Hi-def, short for 'high definition', is a format for capturing high resolution digital video. High definition is still a relatively new technology, and there is a minefield of confusing terms and poor standardisation surrounding the various types.
The display resolution of hi-def video footage is either 1,280x720 pixels, or 1,920x1,080 pixels, which is higher than the standard definition resolutions on current television and DVD. The higher 1080 resolution is generally recomended for gaming and HD-DVD or Blu-Ray disks. For broadcast signals, 720 is sufficient.
One of the biggest decisions to make with modern camcorders is the recording format you want to choose. One option is a built-in hard drive. Hard drives have the advantage of allowing in-camera editing functions, while also using far less battery power.
Hard drives are useful when recording hi-def footage as they allow for potentially much greater storage than physical storage like DVDs. Hi-def video has a greater number of pixels crammed into each frame, and more data means bigger files. This is why lots of storage space is essential when shooting hi-def.
The Sony Handycam HDR-SR8 boasts an enormous 100GB hard drive. It will set you back £1,000, but for that outlay you get excellent HD image quality in possibly the best consumer HD camcorder going. There is also the slightly cheaper HDR-SR7, which is equally good and boasts a still pretty impressive 60GB hard drive.
Fortunately, hi-def does not necessarily mean high price. The Sanyo Xacti VPC-HD2 is half the price of the HDR-SR8 at around £500. Its pistol grip shape make sit one of the smallest and lightest camcorders around. You can record an hour of 720p footage into a single 4GB SD memory card at 30 frames per second, and play it back on an HD television with the supplied remote control.
One advantage of physical media is that they can be swapped out easily and cheaply. Mini DVD or MiniDV tapes are cheap and lightweight so you can stock up on footage to share, store or edit later.
The HD video (HDV) format records compressed hi-def video onto standard MiniDV tapes. The Canon HV20 is one of the lightest at 440g, most pocket-friendly and functional HDV camcorders. A CMOS sensor captures 1,920 horizontal and 1,080 vertical pixels for 1080i hi-def or wide-screen standard definition video. It's surprisingly good in low light and is extremely user-friendly.
The HV20 also captures MiniDVD. MiniDVD is always a good option for recording video, as it is the format that can most easily be accessed. Once a DVD has been burnt, the platter can be put into any DVD player and the results shown to friends and family. When video has been shot in hi-def, it can be played back on HD televisions to take full advantage of the extra image detail HD affords. Some camcorders, like the HV20, can be directly connected to HDTVs if they have an HDMI output.
Although not technically a hi-def camcorder, the Panasonic NV-GS300 provides crisp, detailed video that can be enjoyed on HDTVs. This is because it has three CCD image sensors. 3CCD camcorders are able to capture richer colour and sharper images than single-CCD cameras. This is especially true in lower-light conditions, where single CCD camcorders can struggle. The NV-GS300 is a steal at less than £500.