The 8 Best Budget Camcorders
This wiki has been updated 18 times since it was first published in February of 2017. While your phone might be good enough for quick, casual videos, an inexpensive camcorder can be easier to control and provide greater functionality. Thanks to the never-ending march of technology, they cost much less than they used to, and many offer similar features to far more expensive cameras. Here are the best options based on image quality, ease of use, and value. When users buy our independently chosen editorial recommendations, we may earn commissions to help fund the Wiki.
July 14, 2020:
In addition to shooting video, camcorders should have a relatively consistent ergonomic design that can be comfortably held in a single hand. To that end, we got rid of a couple of models that weren't really camcorders, even though they were technically video recorders, in the GoPro and the Zoom Q2N. We also saw fit to remove the nicer version of the Sony HDR-AS300, the FDR-X3000. Sure, the X3000 can shoot in 4K where the AS300 can't, but it's an expensive enough action cam that we didn't think it belonged in a budget category.
In place of these eliminations, we expanded the offerings from Sony and Canon with the Sony HDRCX405 and the Canon Vixia HF W11. That Sony model is remarkably similar to the Sony Handycam CX440 we also included, but it offers consumers an opportunity to save a little money if they don't feel they need the Wi-Fi connectivity or the built-in memory. Both have the same sensor and lens with the same zoom capability.
The nice thing about that Canon W11 addition is that it has a little bit of water- and shock-proofing added to it, which is a nice benefit for anyone trying to capture family memories with children involved. If you really want your investment to be protected, though, there's the Olympus Tough TG-Tracker, which can withstand a much more significant amount of water and impact than the W11, and that also happens to shoot in 4K. The lens angle might be a little off-putting for some users, though, as it's pretty close to a fisheye.
June 27, 2019:
Sure, you can take great photos and videos with your smartphone, but it's really not always practical. If you're on vacation in a strange city on the other side of the world or in the tropics somewhere near the equator, you may not want to be tossing your iPhone around among your friends to document the waves or unfamiliar neighborhoods. Or maybe you just want the cinematic freedom of a well-made handheld with an actual optical zoom lens. The Sony Handycam, Panasonic V180K, and Canon R800 offer convenience and decent performance in lightweight packages that cost relatively little. They won't give you absolutely pristine image quality and they can't even record in 4K, but their battery life is good across the board and they're very easy to use. You can step up to the Sony AS300 for more reliable wireless connectivity and somewhat better hardware, or you can spring for their X3000, which actually is capable of 4K recording and has a host of options you might not expect in its price range, although its cost does stretch the definition of "budget-oriented" somewhat. Also, both Sony handhelds include fully waterproof enclosures, making them that much more versatile.
We also highlight a couple interesting alternatives to the traditional handheld camcorder. The Zoom admittedly does not offer the best image quality, but with some tweaking it can be satisfactory, and the audio promises to be great. Zoom is responsible for some of the industry-leading portable stereo recorders, so that's no surprise. And no mobile video camera discussion is complete without mentioning GoPro, a company that revolutionized action cameras years ago and continues to put out new and exciting technology. Their Hero3+ is a well-priced and good-looking model, while the Hero6 is twice as expensive, and it's the second-most advanced major evolution of the flagship camera.
Why Can’t I Just Use My Phone?
You would be justified in using your phone for a variety of the services a budget camcorder would provide.
Every year it seems that the cameras on our cell phones get better and better. Manufacturers find ways to pack more megapixels onto their sensors, combine lenses for depth effects, and provide users with stronger software capable of recognizing faces and adjusting for very nuanced lighting conditions. In many ways, this is good news for artists, political activists, and soccer moms the world over. It’s not very good news for manufacturers of point-and-shoot digital cameras, though they do have their specific uses.
You would be justified in using your phone for a variety of the services a budget camcorder would provide. There’s no debating that. There are, however, certain advantages to opting for a camcorder over your cell phone.
