A camcorder transforms the video experience from purely passive partaking in whatever television or other video media happen to offer into the creative venture of making your own show.
Whether you chronicle the life and times of your family or aspire to more broadly expressive video essays, your vision is challenged in both the literal and figurative sense every time you press the "record" button on your camcorder.
The sheer variety of camcorders on the market may seem daunting at first but becomes less intimidating once the different types are sorted out and some of the leading models in each category are identified.
The 8mm format seems to be gaining steadily in public favor -- not surprising, given this format's combination of advantages: compactness, light weight, two hours of recording per cassette, high-fidelity sound (which contributes greatly to the intelligibility of dialogue) and a picture as good as that of most home VCRs.
Among recent camcorders of this kind, Sony's CCD-TR5 ($1,500) is the smallest and lightest (1.75 pounds), yet it boasts enough operating features to satisfy sophisticated users.
Canon's E640 ($1,749) has a viewfinder that allows the camera to be steadied on one's chest rather than held at one's face.
Another unusual feature is that the camera automatically compensates for backlighted scenes and has "auto-framing," which, when switched on, maintains the size of a subject even if he or she moves toward or away from the camera.
In addition, titles may be superimposed on any scene, and when the camera is linked to a television set for playback at home, a remote control makes it simple and convenient to start and stop.
Those who prefer the VHS-C format, whose cassettes can be inserted into a regular VHS home recorder with an adapter, might consider Panasonic's PV-120 ($1,099), JVC's GR-A1U ($999) or the Philips CPK910 ($1,099).
These camcorders are about as small and light as the 8mm models but lack high-fidelity sound, and their cassettes offer a maximum of 30 minutes' recording time at standard speed.
There are also compact VHS-C camcorders capable of recording in the Super-VHS mode, which yields a sharper picture if the cassettes are displayed on a Super-VHS television set.
In this group, the JVC GR-S707U ($2,499) and the Panasonic PV-S160 ($1,599) both feature high-fidelity stereo sound.
Although the current trend is clearly toward smaller and lighter equipment, some videophiles apparently think big and don't don't mind a little weightlifting.
This may account for the continued appeal of so-called full-size camcorders.
They are roughly twice as large and twice as heavy as the compact models discussed above.
Bigger is not necessarily better, and the main attraction of full-size models is that they take regular VHS cassettes, which can be popped directly into standard home VCRs without further ado. To some, this is a persuasive advantage.
Thanks to the use of full-size VHS cassettes, recording time with these camcorders is 160 minutes at the high-quality standard speed.
On some models, this can be extended up to eight hours at slower speeds, however at a noticeable sacrifice of picture quality.
An outstanding design in this group is Panasonic's PV-S550 ($1,950), which operates in the Super-VHS mode to yield a splendidly sharp picture.
Another notable model is Sharp's VL-L250U ($1,999), whose zoom lens gives imaginative videographers an added creative option by being able to zoom in or recede from a scene at a variety of speeds.
Other highly accomplished designs in this group include the Magnavox CVK320 ($1,550) and the Zenith SK-F200 ($1,299), which contains a built-in loudspeaker for monitoring the soundtrack.
Finally, there are ultra-deluxe camcorders representing the frontiers of technology, such as the Hi8 designs by Canon and Sony, whose price ranges upward from about $2,000.
They are clearly intended for passionate perfectionists and make splendid presents for seasoned videographers who already know exactly what they want for Christmas.