NEW YORK (MONEY Magazine) -
Each May new camcorders appear on the shelves of electronics stores everywhere.
Why now? Electronics companies know that between graduations, summer vacations, weddings and the height of Little League, a lot of people have reason to get behind the camera right now.
What people might not have, though, is the know-how to tell one camcorder from another listed at the same price.
Comparing apples to apples
Price variations, after all, are what make shopping difficult. Two or three years ago, cheapo camcorders with mediocre picture quality and no frills retailed for $600. Today that's the sweet spot, the list price at which most models start to offer a truly superior picture, quality still photography, compact design and loads of extra features.
Cameras that list for less than $600 suffer from noticeably poorer video quality. And when the price climbs above $600, you'll likely get the same features and quality, just in a smaller case.
But as someone who for years has been testing almost every camera that hits the market, I was struck by a trend among this year's models: Even with camcorders that share the same list price, all is not equal.
For example, video quality ranges from outstanding to abysmal, even among the best-known brands like Panasonic, JVC and Samsung. And every camcorder can take still photos, but some should have that right revoked.
What's more, some of the models delivering the best picture quality are less than intuitive to operate; if you can't find the on/off switch, pretty video means nothing. Our winner, Sony's Handycam DCR-HC42, was the one camcorder with passing grades in every category.
All the models I tested, incidentally, use MiniDV digital videotape. You may have heard buzz about new DVD camcorders. For now, they're really not worth buying. They're bulkier and more expensive and, more important, DVD doesn't hold a candle to MiniDV when it comes to picture quality.
What's the best thing about a $600 camcorder? It doesn't really cost $600. That figure is just the manufacturer's suggested price. Searches on a few Web sites confirm that you can get these models for at least 25 percent less than that. Which leaves money to put toward a flight to some exotic place where you can use your new gear.
To check color and detail, I set up each camcorder on a tripod and shot footage of an industry-standard test pattern, all with the same lighting at the same time of day, and compared views on a high-definition Hitachi plasma TV. Battery life is reported by each manufacturer under uniform criteria.
See the complete test results and photo gallery.
Click here for more Personal Tech stories.
Concerned about digital safety? Click here.
Wilson Rothman is MONEY's technology reporter and covers consumer electronics for Time and the New York Times.