Peering through the digital lens

After years of sliding sales, the introduction of digital technology has reinvigorated the camcorder market, with the industry’s major players introducing a new generation of digital video (DV) cameras designed to pique consumer interest.

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By  Aaron Greenwood Published  September 5, 2006

|~|sony-DVDcam200.gif|~|Sony's Handycam range includes DVD-recording models.|~|In a similar fashion to its impact on the still camera sector, digitisation has transformed the previously one-dimensional camcorder market and has enabled industry stalwarts to develop a whole new generation of camcorders leveraging the best aspects of the technology. Whether it be miniDV format, straight to DVD or high definition (HD) recording capabilities, digitisation has expanded the options available to consumers looking to purchase a camcorder and in turn revitalised a fading sector of the consumer electronics market. The industry’s major players, including Sony, Canon and Panasonic, have reaped significant rewards from the sector, with Sony for one attributing its solid profit turnaround in the last quarter to strong consumer demand for its burgeoning Handycam DV camera and Bravia LCD television ranges. Sony offers a huge range of camcorders featuring the latest digital recording capabilities, from hard disk drive models to DVD-based units. This latter product category was recently declared the fastest growing camcorder format ever, and has been widely lauded for sparking huge consumer interest in the product sector in general. According to recent research published by market analyst NPD Intellect, DVD-based camcorders account for more than 25% of the total DV camera market, and this figure is growing each year. Sony has opened a formidable lead on its opponents in the sector. While Middle East sales figures are unavailable, Sony snared a whopping 85% share of the DVD camcorder market in the US in 2005. Industry analyst Understanding Solutions attributed much of the success of the format to Sony’s promotion and support for the concept. In a statement, the company claims the DVD format offers consumers an “easy to use record and playback proposition that is attracting new buyers into the market and encouraging existing owners to upgrade”. It also claims that despite the growing appeal of DVD, the mini-DV tape format “is also continuing to see increasing sales in 2005 as consumers’ purchases of analogue and minority digital tape format wanes typically in favour of price competitive mini-DV models.” Despite their obvious advantages in terms of storage and archiving, critics argue that DVD camcorders fail to meet the quality standards of traditional DV tape-based counterparts. DVD camcorder models are also much more expensive than their tape-based rivals, and the inherent competition in the sector means that profit margins for channel distribution and retail partners have been less impressive than anticipated. ||**||HD hits home|~|Sanyo-HD1a_open_screen200.gif|~|Sanyo's HD-capable Xacti HD-1a.|~|The introduction of high definition technology has also had a major impact on the camcorder market. Sony is currently collaborating with Panasonic on the development of a new camcorder compression standard, known as Advanced Video Codec High Definition (AVCHD), which aims to capitalise on the best aspects of the technology. The partners claim AVCHD, which records video at 1080i and 720p, is more than twice as efficient as existing compression standards MPEG-2 and MPEG-4. The technology is designed to record HD content on to 8cm mini-DVDs as well as SD memory cards and Sony’s Memory Stick storage devices. Rival vendors, including Sharp, Canon and Samsung, have reportedly shown strong interest in developing camcorders based on the technology. Canon and Panasonic remain Sony’s major rivals in the sector. Both vendors offer a comprehensive range of consumer DV cameras, with the latter’s focus primarily on the miniDV market. Panasonic has received criticism from some quarters for bucking the industry trend towards smaller camcorders with high aesthetic values. Still, even the company’s entry-level functional miniDV camcorders boast high-end features. Its latest miniDV camcorder, the AG-DVC20 weighs just 2kg in full operating condition, is equipped with three 460,000-pixel CCDs and has an optical 10x zoom with electric image stabiliser (EIS) to compensate for jitter and vibration. Other key features include an IEEE 1394 DV interface for PC-based NLE systems, a ‘colour night view’ that permits viewing at a minimum illumination of 0 lux, and a six-language menu. ||**||Canon on the move|~|Canon-HV10200.gif|~|Canon's HV10 digital camcorder.|~|Meanwhile, Canon has heavily promoted its push into the compact HD camcorder market. The company recently added two new models to its high-end, three-CCD HD camcorder line, which it claims aims to provide consumers with access to ‘professional digicam’ technology. The XH A1 and XH G1 models record 1080i HD video, feature a 20x optical zoom lens with image stabilisation and a 2.8-inch widescreen flip-out LCD screen. Both cameras also offer a choice of 60i, 24F and/or 30F frame rates, Canon’s Digic DV II processor and a new noise reduction system. Other features common to both models include a high-end lens with fluorite and UD (Ultra-Low Dispersion) glass elements and multi-coatings to reduce flare and ghosting; manual focus and zoom rings, a manual iris ring and a high-speed zoom mode. The models also incorporate a new instant AF focusing system, which Canon claims drastically improves speed and accuracy during autofocus, and 23 image settings. Smaller industry rivals to Panasonic, Canon and Sony have worked hard to create a niche for their brands by offering specialised camcorders that aim to appeal to specific market demands. Sanyo’s Xacti is a prime example of this strategy. The Xacti HD1a features in-camera editing, a 2.2-inch LCD display and most importantly, is the smallest and lightest of the latest crop of high definition capable camcorders to hit the market. Sanyo recently updated the camera to include a video recording mode optimised for the video iPod and other portable video players. John Lamb, senior marketing manager, for Sanyo’s Audio Video division says the company aims to corner this burgeoning sector of the consumer market. “Our inclusion of a 30 frames-per-second 320 x 240 pixel video recording mode -- optimised for viewing MPEG-4 video clips on a video iPod or other portable video player -- reflects a shift by consumers towards on-the-go viewing.” Ultimately, these new products provide a perfect illustration of the strength and depth in the camcorder market and the future potential of the sector. They also illustrate the commanding premiums available to channel distributors and retailers looking to either enter the market for DV cameras, or expand their existing presence in the sector.||**||

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