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Disposable Camcorders: How Good Can They Be?

Test-Driving the Cheapest Splash-and-Crash Cams on the Market

First off, you are probably asking, “What is a disposable camcorder, and why would I need one?” What it is depends on your needs and your bank account. To big movie studios, it may be a $2500 Canon DSLR. To a TV production company, it could be any sub-$1000 HD consumer camera you can put in a falling building or crashing car.

To event and corporate videographers, a disposable may simply be a camera so small you can put it in your main camera bag, vest or pocket and grab B-roll after it has been knocked around. For this article, I looked at the best HD cameras with an under-$140 street price and put them through their paces. While this tier of camcorders was made popular by the Flip line of 720p camcorders, Cisco Systems recently canceled the entire product line, citing competition from HD cell phone cameras.

In my own business, I use three tiers of cameras. My main camera for most projects is a Sony HVR-S270u full-size HDV camcorder. My second camera, and the one I use as a backup to the S270, is the Sony HDR-FX1, the first HD camera that I owned. Last is a Sony HDR-HC7 consumer HDV camera that I use in places where I don't want to look pro, but need footage that I can easily cut together with my higher-end cameras. (It is also my home-video camera.)  I wouldn’t want to risk any of these camcorders, not even the HC7 that I picked up new for $230 at Circuit City before they went out of business. 

For a recent lecture I taped, I need to get a few crowd shots. While keeping the S270 locked off on my Manfrotto 504 tripod, I stepped away and got the shots with my 720p cell-phone camcorder, a Verizon/Sharp Kin. The few seconds of cutaways were OK, but nothing I'd ever want to depend on. A month later the family went to Disneyland, and my wife convinced me to leave the HC7 in the car and just use the phone cam. Again, even in better light there was heavy artifacting in some of the highly detailed shots. While it was OK for home videos, when we went to Legoland two weeks later, I went back to the HC7 — but I did worry a bit about getting it splashed. 

I wondered, could these cheap HD camcorders I see for between $40 and $120 really be good enough to produce a useful image?  I found a few models that not only were interesting, but had company PR reps who were going to let me bang the &@#% out of them. Can you believe the image resolution specs on these $100 cameras are better than those on a $40,000 Digital Betacam from 5 years ago?

The camera manufactures that accepted this challenge are DXG and Coleman (yes, the same Coleman that makes camping gear). I'll be looking at the DXG-5B1V Sportster and the Coleman CVW9HD.

What Do You Get?

The camcorders share some common features: fixed-focus lenses, no optical zoom, no mic input, no headphone out. Both units record AVCHD/H264 files, take still photos, use SDHC cards, are waterproof to 10 feet, include cases, USB cables, and mini-to-regular HDMI cables, and are made cheap in China.

So what are the differences? The DXG looks like a traditional small handheld camcorder, with the same form factor as the Sony HC7. It has a three-inch LCD, but no viewfinder to rely on when out in the sun. It turns on when you open the LCD and shuts off when you close it. There is a zoom rocker on top that controls a digital zoom in 720p and 480p modes but does nothing in 1080p mode. On the side, there is a switch for macro mode. (It moves easily, so one should always check it before shooting.) It takes 5 MP (16 MP with pixel interpolation) stills and has a small flash. It records video as h.264 AVI files and has a standard tripod mount. It has 128MB of memory built in which is only good for a couple minutes of HD video or a few dozen stills. It is powered by a rechargeable lithium-ion battery and comes with an external quick charger but can also be charged by turning off the camera and connecting it to a computer's USB jack. The DXG camera can still be found in stores, though the company has been changing up the product line, and there are similar models with similar specs from other manufacturers.

The Coleman has the form factor of the Flip camcorders. It has a 2-inch LCD screen, a loop for a neck strap, and no tripod mount. All of the controls are under a rubberized panel below the LCD. The CVW9HD runs on 2 AA batteries (included), and the case is a holster. It records video to easy-to-use MOV files for Windows and Mac. Otherwise, it shares the same performance specs as the DXG.

First Impressions

Before taking these camcorders out on a pro shoot to use for B-roll, I decided to get to know them, so I took them on a short camping vacation. I found the Coleman was definitely handier than the DXG. I put the DXG holster on my belt next to my mobile phone so it was easier to hike around with. In the bright California mountain sun, the LCD was tough to see, and I was constantly holding my right hand over it to see what I was shooting. The well-lit daytime shots looked good, but the dark shots were horribly noisy. The auto gain control was doing all it could with the light hitting the tiny sensor, but the result looked like poor reception on an old analog TV. Since it was even unusable for home video, I pulled out the Sony HC7 with a little Sima LCD light to use around the campfire.

The next morning, it spent 30 minutes (not recording the whole time) in the hands of my favorite 4-year-old, and it survived. The AA batteries that came with it had run down after less than an hour of use, which surprised me. I tried to get a shot in the lake but it died and didn't have any new AA batteries, so I switched to the DXG.

I played with the DXG a bit more before the trip as it arrived 10 days before the Coleman. I borrowed the neck strap from the Coleman as I was worried about losing it in the lake. It survived quite nicely and took nice video and pictures in the lake. I tried some underwater shots, but the water was too murky. I later tried the DXG in a friend’s koi pond. The water was much clearer — in fact, the pictures were so clear that my friend noticed a disease on the fish that he didn't see from out of the water and was able to treat them before it killed them.

