Mini-DV, editing gear to let good times roll

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May 13, 2004|By Kevin E. Washington | Kevin E. Washington,SUN STAFF

With faster and more powerful PCs finding their way to consumer's desks, there is little reason why anyone who wants to chronicle his or her life on videotape shouldn't take the plunge into digital video camcorders and moviemaking programs.

Mac owners have had the video-editing advantage with the superb iMovie software and FireWire 1394 port for linking a computer to a camcorder, but PCs can hold their own when fitted with an add-on FireWire port and the right software.

We've looked at a couple of first-rate Mini-DV camcorders from the two leaders in the technology along with a video-editing software offering from Pinnacle that will turn anyone into a filmmaker. Needless to say, you may need some innate talent to really create art, but if you're just trying to get the kids' school play or piano recital down on DVD or some other format for posterity, a few hundred dollars can get you into the home movie-making business.

The process really centers on the Mini-DV camcorders available today. I recommend about $1,000 on a good camcorder if you're planning to use it routinely. The Sony MiniDV Handycam DCR-PC109 ($900) or the Canon Optura 300 ($1,000)are first-rate choices that will provide pretty much everything you want in a camcorder that you can easily put in a jacket pocket.

Both are compact Mini-DV camcorders weighing in at just under a pound that easily can be carried in one hand and will provide some of the highest-quality video you can shoot. There are slightly lower quality formats for saving videotape, but using their top-quality modes ensures that when you import the video into your computer, you won't have to worry for the most part about artifacts or blurring.

Handycam DCR-PC109

I'm partial to the Sony offerings, because I like the Carl Zeiss lenses - which seem to get less glare and more contrast - that the company puts on just about all of its camcorders. The Handycam DCR-PC109 has a 10X optical zoom and uses progressive scan and an improved image stabilization technology called Super SteadyShot. I'm also a fan of Sony's night mode shooting capabilities, which seem to edge out the competition.

This tiny camcorder has a rechargeable lithium ion battery that lasts for a solid hour of filming. If you're indoors, of course, you can always plug it in.

The Handycam Station that comes in the box is a nice touch. All you have to do is hook up the appropriate cables to your television, videocassette recorder or computer to the docking station and then fit the camcorder down into the station. You can connect to your computer through a Universal Serial Bus port or through a FireWire connection. While I usually can hunt down the proper port on a camcorder to hook it up to my computer, I liked having Sony make it obvious how I could send video into a VCR for direct transfer. Sure, you can do this with any camcorder, but the docking station is easy on the old noggin when you're trying to figure out how to hook up a camcorder.

Sony has a Memory Stick Pro Duo Media slot for people who want to take pictures with the camcorder. You can record MPEG EX movies onto the Memory stick in addition to digital still photographs. The quality isn't nearly as good as that recorded to the Mini-DV tape, but the movies, much smaller in size compared to Mini-DV format, can be emailed quickly once moved to a computer.

Although I didn't try it myself, the USB streaming ability that allows live video and audio broadcast over the Internet with the USB cable seems like a slick way of impressing family and friends.

Optura 300

Canon's Optura 300 has a 2-megapixel sensor that I believe is one of the best on camcorders. That translates to 1.2 megapixels for DV format movies, but a 2-megapixel image when you want to shoot still digital images. By increasing the resolution of the device taking the image, the Optura 300 moves ever-closer to the size necessary for a decent still-image digital camera; there is far less noise in the images than in other camcorder digital still shots.

The camcorder has three separate low-light options that give it some power. I've been disappointed with the low-light performance of previous Canon offerings, but I thought all of these worked well.

The 10X zoom lens does a good job and the image stabilization works well to provide solid vacation videography and shooting around the house. If you would like to use an SD card or MultiMediaCard to save movies, you can switch to an MPEG-4 movie format, which, while much lower in quality than Mini-DV, shrinks the movies to a size suitable for e-mailing. The Optura 300 comes with an 8-megabyte SD card, which you'll want to switch for a bigger card if you plan to shoot lots of movies or still images.

The Canon also can print directly to any PictBridge-enabled printer; PictBridge technology allows digital cameras to connect directly for printing without a computer.

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