The Insider: The camcorders fit for the YouTube generation

If you're looking for a new digital camcorder that won't tire your arm or weigh down your baggage, the latest models are sure to impress with their compact designs. New technologies mean that there are now some remarkably small models to choose from, including pocket camcorders.

The latest tiny camcorders do have some impressive features. "Some standard-definition models have huge optical zooms, and even some of the smallest high-definition models deliver crisp, colourful footage," says Martyn Hocking, editor of Which?. "Image stabilisation systems in digital camcorders are becoming increasingly sophisticated too, and the best do a great job of limiting the effects of shaky hands."

However, in an effort to make smaller models, manufacturers are cutting back on some useful features that were common in larger camcorders. To save space, many manufacturers have done away with viewfinders. A good viewfinder can make it easier to hold a camcorder steadily – particularly when zooming – and can be invaluable in bright daylight.

Compact camcorders also rely on tiny internal microphones for picking up sound on your recording, which aren't capable of capturing great quality. Unfortunately, many new camcorders don't let you attach an external microphone to boost audio performance.

Simple, pocket-sized models are popular with the YouTube generation, thanks to straightforward uploading software. Most aren't much bigger than a mobile phone and they're much cheaper than larger models, even though they lack all but the most basic features. While video quality can't compare with a full-sized, high-definition camcorder, for YouTube-quality footage these compact models are ideal.

In Which?'s latest test, the Panasonic HDC-SD20, above right, costs £400 and received the highest test score – it is a good choice if you're looking for a compact high-definition model that will fit easily in your hand or pocket. It starts up quickly and records crisp, well-defined images in both bright daylight and indoor light. The autofocus generally reacts quickly, and the built-in optical image stabiliser impressed Which?'s testers. On the downside, battery life is below average and it doesn't have as many features as larger models: there's no viewfinder, and sound quality is limited.

The overall performance of the pocket-sized Kodak Zi6, above left, can't compare with a full-sized high definition camcorder – colours and sound quality are poor, and the zoom is jerky – but if you just want to upload videos to YouTube it is ideal. It's very cheap and compact, effortless to use, and uploading videos to the internet is exceptionally easy.

Where to buy

You can buy camcorders on the high street in electrical retailers and department stores, or online. You can check stockists and compare the latest prices using Which?'s price comparison service www.whichcompare.co.uk.

Questions to ask...

Standard or high definition?

High definition models can record more detail, give a sharper picture, and colours are often better – but you'll need a good HDTV to benefit from the improved video quality.

How much zoom?

A x10 optical zoom is sufficient for most people's needs. If you're doing lots of long-distance work, like close-ups of wildlife, a more powerful zoom can come in handy – but you'll probably need a tripod. Make sure you compare optical zoom figures, not digital zoom, which can sometimes reduce picture quality to the point that you can barely make out what you're filming.

What's the sound quality like?

Built-in mics are susceptible to picking up wind noise, so look for a wind-filter function – but turn it off when you don't need it as it can cut other noise. Most HD camcorders also have zoom mics, which pick up sound from further away the more you zoom in, and some offer a surround-sound recording setting for playback on a home cinema system. Some camcorders also allow you to attach an external microphone that can significantly improve sound quality.

What light functions does it have?

Camcorders generally struggle to produce good image quality in dim light outdoors or indoors, but night mode gives a brighter picture while video lamps help to illuminate close-up subjects. Gain-up and backlight compensation can also brighten up pictures or subjects.

The Insider is written by Which?, the independent consumer champion. For more information go to www.which.co.uk/hdcamcorders. To get three issues of Which? magazine for a special price of £3, call 01992 822800 and quote INADVICE.

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