TRIED & TESTED: SHOOTING GALLERY

Film buffs may need the latest technology, but what about ordinary camcorder users? Our panel aims and records

Like anoraks, camcorders have come a long way since the days when only a nerd would be seen fiddling with one instead of joining in the party. They are smaller, lighter and easier to use, while some - the very latest digital camcorders - offer images of startling clarity and quasi- professional film-making facilities. But does the average amateur film- maker really need such devices or do they just complicate matters?

THE PANEL

Of the half a dozen keen testers, two found the camcorders so baffling and/ or infuriating that they abandoned the trial - a fair warning to other novices. Of those remaining, Anna Nicholas is a technical wizard who found she could operate most samples without reading a line of the manuals; Neil Richardson and Chris Ramsey are experienced camcorder users; and Lucinda Buxton is a self-described "know-nothing" who was thrilled with her first films.

THE TEST

We chose a selection of camcorders across a wide price range to see exactly what you get for your money. That the latest digital technology is currently very expensive goes without saying, but even within that constraint some include the software which allows you to download images on to your PC and some barely mention the fact that you need to buy it (at around pounds 250). Most testers were unaware of the huge amount of memory moving images take up on a computer (12 seconds requires around 350MB) which means still images are more viable - but then why not use a still camera? We also took into account the cost of consumables: digital tapes start from around pounds 18 each for a 30-minute tape, whereas other tapes such as Hi-8 cost as little as pounds 5 each for a 90-minute tape. Following cost, user-friendliness was a key issue, taking precedence over quality of results and the aesthetics of each machine.

**SHARP VLE34H

pounds 499.99

This rather ugly camcorder with an odd rotating screen, which allows you to film yourself and watch the results at the same time, did not win favour with the experts on the panel. "The only good thing about the Sharp," Neil Richardson insisted, "is that it is idiot-proof. My mother, for example, found it very serviceable." Chris Ramsey elaborated: "It has no special features, except for a rather ineffectual `backlighting facility'. The physical design is poor - not only do you have to use both hands to hold it, but you spend most of the time looking down. It's difficult to know what you're filming and confusing for the subject to know where to look. It might be useful as a periscope, but not for 500 quid." Anna Nicholas was not impressed, either, but the Sharp's design suited Lucinda Buxton perfectly. "The autofocus buttons put the subject in position for you - marvellous! - and you can get a good picture from any angle, even from the ground," she said. She was puzzled, however, by the dew indicator. "It tells you if the camera has been kept in a moist temperature for more than three hours, but I'm not sure what to do if it has. Still it's a lovely machine, good for the average person who doesn't want to be a buff, but just wants some nice footage for the memories."

*****SONY TRV64

pounds 799.99

This Sony camcorder may not be the very latest design, but it was voted the winner in our survey due to its value for money, special features and user-friendliness. It looks stylish, with a neat chrome finish and a discreetly hidden LCD monitor. Chris Ramsey said: "The instructions and on-screen workings are the easiest to master, including functions such as `mosaic', `widescreen', `stretch and slim'." Neil Richardson found the backlighting facility "par- ticularly impressive on this machine, as well as a variety of different titles such as `happy birthday' and `our beautiful baby' which you can display in a number of colours and positions." Anna Nicholas found the titles (which cannot be changed) "depressingly predictable. It goes to show that we all film the same things," but she liked the "manual" option, which allows the user to create the perfect image, "especially useful in low light conditions". The TRV64 also has the largest charging-to-usage battery ratio, lasting up to four and a half hours - vital when taking the camera on long journeys. Not least, it has an on-screen graphic which reveals the exact amount of battery time left. "Excellent," chorused the panel.

