The solution to my camcorder dilemma

I have recently discovered what is a near-perfect solution for my reluctance to use a camcorder — even though I have a desire to take "home movies." And, no, the solution is not the Flip Video.

Sunday's New York Times had yet another article lauding the Flip Video camcorder (David Pogue covered it back in March). All articles I have read about this device make pretty much the same basic point. The camera's video quality is not as good as a high-def camera, not by a long shot. It's not even as good as an upper-end standard-def camera. It certainly doesn't have the full set of features that these cameras sport.

But, for many people, the Flip is good enough. They happily sacrifice a degree of quality in exchange for a much less expensive device that is also far simpler to use. There's no multitude of buttons or a dizzying array of menu options that are often more confusing than helpful.

I have never used a Flip. But I can relate to the basic arguments in its favor. I am now on my third camcorder (it's a digital tape machine from Sony). The problem is that I have never used any of these camcorders to the extent that I anticipated and hoped I would. Actually, I probably use my current camcorder the least often of any of them.

I have tried to figure out why this is.

Especially with my most recent camera, I believe it is partly due to the shift to using the camcorder primarily with a computer rather than a TV. In the old days, I would just connect the camera to my TV and press Play. Now, I instead feel compelled to import my video into iMovie, edit it and perhaps create a DVD — before possibly shifting to a television to watch it. This is much more time consuming. The result is that I too often avoid the task altogether.

I also put part of the blame on having to work with tape instead of a "true" digital media — such as a hard drive or media cards. With tape, I must use an application such as iMovie just to get the video on to my computer. This can be a lengthy import process all by itself. Plus, prior to importing, if a tape has numerous recordings on it, I have no easy way to check on the exact content without rewinding and searching, yet another tedious task.

This is why I have given thought to getting yet a fourth video camera, one that works with media cards. Still, while media cards avoid most of the problems with tape, I am not convinced that even this is the solution. Among other things, any camcorder is still another device to carry around — in addition to my iPhone and still camera. Too often, I just don't want to bother.

Happily, before I spent $1000 on a new high-def camcorder, I came upon a better solution: I use the movie capability built-into my 8-megapixel Canon SD870 IS point-and-shoot camera.

First, let me acknowledge the obvious: The 870's video quality is not a good as a top quality camcorder. And it is limited to a resolution of 640x480. But, as with the Flip Video, this turns out to be good enough for me. Especially so when you consider that I now do most of my video watching on my computer, rather than on a television.

With the image viewed on my computer display, the quality is actually quite impressive. If I didn't know the movie came from my Canon camera, I could easily be convinced it was taken with a true camcorder.

To get this level of quality, you probably need a relatively recent model camera and one of the newer high-speed high-capacity media cards. With such a pair, you can expect the same pleasant surprise that I have found. Using my 4GB card, I have had no trouble taking good quality videos of several minutes in length.

But the good news gets even better.

The camera saves each video as separate .avi file. After downloading the files to your Mac, you can immediately view each movie in QuickTime Player. There's no need to first import the video into iMovie and then export it to another format. Short videos are often small enough that you can directly email them or post them to the Web, without any hassle. Or you can use QuickTime Player (Pro) to convert the files to other formats. Of course, if you want to do fancier editing in iMovie, you can easily import the files there.

Another plus with the Canon is that my still camera and video camera are now the same super-compact device — eliminating the need to decide each time if I want to take my video camera along for the ride. A minor related bonus is that people often don't know whether I am taking a still shot or video; this avoids the phony "hamming for the camera" that some people do when they see you are taking video.

Finally, if you already own a still camera that takes good video, my solution is cost-free.

This solution is not the ideal one for everybody. I understand that. But it has solved my biggest video camera dilemma. My movies may not be the best quality. I don't always edit them or add transitions. But I am now taking more video, watching more video, sharing more video and enjoying the whole process more than I have ever done before. To me, that's the bottom line.