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Media Technology

HD video cameras: as long as tech is this confusing, we’ll need people to cut through the bullshit

A while back, I mentioned that taking baby steps into “proper” photography made me weep hot salty tears of frustration and rage, until a bit of informed advice and a few magazines cheered me up and translated the crap into plain English. It turns out that the world of digital photography is the simplest thing in the world compared to video.

It’s entirely academic at the moment – I’ll probably have to mug some schoolchildren at lunchtime in order to afford a pint or two tonight – but at some point in the near future I want to buy a video camera. I’ve learnt from my previous mistakes – best summarised as “don’t buy on price” – and I’ve got a pretty good idea of what I want.

It’s not complicated. I want a camera that has these features:

* High definition, because if I’m going to shell out on a camera I might as well get one that’s reasonably future-proof.

* Card storage, because I hate DVDs and like the security of being able to carry a few spare cards around.

* Mac compatibility.

And naturally, I don’t want to pay a million pounds for it. Even window shopping is suffering from the credit crunch.

So off I trot to the wonderful world of manufacturer websites and product spec sheets. And what a confusing load of crap it all is.

In no particular order, here are some of the things you need to know about:

* HD means different things depending on what you’re looking at. This camera here is HD, with 720p HD! This camera here is also HD, but it has 1080p HD! But this 720p one has better pictures than the 1080p because it has better fps and that one is better than the other ones because it is not interlaced and over here this one is the very bestest camera ever because it has magic space pixies that live inside it!

* The jargon around video cameras is even worse than with still cameras. In addition to all the f-stop stuff and JPEG profiles you’d expect, there’s CMOS and CCD and 3DDNR and BIONZ image processors and X many frames per second and face detection and AVC/H.264 and DIS and OIS and OMGWTFINEEDALIEDOWN.

* It’s not enough to go “no, Sony, your memory sticks are evil” and plump for something that uses SD cards. Different cameras have different levels of SD support, so some max out at a particular level of storage, others are utterly pointless unless you get SDHC cards. And of those, some of them don’t really work unless you go for Class 4 HD cards. Class what?

* Mac compatible doesn’t necessarily mean Mac compatible, because the combination of the highest HD resolutions and the AVCHD format used by some cameras isn’t yet supported by OS X software such as iMovie (although this may have changed by now. I’m too confused to keep looking).

Kudos to Techradar*, T3**, the Guardian*** et al for trying to explain all this stuff sensibly in reviews and product comparisons, but I can’t help thinking that this is the best option:

* Instead of buying an HD camera, take lots of still photos, print them out and wave them around really, really quickly.

* Vested interest: I write for it, albeit not about video cameras
** Vested interest: I’ve written for it, albeit not about video cameras
*** Vested interest: I’ve written for that too, albeit.. you get the idea