A Pocketful Of Video Miracles

Two new ultrasleek camcorders offer brilliant picture quality

I was never a fan of camcorders. Maybe it's because I didn't appreciate other people's home movies (and don't have kids of my own). But mostly it's because I never wanted to carry around one of these big, bulky machines. They're unwieldy, with flip-out screens and pop-up viewfinders; they're heavy, at a pound or more; and they require their own bag to stow all the accompanying paraphernalia -- from spare batteries to adapters and cords. A simple point-and-shoot camera that I can slip in a pocket is good enough for me.

Or at least it used to be. In the past two months, two companies have come out with digital camcorders roughly the size of a deck of cards -- about a third the size of today's typical camcorder. Both, Panasonic's SV-AV100 and the Fisher FVD-C1, are small enough to slide easily into a trouser pocket. I've been playing around with the pair for a few weeks now, and I'm convinced that someday all camcorders will be like this.

The secret to their diminutive size? No moving parts. They record on solid-state memory cards instead of tapes. And they do a much better job than digital still cameras, which shoot video but only in short, grainy clips. They also outshine card-based "multimedia" minicams from Gateway (GTW ) and others, which at best, produce herky-jerky movies viewable only in a tiny window on your computer monitor.

Instead, with the two new camcorders, your home movies will fill your TV screen. And the picture quality is almost as good as that of a state-of-the-art digital video (DV) camcorder that uses MiniDV tapes. In fact, the Panasonic camcorder uses the same recording technique, called MPEG-2, that's used to record commercial DVDs. The Fisher model uses a high-resolution, full-screen version of MPEG-4, the format used by the cheaper minicams. Because the MPEG-4 scheme compresses the video signal more than MPEG-2, the picture isn't as good as the Panasonic's, but it's more than acceptable.

The downside is that the companies' emphasis on video quality means those postage-stamp-size SD memory cards fill up fast. Each camera comes with a 512-megabyte card that, at the highest-quality setting, lets you record 30 minutes of video on the Fisher or 10 minutes (20 minutes if you lower the quality a bit) on the Panasonic. At the lowest, you can get many hours of video -- 10 hours on the Panasonic, 3 on the Fisher -- but it's probably not worth watching. Extra cards will cost you: The high-speed SD cards used by the Panasonic are about $220 at Ritz Camera stores or Amazon.com (AMZN ).

As with anything this techno-chic, the new camcorders aren't cheap, either. Fisher's, made by Sanyo Electric, is $899 and is sold only at Sears -- at least for now. Panasonic's lists for $1,000, but Internet retailers sell it in the $750-to-$900 range. Each comes with a docking station, which makes it easy to watch movies on TV or transfer them to your PC.

I liked the feel of the Fisher camcorder in my hand better: It's more pistol-shaped, and you can work all the controls with your thumb. The Panasonic is boxier and harder to grip. It's also trickier to use, as some buttons are hidden behind the LCD screen. Neither camera has a viewfinder, so you have to compose movies on the flip-out display -- 2 1/2 in. on the Panasonic, 1 1/2 in. on the Fisher, a difference that didn't matter to me. What did matter: The Panasonic has image stabilization to smooth out jitters, and its auto-focus was faster and smoother. The Fisher's cool trick: You can use it as a 3.2-megapixel still camera.

Because of the short recording times, neither of these will make tape-based camcorders obsolete anytime soon. But it's easy to see where they're headed. SD-card slots are showing up everywhere, from Palms (PLMO ) to printers to DVD recorders. I popped the card out of the Fisher and into a Kodak kiosk at Sav-On Drugs and got 39 cent prints in five minutes. And I slid the card from the Panasonic into a Panasonic DVD recorder and burned my home movies onto a DVD. You'll never be able to do either with tapes from a camcorder.

By Larry Armstrong, techandyou@businessweek.com

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