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What have the Duke of Edinburgh and Kylie Minogue got in common? They both have camcorders, how much longer can you afford to buck the trend?



Camcorders have been around for a little over ten years, longer if you count the  appearance of a Sony concept model in October 1980, on a US TV programme called The Tomorrow Show. The first recognisable production machine was the Sony Betamovie BMC-1000 which arrived in late 1983. It was a huge lump of a thing, mainly because it used Betamax tape cassettes; it had no replay facilities, so recordings could only be played on a Beta VCR. It cost over 1000 -- equivalent to almost 2,000 at today's prices -- and Noel Edmunds hosted the UK press launch, not a very auspicious start...


JVC gave the market the kick-start it needed in early 1984, with the GR-C1, the world's first fully-featured compact camcorder. It could playback on any TV, it used tiny VHS-C cassettes -- compatible with VHS VCRs -- it cost less than 1,000, had a cameo role in the movie Back To The Future, and JVC covet a photograph of the Duke of Edinburgh wielding one at a polo match; it couldn't fail...


By the late eighties Sony had regained lost ground with their innovative 8mm system, sales were climbing at an unprecedented rate and for a few heady months they even outstripped those other eighties techno icons, walkmans, video games and home computers. Year on year sales kept on rising and in 1989 Sony launched the CCD-TR55, a  milestone in camcorder technology. It was the first truly pocket-sized camcorder or 'palmcorder' as it, and its many imitators, became known. The TR55 quickly became a  fashion accessory for the rich and famous, Kylie Minogue rarely appeared in public without hers, really! Prices fell, sales grew and pundits confidently predicted every home would have one by the turn of the century, then in 1992 the bubble burst. Sales graphs which previously had never gone in any direction other than up began to veer groundwards and camcorders were no longer flavour of the month.


So what went wrong? Not surprisingly much of the blame can be apportioned to the 1992 currency crisis and ensuing world recession, suddenly people found other, more important, things to spend their money on. As a result of unfavourable exchange rates prices rose sharply last year -- an almost unheard of  phenomenon --  further dampening an already depressed market. At the risk of sounding like a Government spokesperson on auto pilot, there are now signs of a recovery. Sales are still sluggish but confidence is returning and manufacturers have begun look forward once again, at the huge untapped market that includes the deviant 90% of UK households who still do not, as yet, own a camcorder.


One of their more successful strategies has been to try and steer video movie-making away from its 'teccy' image. They're achieving that with a new generation of machines aimed at first-time users and technophobes. Sharp were the first to hit upon the idea of making a camcorder look more friendly and unthreatening with its own built-in miniature TV screen, they called it View Cam and it quickly became a best-seller in Japan, the US and it's showing signs of doing the same over here. Sony have hit back with a curious looking machine called the Handycam 'Vision' which goes on sale in the UK this Spring. Others will follow as surely as night follows day, creating the inevitable flood of video 'instamatics'. Ultimately these new machines are a blind alley and do little to address the commonest problem for video novices, what to do with it once the novelty has worn off...


Fortunately there are plenty of people who want something a little more challenging than a basic point and shoot camcorder, to shoot the kids on holiday? Their needs are not being ignored and there's never been so many machines with genuinely useful features, including eye-catching digital effects, post-production facilities and editing systems. Within this fertile middle-ground of video movie-making there are the serious users who continue to exploit and explore the limits of the medium, everyone in fact from budding pop-promo makers to young artists and enthusiasts. They form a well established sub-culture from which the first mainstream movie directors and technicians will surely emerge. It's only a matter of time, but those who cut their directorial teeth on domestic camcorders can only have climbed a few rungs of the industry ladder in the few years camcorders have been around.


So is it the right time to buy a camcorder, and what are your chances of becoming a famous Hollywood director?  If you've got the money, and the rest of life's necessities now is as good a time to buy as any. New camcorder prices are gradually coming down and there are some real bargains to be had if you don't mind shopping around, or bearing the stigma of last year's model. Avoid buying a bargain basement budget machine -- anything less than 600 or so -- you will quickly  become bored with it and your prospects of reaching Hollywood fall from almost zero, to zero!  



If you think you're going to get sucked into this hobby, or you want to get creative then check out the courses on offer at your local college of further education, you'll find details in public libraries, along with information on any video clubs in the area. There's plenty of commercial courses running all year round, including weekends breaks, activity holidays, even cruises; details can be found in the back of specialist camcorder magazines, such as Video Camera, Camcorder User and What Camcorder. 



Two formats, two sub-formats, three cassette styles, it's a jungle out there! Basically there's only two formats to worry about, unless you're going to get serious. They're VHS-C and 8mm. VHS-C is ordinary VHS tape in a cigarette-pack sized cassette that lasts up to 45 minutes. C-cassettes can be replayed on any normal VHS VCRs using an adaptor. 8mm cassettes are smaller, and last longer -- up to two hours -- but they're incompatible with VHS  VCRs. Picture quality is about the same on both formats, 8mm mono machines sound better than their VHS-C counterparts but there's little to choose between machines with stereo soundtracks. Both formats have spawned higher-quality sub-formats, known as Super VHS-C and Hi8; picture and sound quality are comparable but in both cases improvements are only really apparent on newer TVs fitted with 'S-Video' inputs. Recordings cannot be replayed on 'low-band' machines (i.e. 8mm and VHS-C) machines. Lastly there's full-size VHS and Super VHS camcorders, they're big, too big to lug around, but pros and wedding videographers love 'em because of the longer continuous recording times, up to four hours on a single cassette.



If you're just starting out, on a tight budget, then the JVC GR-AX35 at 600 and Samsung  E808 are worth considering. The Panasonic NV-R10 (700) and Sony TR-303 (750) have more creative facilities, but if you can afford a little more then the extra picture quality and gadgetry on the Sony FX500 (800) and Sanyo VM-EX30 (800) are worth having.  If money is not a problem the Panasonic S85 (1,200) and Sony TR8 (1100) are a pair of top-end screamers that will keep you amused for hours



Blame it on Smith and Jones, Jeremy Beadle and a bunch of tea-drinking chimps they've all done their bit to give camcorders a real image problem. On the naff scale of one to ten they come somewhere between an Escort XR3i at number six, and mobile phones at number seven. Camcorder-toting Anoraks make nuisances of themselves at parties and weddings and other people's holiday videos should be banned by law...


That's the view from the non-camcorder owning side of the fence. Everything changes when you get one in your hand. Suddenly you're a movie director, the blood of Hitchcock, Spielberg and Eisenstein coursing through your veins. You find yourself actually enjoying filming family and friends making pratts of themselves, you even make a few cameo appearances of your own. It's fun, mostly harmless, unless you inflict it on others or send in a tape to You've Been Framed, so don't knock it until you've tried it....



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