High-definition (HD) camcorders are steadily replacing standard-definition (SD) camcorders in the marketplace. You can still save $200 or more by sticking with SD, but testers say you'll really notice the steep drop in video quality compared with HD. SD camcorders do usually offer longer optical zooms (from 30x to 70x, compared with 10x to 15x for HD camcorders), but they've usually been stripped of features otherwise.
If you're in the market for an SD camcorder, reviews say the Canon FS40 (*Est. $290) is your best bet. For about $200 less than the cheapest full-featured HD camcorders, you'll get a healthy 37x optical zoom in a soda can-sized body. Experts say video, still photos and audio are all good for an SD camcorder, and most owners praise the FS40. Owners at Amazon.com praise its "clear and smooth" footage, "brilliant" color and "sharp" resolution. The FS40 includes 8 GB of built-in flash memory (enough to hold nearly two hours of best-quality footage) and accepts SD memory cards to increase storage space. Canon also sells the otherwise identical Canon S400 (*Est. $280) with no internal memory -- it also accepts SD memory cards.
Sony sells its standard-def camcorders for less, and one testing organization says the video quality is comparable to Canon's -- although the Sony models have a few drawbacks of their own, including shorter battery life, no external mic or headphone jack, and an LCD screen that can be hard to see in bright sunlight. The Sony DCR-SX45 (*Est. $200) is the cheapest, with no internal memory (it records to Sony Memory Sticks or SD cards), but Sony also sells some otherwise identical models with built-in flash memory: the 16 GB Sony DCR-SX85 (*Est. $250) and 4 GB Sony DCR-SX65 (*Est. $220).
Sony offers a 60x optical zoom on its SD camcorders, but "for those of you attracted to the megazoom lens, be warned: the camcorder is very difficult to hold still when shooting one-handed and only slightly better with two," says Joshua Goldman, who tests the Sony DCR-SX65 for CNET. "To get the best results, it really needs to be on a tripod or some other stable support. Also, Sony went with electronic image stabilization, which is better than nothing, but won't come close to keeping your movies from being a shaky mess when the lens is extended. However, Sony also included an Active mode that we found worked remarkably well when shooting while walking."
So what does the footage from these camcorders look like? One major testing organization gives both the Canon and Sony SD camcorders a "Good" rating for picture quality -- without saying much about what that means. Goldman says the Sony's clips look "mediocre at best -- especially if you're watching them full-screen on a large TV or are used to the sharpness and clear details of high-definition content." He finds the Sony's footage soft, with quite a bit of noise (graininess) and fringing around subjects. Once you see the video, he says, "you might regret not spending more for an HD model."
Panasonic and Samsung still sell SD camcorders, too, but these aren't recommended in professional reviews. In one major test, Panasonic and Samsung SD camcorders deliver only fair-to-poor video quality that's not on par with Canon and Sony.
Although most experts ignore standard-definition (SD) camcorders these days, ConsumerReports.org still tests them. Experts there tackle a dozen SD camcorders in their latest review, publishes a helpful test of the Sony DCR-SX45/65/85. DigitalCamera-HQ.com ranks 18 standard-def camcorders from best to worst, but the letter grades are based on features, not testing. Amazon.com sells SD camcorders from all major brands and invites owners to post their feedback, both positive and negative.