Get your home video on in high-def while avoiding a complicated, not-ready-for-prime-time camcorder

By Jon Chase
November 17, 2008 at 05:00 AM EST

The high definition revolution is squarely upon us, and man, is it confusing. There’s an alphabet soup of acronyms to decipher, all the computer editing software to learn, a new jumble of cables to untangle. And, of course, there’s all that makeup to buy to cover our unsightly blemishes. But difficulties be damned, we want to watch our home videos in HD!

The truth of the high-def state of the union, however, is that it’s still a little murky yet. Without getting too much into highfalutin geek-speak, competing technical formats and short-sighted industry moves mean that higher-end HD camcorders are too complicated to be of use for all but the most tech-savvy among us (see ”Why it’s too soon for HD”). In short, for many people, HD home video isn’t ready for prime time. The exceptions to that grave pronouncement, however, are the cameras you’ll find below. They all can record high-definition video which you can watch directly on your HDTV, or transfer to your PC or Mac to view, edit or archive for posterity. To be frank, while technically the video they shoot is HD resolution (that is, at least 1280 x 720 pixels progressive, at 30 fields per second) it still can’t compare to what you’d get from a full-featured, full-priced, dedicated HD camcorder — but hey, these things are casual, man! We think they’re perfect for shooting on the fly, as you would when making web video or horsing around with friends, but don’t count on them for something important like your child’s birth. (Or maybe just avoid that one altogether.)

Kodak Zi6 Pocket Video Camera
$161.99 – $179.95;

Recommended for: Devout YouTube and Vimeo users
Even just a few years ago, the idea that you could conjure high-def video from a camcorder this small was unthinkable. But here it is, a lightweight, easy-to-use, easily pocketable little guy that’s just plain fun to use. Nicely, the Zi6’s metal body is sturdy and well built, tough enough to survive even the most cluttered pocketbook. Its 2.5-inch LCD is crisp and bright enough for daylight use, and there’s a slot for memory cards handily tucked on the side instead of in the battery compartment (you’ll need to pony up for an SDHC card but they’re cheap now; a 4 gigabyte card is just $7). Two rechargeable batteries are included and there’s a built-in USB plug to attach it directly to your PC or Mac to download video. Video is recorded as H.264 files (again, any computer can read them) in three possible modes: VGA (640 x 480 resolution, like a regular TV), 720p HD (1280 x 720 at 30 fields per second) and HD60 (720p at 60 fps, which makes action smoother). Cables are included for hooking straight up to a TV as well.

What we like: Video quality is pretty darn good in all three modes: sharp with good detail, and remarkably balanced color and contrast, though slightly on the dark side. Shooting on a sunny day, it easily balanced between a human face and a sun-drenched white building in the same shot. Audio was a little blown out but fine. The controls were easy to figure out without touching the manual in a matter of minutes?a must for lo-fi high tech gadgets.

What we don?t like: Since the Zi6 lacks image stabilization, it was tricky to move the camera smoothly, so in unsteady hands video can look like it was shot by someone in detox?all the more visible when using the zoom, which is digital and so also degrades image quality. While the joystick control worked fine, the two buttons on either the side of it each control two functions and are too small for comfort; hit stop, and you might actually hit erase by accident. And the Achilles heal of all video camcorders?shooting in low light, which always comes out grainy?is certainly a factor.

Grade: B+

NEXT: Panasonic Lumix DMC-FX37