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Budget mini HD camcorder face-off

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Budget high-definition camcorders are taking the camcorder industry by storm. Like netbooks to laptops, these new camcorders cost less than half the price of a full-featured camcorder, yet they can record in 720p resolution and are small enough to fit in the tightest of pockets. We gave two of today's most popular models a test drive to figure out which model offers the best quality at the lowest possible price.

Pure Digital Flip MinoHD
Price: $209.99 + free shipping at Dell Home (expires May 29)
Hardware: 3.3 ounces, 1.5" LCD, 720p resolution, 4GB built-in memory.
Performance: At 3.3 ounces, the Flip MinoHD feels more like a plastic toy than an HD camcorder. Yet despite being a lightweight, it's capable of recording at 720p resolution. Like its standard-definition brother — the Flip Mino ($159.99 + free shipping at Dell Home) — the MinoHD is housed inside a glossy, black case that easily attracts smudges and dirt. It's smaller than many of today's candy bar-style smartphones and easily fits into any pocket.

At 1.5", the device's LCD feels somewhat limiting. Yet when turned on, it displays all the information you need to know, including battery life and recording time. Flanking the LCD are the device's speakers.

With the exception of the record and power buttons, the MinoHD is completely touch-sensitive. Below the LCD you'll find icons for playing/pausing video, increasing volume/zooming in, deleting, rewinding, forwarding, and decreasing volume/zooming out. There's also a trigger on the MinoHD's left spine, which flips out the device's built-in USB plug. Alternatively, you can connect the camcorder to your TV via the included proprietary TV cable plug, which connects to your TV using a composite connection.

The MinoHD's start-up time is somewhat disappointing, taking about four seconds before you can begin recording. However, once it's on, it delivers excellent video quality in both bright and low-lit environments. Zooming, although digital, was also smooth, and the unit's mic did a good job of filtering unwanted sounds.

However, we did encounter a few notable problems. Because it's so small, our hand would sometimes brush up against the MinoHD's bulbous rear lens, which often led to unwanted hand cameos in our videos. In addition, the MinoHD's feather-like weight makes it difficult to hold steady when shooting. The result was a collection of motion-sickness-inducing video, which also suffered from blur and picture distortion when played back on a 42" 1080p Sharp LCD HDTV. On the other hand, when shooting an inanimate object or when placed on a flat surface, video quality soared with sharp colors and no distortion. We were also disappointed with the device's touch-sensitive controls, which weren't always as responsive as they should've been, particularly when recording.

The MinoHD includes 4GB of built-in memory, which gives you an hour of record time in 720p resolution. Unfortunately, there's no way of expanding its memory. In addition, the device can only be charged via USB, so if you're away from a computer and your battery dies, there's nothing you can do.

Transferring the MinoHD's MP4 files to a PC or Mac is simple since the camcorder mounts as a flash storage device on your computer. (You can even use the MinoHD as a portable media player by dragging MP4 files onto it to watch on the go.) Software-wise, the device includes Flip Digital's FlipShare, which makes it easy to upload videos to YouTube or turn your videos into DVDs. The software is compatible with both PCs and Macs.

Overall, the MinoHD is a technological achievement but overpriced for what it brings to the table. Features we felt were missing include a snapshot mode and the inclusion of a standard-sized TV port. The device would've also benefited from a removable battery and a memory card slot. At $195, we feel the MinoHD's performance doesn't justify its price. (And especially not with the $200 Mino Ultra HD looming in the near future.)

Kodak Zx1 Pocket Video Camera
Price: $149.95 + free shipping (list price) in 5 colors at Amazon.com
Hardware: 5.3 ounces, 2" LCD, 720p resolution, 128MB built-in memory, built-in SD card slot with SDHC support.
Performance: With its weather-proof casing and rubberized buttons, the Zx1 can easily alternate from recording a wedding to filming your adventures through the Serengeti. At 5.3 ounces, it's noticeably heavier and chunkier than the MinoHD, but we felt that gave the Zx1 a more natural fit in our hands. In addition, because the lens is positioned so high on the camera, we found the Zx1 was easier to hold while recording, as opposed to the MinoHD whose lens we blocked with our hand on more than one occasion.

The Zx1 has a sharp 2" LCD, which is great for taking pictures and shooting video. It also takes 3-megapixel stills. For video, there are three shooting modes: VGA, HD (720p at 30 fps), and HD60 (720p at 60 fps). All of the device's controls are located beneath the LCD. Although the Zx1's button arrangement had us initially stumped, we found over time that the Zx1 was the more user-friendly of the two mini camcorders.

Like the MinoHD, the Zx1 has no optical zoom, but instead relies on a 2x digital zoom. Unfortunately, the zoom was very slow and jagged; a stark contrast to the MinoHD's smooth, effortless zooms. Nevertheless, we felt the Zx1 did a better job with image quality, particularly when plugged into our HDTV. Although we noticed some noise, the Zx1's video was sharper than the MinoHD's (when set to HD60 mode). We also give props to Kodak for giving the Zx1 a built-in HDMI port and including an HDMI cable in the package.

Alternatively, you can upload photos and videos from the Zx1 to your PC or Mac via USB or SD card. Normally we'd frown upon the exclusion of the SD card, but at $150, the Zx1 delivers a complete package and finding an inexpensive SD card on dealnews isn't difficult. (And you'll need it, since the Zx1 only offers 128MB of built-in storage.)

Kodak also includes ArcSoft's MediaImpression, which offers some basic editing features and acts as a launch pad for getting your videos on YouTube. Unfortunately, the software isn't Mac compatible and isn't as streamlined as FlipShare, although it offers better editing features.

Battery-wise, the Zx1 uses two rechargeable AA batteries, which makes the Zx1 a better road companion than the MinoHD.

 

Final Verdict:
At $150, the Kodak Zx1 HD camcorder delivers excellent performance and value, whether you're shooting the next viral video for YouTube or your next vacation. Add to the mix a built-in HDMI port, ruggedized features, and 3MP still-capability and you have an excellent everyday mini camcorder.

Please note that, although prices sometimes fluctuate or expire unexpectedly, all products and deals mentioned in this feature were available at the lowest total price we could find at the time of publication (unless otherwise specified).
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