***CANON UC9

pounds 649.99

This rather old-fashioned looking camera has a number of unique features which Canon have termed "Flexitone". They include the facility to move the centre of focus around the screen with a mouse-like cursor and to take close-ups up to 1cm away. "I used this to film a spider in our bathroom," said Anna Nicholas, "but otherwise I can't think why I might need it." It also has the largest zoom capacity of all the non-digital cameras (40x), which struck testers as useful "especially for filming the children from an upstairs window," said Lucinda Buxton. But the Canon instruction booklet and in-camera computer are less user-friendly than the Sony TRV64. Neil Richardson and Chris Ramsey assessed the special effects as "excellent - especially `art effect', `negative effect' and `widescreen'." These can be used in collaboration with on-screen titles and an auto-exposure programme. As Neil Richardson concluded: "The most attractive feature of this camera seems to be the ability to get the exact picture you require from any distance, either manually, or via the built-in computer, but it may take quite a while to master all of its controls. It's worth spending the extra pounds 50 between this and the Panasonic NVVX1B."

***PANASONIC NVVX1B

pounds 599.99

The Panasonic proved easier to operate than most of the other models tested, and has a pocket-sized manual which is well laid out and easy to understand. Chris Ramsey found it "lacks some of the special effects present in the more expensive cameras, but it has many more attributes than, say, the Sharp, including a fader and detailed on-screen graphics." Neil Richardson pointed out that "the long/short play option extends the time capacity of the tape, which can save money. I also prefer this type of playback system, whereby the tape is placed in an adaptor, making it immediately compatible for a normal VHS video recorder." Anna Nicholas, too, praised the small screen for playback purposes and the fact that it's easy to play it through a normal television system without downloading, though she found it bulky: "But it is comfortable to use, and surprisingly light." "All in all," said Neil Richardson, "this camera successfully couples the basic functions with a number of added extras. It should appeal to every member of the family."

***SONY DCRPC7 HANDYCAM

pounds 1799.99

Described by Anna Nicholas as "an amazing camera and a beautiful piece of engineering", this Sony digital camcorder with its neat touch controls, illuminated keys for use in the dark and superb picture quality was the most expensive sample tested. It failed to win the test because the price does not include the software necessary to download images on to your PC and because, although it is small and light, it isn't as light as the JVC. It was good to see that the picture quality was maintained even when the moving images are transferred from camcorder tape to video. How different is it? Neil Rich-ardson described it as "similar to the change in quality from audio cassettes to compact discs."

Chris Ramsey appreciated the facility to take still shots, which can then be downloaded on to a computer (though this proved to be too complicated for some of the panellists), but not the colour screen that flips out from the side, "which ruined the streamlined appearance. I don't believe it is worth paying the additional pounds 300 more than this machine's JVC counterpart," he said. Lucinda Buxton, on the other hand, thought the small screen "a brilliant invention - it makes you into a better photographer instantly, because you can frame the shot - you can even hold the camera above your head and still see what you're recording." But she felt that the "fade- out feature and other professional touches" were options she would never bother with and did not really want to pay for. Anna Nicholas proposes to buy one "when the price comes down. After all," she protested, "it's damned expensive. It would be cheaper to hire Zeffirelli and a BBC crew for a week."

****JVC GRDVJ70

pounds 1499.99

The price reveals that this is another digital camcorder. It is the lightest (only 500g) and smallest (about the size of an electric razor) and looks like something James Bond would use. Ironically, then, Neil Richardson reported that "its size makes it awkward to use. After a while your arm gets tired, increasing the camera shake." But he waxed lyrical about the camera's technical features: "The zoom is unbelievable - 100x. There are endless special effects available, including `classical film' strobe, two different slow motion speeds, `video echo' (used in pop videos during the Eighties) and various light settings." Chris Ramsey was pleased with the films he made in different colours (notably sepia and plain black and white), although he admitted that seven different ways of fading in and out of shots - is "possibly a little bit extravagant". The JVC comes with its own editing station, which takes the information directly from the camera, which, in theory, makes editing very easy. Unfortunately our sample came without instructions, so we were unable to see just how impressive it was. Even Anna Nicholas found this "the least user-friendly of all the cameras", causing her to "sift more than once through a number of `menu options' without ever being able to access the information properly. The JVC is definitely designed for the advanced camcorder user." Both Chris Ramsey and Neil Richardson agreed that "you would need to spend loads more money on other gadgets to get the most out of it. We still haven't been converted to the digital revolution."

! All the camcorders tested are stocked by branches of Dixons nationwide.

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