Camcorders warm up to DVD

Now hitting the shelves: Three easy-to-use machines that record straight to disc. Are they worth the price?

The letters "DVD" keep popping up on consumer electronics. The format is now commonly used in movies, music, and video games. Consumers can buy DVD set-top boxes that "burn" television programs onto blank discs. Using computers with DVD-R drives, they can also burn movies and music downloaded (not always legally) from the Internet.

The next chapter in the DVD expansion: camcorders.

This spring and summer, three major videocamera makers are debuting camcorders that record directly onto blank DVDs. The discs can then be immediately plopped into a DVD player for viewing. Manufacturers also promise that the video won't deteriorate over time (certainly the format is more durable than tape).

The new camcorders are expected to be most popular among Baby Boomers, many of whom keep what they record, rather than taking time to edit their footage with computer software. But for the next few years, most consumers are expected to favor Hi-8 analog and MiniDV digital camcorders - last year's best sellers. Sony's tape-based Digital 8 is gaining ground.

The reason: Prices on DVD camcorders have plenty of room to drop, say experts, and the cameras carry just as many liabilities as benefits.

Moreover, the wheel of innovation turns so quickly in consumer electronics that those who already own a camcorder might opt to wait for the debut of yet another format before they upgrade.

"History has taught us there's a continual wave of something better that will come along," says Sean Wargo, director of industry analysis at the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA).

The DVD boom is not the only reason for the new camcorders. In the past five years, camcorder sales have grown 66 percent, according to the CEA. Such surging sales figures have encouraged manufacturers to keep churning out new designs.

The Hi8 and MiniDV videocameras record a clearer picture and generally are much smaller - about the size of a paperback novel - than the original straight-to-VHS camcorders.

The digital video from the MiniDV can even be downloaded directly to a computer.

But both models lack a key feature: The tapes they use cannot be played in a VCR or DVD player. In order to view the footage, users often must connect the camera to their television using audio-video cables.

DVD camcorders, say manufacturers, bridge the divide between the old and the new. They record up to two hours of video onto a single disc. The user needn't hook up the camera to the TV in order to view the footage.

With DVD players now in more than 60 million American homes, manufacturers believe consumers want a camcorder to match. "Much of the market is consumers who want a high-end product, but not a lot of hassle or bells and whistles," says Ryan Jones, senior analyst with Yankee Group, a market research firm in Boston.

"We know how many DVD players are in consumers' homes," says Michael Nadasi, product-training manager for Hitachi. "People are looking for the convenience of taking media out of a camcorder and playing it back right away."

Both Hitachi and Panasonic have offered DVD camcorders for more than a year, but the devices have not been made widely available or sold at a price most consumers can afford. Panasonic did mark down its DVD camcorder from $2,500 to $900 last year. Hitachi's DZ-MV350A also sells for $900.

Sony plans to introduce three Handycam DVD camcorders this summer, the least expensive of which will cost less than $1,000.

Such prices will continue to be a major barrier. Last year, Americans spent an average of $407 on camcorders, less than half the average price of this year's DVD models.

Other DVD camera drawbacks: They are bulky, have low battery life, and the formats (DVD-R and DVD-RAM) are not compatible with all DVD players.

Also, the devices do not have a lot of built-in editing tools, making it difficult to create a polished movie without downloading the video onto a computer.

Consumers who want to edit their home movies in detail, should probably stick with a MiniDV or Digital8 camcorder, say experts. Both models will record video at the same resolution as a DVD camcorder. They also are trimmer and less expensive because they do not hold a DVD drive.

Some camcorders likely to debut in the next few years include models that record video onto built-in hard drives. Other camcorders will record video onto flash cards like those used in digital cameras. The cards can then be taken out of the camera and inserted in a PC or DVD player.

"It may only be two or three years before the cards come out," says Stephen Jacobs, a professor of information technology at the Rochester Institute of Technology in New York.

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