The DXG was definitely easier to hold steady than the Coleman, and the record button and other controls are much easier to push. With the Coleman, you always needed to confirm you actually pushed the record button.

While I don't believe in over-using the zoom lens on any camera, I really missed having a zoom on both cameras. Walking zooms just don't cut it, as they are too bouncy. If you need a tighter shot, you need to go for a walk. 

In testing the waterproof capabilities, I took both cameras in the the pool a few times. The DXG and Coleman both handled nicely in the water, and the Coleman's neck strap comes in handy when you don't want to actually hold it. The DXG was much easier to handle, but seemed to have some power issues after being used in the pool for 30 minutes. It turns on and off when the LCD is opened and closed, but after 30 minutes and several tries, it refused to power up. I let it dry out for another 30 minutes, and then it powered right up, ready to record.

Enough about playing in the water. Let’s see how they work on a location shoot as a B-Roll camera.

Shooting B-Roll

The first test was at a fundraising dinner. I found overhead shots were near impossible with the Coleman, as you couldn't see what you were shooting.  Both were useless in the darkened room for dinner, as there was too little light.

The next test was while taping surgical procedures. The main camera was a JVC GY-HD250 720p camera that, due to the nature of surgery, was on my shoulder 90% of the time, meaning we had to mount the B-roll cameras. This immediately ruled out the Coleman, as it has no mounting hole. I made a clamp with a small tripod mount that allows me to mount a small camera anywhere. I was able to mount the DXG to a door arm, giving a very nice wide cutaway shot of the operating room. During the 10% of the time that I had the HD250 on the tripod, I did take some shots with the Coleman for comparison.

The client was very impressed with the B-roll from the DXG. The colors were vibrant, and the picture was sharp. There were artifacts when you looked at it on a 24-inch monitor from right in front of it, but if you were back a few feet they were harder to see. The shots I took with the Coleman were of the surgeon cutting with a laser. The Coleman turned the glow of the red laser in to a pinkish cloud over the patient. Needless to say, it was pretty unusable.

 

Please enable Javascript to watch this video

Warning: The above video includes medical footage from a breast-augmentation surgery. 

The ease of using (or lack thereof) the footage in the post process is almost another story. The Coleman footage easily loaded into Adobe Premiere Pro . I really wanted to use the DXG, since it gave me more useable footage, but it didn't want to import into much of anything. The DXG produces mono MPEG-4 AVI files. Neither Premiere Pro 5.5, Sony Vegas 9, nor Windows Movie Maker liked these files. The best they would do is import the audio.  On a lark, I tried importing the file into a copy of Premiere Pro CS3 that I had installed on an older dual-Xeon workstation running Windows XP, and it worked — though the high compression rate of the files brought it to a crawl.

At first, the only solution I found to get it into Premiere Pro, is a popular freeware program called Handbrake. Once rendered out as a .MP4 file, it worked fine. When I asked DXG to fact-check this article, they told me I should have gotten an Arcsoft install CD with software for editing, burning disks, and uploading to the web. Once they sent me the missing CD and I got it installed (the camera needs to be connected to the computer), it was fairly easy to convert the footage to a much easier-to-use .M2TS file. Just make sure you have as many cores as possible when working with these highly compressed files, as they will tax your CPUs. Having a 12-core 3.33 GHz HP Z800 workstation was very important to working with the compressed files in a timely fashion.

Also in the fact-checking process, I learned that I wasn't using the best quality on the DXG. In the instructions and menu, the bit rate quality options are depicted as three small stars in a box or one large star in a box, with no explanation at all.  I assumed one large star in a box meant you were using a higher bit rate and you'd get less footage on the card. It makes sense to me and other people I spoke to, but my understanding of these hieroglyphs was wrong. “Three small stars in a box” is high quality, around 16 Mbps.  I'll have to test it on my next surgical video next week.

I suppose both cameras can be cabled via HDMI to an Atomos Ninja or Blackmagic Design Hyperdeck Shuttle 2 to record a lightly compressed Pro Res 422 file with few artifacts and easy editing, but why spend more than 10 times the cost of the camcorders on a recording device you may be putting in harm’s way?

Final Thoughts

Clearly the easiest to use, with the best indoor and outdoor quality, was the DXG Sportster. The rechargeable battery lasts a long time and the camera is easy to use. The only thing I didn't like about it was the tough, but not impossible to use, native avi files, but the Arcsoft conversion software makes them easier to use. The Coleman's real benefit was easy portability and nice outdoor pictures, as one might expect from a company that mainly puts out camping equipment. Its major drawbacks are the lack of a tripod mount, and the way it eats through AA batteries in less than two hours. If I were choosing between the two, I'd have to go with the DXG. While I like to put the Coleman (with belt-loop case) on my belt just to have it around as a convenience, it can't match the DXG for real-world use. You can set the DXG up, hit record and walk away, and come back hours later, something that’s impossible with the Coleman. I hope that Coleman will take this issue into account if they do a redesign. I'd also hope DXG can come up with a video file that is compatible with NLEs made this decade without having to use conversion software.

While I only looked at two camcorders in this article, by time you read this there will be dozens more. I encourage you to see what is out there.  Visit your local consumer electronics store and see what looks like it will work for you as your “crash and splash cam.”

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