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Go Digital

If you don't yet own a camcorder, do yourself a favor and buy a digital model. Although analog models are often a few hundred dollars cheaper, they lack the key to making it all work smoothly: the ability to quickly and easily transfer video already in a digital format via FireWire. With a digital camcorder equipped with a FireWire port (also called an IEEE 1394 port or i.Link port on Sony camcorders), moving your video from the camera to your Mac is a simple matter of hooking up the right cable. (Be aware, though, that you'll probably have to buy that cable separately, one that includes a standard 6-pin FireWire connector on one end and a smaller 4-pin connector on the other end, which plugs into the camera; this cable should cost you anywhere between $10 and $50 at most computer or electronics stores.)

If you already own an analog camcorder, you're not out of luck. You can get an analog-to-digital converter such as Dazzle's $300 Hollywood DV-Bridge. However, in my limited testing, the quality wasn't as good as with digital-to-digital transfer, and, of course, it added an extra step to the process of transferring video to my Mac. (Although it might make more financial sense to apply the $300 to a new digital camcorder, the Dazzle is great for converting your old VHS tapes to digital.) A few camcorder models, notably several offered by Sony, can handle the analog-to-digital video conversion within the camera.

Now that we've decided you'll get a digital camcorder, the next important consideration is which model to buy. Naturally, digital camcorders range in quality and price from consumer models to drool-inducing professional cameras; it's definitely worth checking out a comparison site like Active Sales Assistant.

You're likely to encounter several digital storage formats, too, including Digital 8, MiniDV, and the new, supercompact Micro MV. The current standard is MiniDV, which is a 2-inch-by-2.75-inch tape that stores one hour of footage; you can actually capture up to 90 minutes by recording at a slower speed, but you sacrifice quality for quantity. At some point, digital camcorders will record directly to hard disks (in fact, you can set up a camcorder to record straight to your Mac if you want), but for now, tape remains the best medium for storing the massive amounts of data required for digital video. Unlike analog tapes, the MiniDV format retains its image quality after repeated recordings, so footage you shoot today will last longer than the VHS tapes that are quietly decomposing on your living room shelf.

For my trip, I was looking for a strictly consumer-level unit that was easy to carry and simple to use and that could easily transfer video to my Mac. I also needed something quickly, since we were due to leave in a few days and I hadn't had time to look into all the options. After trying out both an analog and a digital camcorder at a local photography store, I opted for the Canon ZR20 (which retails for around $700 but can be found for less--check with price-comparison sites such as dealnews and The Macworld Pricefinder).

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