For starters, the most obvious benefit you’ll encounter when using a camcorder is battery life — and not just the amount of time your camcorder can shoot. By using a camcorder to track video, you’ll spare your cell phone one of the functions that taxes battery life more than almost any other. Some people argue that they don’t want to carry around an extra device to track video, but if you spurn the camcorder in favor of your cell phone, you’d better bring an external power pack along, or you’re going to run out of juice fast.
Another big advantage of the camcorder is its sensor, and to help you understand this, we’re going to have to imagine that the pixels on a photo sensor are buckets. Let’s say your phone's sensor boasts 12 megapixels (12 million pixels). The manufacturer has to pack all those pixels onto a sensor about the size of a lentil, if not smaller. Even the least expensive camcorders out there have sensors roughly twice the size of those in your phone. This benefits you in one of two ways. Either your camcorder will pack even more pixels onto a sensor that’s twice the size (room for 24 million pixels), or they’ll use larger pixels.
Having larger pixels is like having larger buckets. Since each bucket can contain more of the light that comes raining down into it, they can create stronger charges. Those charges correspond to increased light sensitivity without all that grainy noise that smaller sensors can’t escape. In the end, these budget camcorders will provide you with better resolution in your video, as well as better performance in low light.
Ergonomically, camcorders also win the day. Holding your phone up for hours on end at a play or sporting event may seem like the price you have to pay to be a good parent. A camcorder can alleviate this strain, though. You can comfortably strap the device to your hand and hold it with your elbow securely against your torso.
Key Features Of The Budget Camcorder
One benefit of using your cell phone for photos and video is that you don’t have to think much about its specs when shopping. You buy the latest iPhone because it’s the attest iPhone, and whatever camera Tim Cook decides to give you is the one you get. Choosing from among the budget camcorders on our list may seem daunting at first, given the vast amount of technical jargon these companies like to drop, but a little guidance from us and you’ll feel empowered to make a great decision.
Digital zoom takes a given image and crops in on it digitally.
Before you do anything else, you should reconcile with what it means to go budget. The camcorders on our list earn the budget modifier because they eschew some of the fancier bells and whistles that their more expensive counterparts offer. Some of them don’t have zoom lenses that can see the face on Mars. Others may not have a touch screen. What’s important to realize is that all of them offer the increases in resolution and image quality — as well as ergonomics — we spoke about earlier.
Once you’ve made peace with these facts, you can start to compare models without suffering from any kind of discomfort or camcorder envy. In order to understand which features you should most deeply consider, it would help for you to know how you want to use your camcorder.
If you intend to capture sporting events from a distance, you’ll want to prioritize zoom over all else. When doing so, make sure you understand the difference between optical and digital zoom. Optical zoom involves the actual movement of lens glass to magnify an image, and it results in no loss in image quality. Digital zoom takes a given image and crops in on it digitally. This often results in much lower image quality, though there are some cameras whose software helps smooth out digital graininess.
While you’re comparing models, look for any kind of image stabilization. This is especially useful in models with longer zooms. The more you zoom in, the more you’ll notice the image shaking with your hand. If you don’t have the demeanor of a military sniper, you’ll want to get your hands on something that can smooth out your movies.
Other features you might look for are touchscreens, recording at or above 1080p, and either a lens cap or a front shutter that can protect your glass while you transport your new toy.
A Very Brief History Of The Camcorder
The term camcorder is a portmanteau derived from the words camera and recorder. Before its arrival on the scene in 1982, consumers who wanted to upgrade from the ubiquitous 8mm and 16mm film cameras of the day had to employ impossibly large devices that combined a large camera unit with a kind of suitcase recorder slung over the shoulder.
JVC and Sony revealed their camcorder at the 1982 Consumer Electronics Show, which evolved to use a variety of VHS tape formats over the ensuing months and years.
The camcorder continued to shrink in size, employing Hi-8 and Mini-DV recording media, until the arrival of digital SLR cameras opened up a new avenue of possibility in the late 1990s. It wasn’t long before the camcorder went digital, giving users new features that still play an important part in the market today.