Tech Talk with David Pogue

Vying Hard to Claim Tiny Crown

Well, this ought to be good.

Last week, Sony released its HDR-TG1, which it calls the world’s smallest full high-definition camcorder. Which is a little odd, because Panasonic just released its HDC-SD9, which it claims is the world’s smallest full hi-def camcorder.

And that must come as something of a shock to Sanyo, which calls its Xacti 1000 the world’s smallest full hi-def camcorder.

It’s not really any surprise that these electronics companies are fighting for the “world’s smallest” title. Camcorder sales have been steadily declining, and the focus groups keep giving the same reason: camcorders are too big, bulky and complex to carry around. Besides, the movie mode on today’s shirt-pocket still cameras does just fine for quick clips.

Sony's HDR-TG1

Thus the “high definition” part. The camcorder makers intend to score where most still cameras dare to tread: in the land of stunning, ultra-clear, widescreen, full hi-def video. (“Full,” in these three cases, means “1080i” high definition, which means a picture composed of, for example, 1,440 by 1,080 pixels.)

None of these camcorders are pants-pocket small, but they’re certainly purse or coat-pocket small. And you don’t need a ruler to see that the Sony TG1 ($900) is, in fact, the smallest of them all. At 1.3 x 4.7 x 2.5 inches, it’s thicker and wider than a compact still camera, but not by much.

Small doesn’t necessarily mean satisfying, though. The Sony is basically a titanium brick, with sharpish edges and few sacrifices made to ergonomics.

Sanyo’s Xacti 1000 ($700), on the other hand, is chunkier but more sculptured (2.1 x 4.4. x 3.5). Sanyo’s camcorders are shaped like tiny blow dryers, with a vertical handle for your hand and a horizontal lens barrel above it. Sadly, the Xacti lacks a built-in automatic lens cap, like the ones on the Sony and Panasonic; in fact, it doesn’t even have a loop of string to attach it. I’ll give it six weeks before you lose it forever.

Finally, the new Panasonic HDC-SD9 ($700) is shaped more like a traditional tubelike horizontal camcorder. It feels great in the palm of your hand, and the leather back-of-the-hand strap makes it feel especially secure. (The other two camcorders have only a loop of string for your wrist.)

Tech Call: Mini Camcorders

All three models can connect to an HDTV set using either a mess of component cables (red, green, blue for video; red and white for audio) or a single HDMI or mini-HDMI cable, sold separately. On the Sony, that mini-HDMI jack is on the charging cradle, which is another piece of equipment to pack and track.

Kudos to all three companies for their strides in miniaturization. Alas, some of those strides involved simply eliminating stuff.

For example, these camcorders record onto memory cards instead of tapes. That means random-access playback: you can jump from scene to scene without ever rewinding or fast-forwarding.

But it also means that you can’t accumulate life’s memories in a drawer or a cabinet. Once the memory card is full, you’re supposed to transfer its recordings to a Mac or PC and then erase it (the card, not the computer) to make it ready for more shooting. If you’re on vacation and the card gets full, you’re pretty much finished filming for the rest of the trip unless you have your computer with you.

All three camcorders record in a modern format called AVCHD or H.264, which requires a high-horsepower computer and up-to-date software to edit. Worse, the Panasonic and Sanyo flavors of these files don’t work with the latest version of Apple’s movie-editing software, so Mac buyer, beware. And, of course, using a memory-card camcorder means that you’re entrusting your video to your hard drive, which is a pretty iffy long-term storage device. Hope you intend to keep good backups for the rest of your life.

None of these cameras has an eyepiece viewfinder. The 2.7-inch widescreen flip-out display is the only way to frame your shots, which can get tricky in bright sunlight or dark rooms. Only the Sanyo has a microphone jack, headphone jack and accessory shoe for external lights or mikes. But those are mere disappointments. The next two bits of news are more like towering heartbreaks.

First, these models have zero wide angle — zip. It’s as though they’re stuck zoomed in. To get an entire six-foot person in the frame, you have to back up 15 feet — too far away to hear what your subject is saying.

Smaller Isn't Necessarily Better

In a big elevator last week, my children began tickling each other, doubled over in laughter. The tiny Sony was in my coat pocket. I loved how it was ready to film nearly instantly when I opened the flip-out screen — (all three camcorders offer this standby mode).

Unfortunately, even when I mashed my back against the far wall of the elevator, all I got was the children’s faces. You couldn’t even see that they were tickling each other without panning down. It was supremely frustrating.

Camcorder makers think that we, their sheeplike customers, care only about the zoom power (which is 10x on these camcorders). But for various optical reasons, the more zoom, the less wide angle. Get smart, people! Rise up! Make the camcorder companies reverse this sinister trend!

Tech Call Web Extra

The second unpleasant surprise is the video quality. When you hear “high definition,” you expect what you see in the TV stores: breathtaking sharpness, stunning color.

Unfortunately, “high definition” refers only to the number of pixels in the picture — not how good they are. On these cameras, they’re not very good.

The Sony’s picture is distinctly soft, with none of the razor clarity you’d associate with hi-def — a victim of the compression Sony applies to the signal to make it fit onto its memory cards (which are, unfortunately, its own proprietary Memory Stick Duo format).

The Sanyo’s picture is much better, but there’s a catch. High-definition footage tends to magnify the effects of camera jitter, thanks to its wide horizontal orientation.

But on this camera, the stabilizer just doesn’t work very well, especially when you’re zoomed in.

The Panasonic is a three-chip camera, meaning that it has separate light sensors for the three primary video colors. In principle, that means superior color — and sometimes, that’s what you get. In bright light, like outdoors, this camera’s picture truly rocks; it looks as you’d expect hi-def to look.

This model also has what may be the best stabilizer ever on a camcorder; even when you’re fully zoomed in, the image is professionally rock steady.

Anything short of full-blown sunlight, though, and you lose not only the color brilliance but also the clarity. Indoors, the Panasonic is no better than the other two in reducing “noise”— dancing, grainy pixels.

Even so, the Panasonic SD9 is the winner in overall image quality and handling comfort, if not in actual tininess. Considering what you sacrifice when you choose any of these camcorders, that’s not really saying much. (The Panasonic also exhibits various design gaffes, like a power cord you can attach only by removing the battery, and a playback joystick that’s awkwardly placed inside the swiveling-screen cavity.)

Just remember that for about the same price, you could buy a camcorder like the Canon HV30. It’s bigger but still fits a coat pocket. It has all the right jacks, like microphone and headphone. It records onto commonly available MiniDV tapes, so you’ll never run out of storage halfway through your vacation. More important, it shoots high-definition video the way it was born to be: stunningly crisp, with incredible presence and nearly perfect color.

In short, it appears that no matter how many companies claim the title “world’s smallest hi-def camcorder,” what they mean is “world’s most compromised.”

David Pogue is a columnist for the New York Times and contributor to CNBC. He can be emailed at: