Published: August/September 2009
Public Broadcasting
A new wave of low-cost, easy-to-use camcorders redefines the adventure auteur.
Text Steve Casimiro

My first year in California, I dreamed of making my own Endless Summer. And so, hauling around a beastly video camera, I shot my buddies catching wave after wave, then tried to edit hours of footage using two VCRs. But the challenges of assembling and sharing were too much, and like many in that era, I ended up with a pile of dusty tapes in the closet. Fast-forward to today. Video is now an indispensable part of our lives, a pervasive means of communication that’s cheap, easy, and instantly sharable. YouTube ignited the trend in 2005, but it really took off two years ago, when Pure Digital Technologies introduced the Flip, the camcorder turned cultural phenomenon that is now a staple on any adventure.

PDT has since become the most popular manufacturer of low-cost video cameras in the U.S., with 35 percent of the market, and the old guard is countering with cheap-and-easy camcorders of its own. The latest offerings, some half dozen in all, are more advanced—with features like high-def recording, multiple shooting modes, and still capabilities—but haven’t lost their core values of simplicity and effortless uploading. These three are the best of a blissfully lowbrow bunch.

1. KODAK ZX1

As the smallest, cheapest, and sharpest camcorder here, Kodak’s Zx1 takes first prize. Its images are clearer than the Flip’s, and its splash- and dustproof body is ideal for the great outdoors. One big drawback, though: There’s no dedicated USB stalk, so you have to carry a cable or memory card adapter to get your masterpieces online ($150; kodak.com).

2. FLIP ULTRA HD

True to its roots, the latest Flip is simplicity incarnate, with one video mode, 8GB of built-in memory, and a plug for direct connection to your computer. The 1280 x 720p HD videos trump those of past models but could use more contrast. And at six ounces and 1.2 inches thick, it pushes the limits of “pocket-size” ($200; theflip.com ).

3. SONY MHS-PM1 WEBBIE HD

Sony’s designers did their homework: Their first shoot-and-share camcorder is the lightest of the three, at 4.2 ounces, and it has a clever lens that swivels 270 degrees for funky shooting angles. Its image quality is on a par with the Kodak’s—not Oscar material, though great for online—but it too requires cable connection ($170; sonystyle.com).