a camcorder that has the H.264 version of MPEG-4 compression, since this produces fewer visible artifacts than earlier schemes.

For viewing your videos on a computer, try VideoLAN’s VLC Media Player version 0.9. This latest edition is a free download, available for Mac or Windows, and has already won a Community Choice Award from SourceForge. I consider it far superior to Windows Media Player or the Mac equivalent. It has a particularly elegant screen-capture feature, and a very good set of help files. Check it out at videolan.org.

I’m still looking for really versatile free video editing applications, but the ones bundled with OS X or Windows are adequate for simple projects. Add it all up, and there has been significant progress in the last year if you want to make your own video and copy it, upload it, and share it as simply and cheaply as possible.

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