Review: 3 personal HD video cameras offer high def at low cost

If you don't want to lug around a camcorder, you can record HD video using one of these 3 small, inexpensive cameras.

You've seen them at school plays and tourist attractions: intent amateur videographers wielding typical camcorders with flip-out viewing screens. However, if you're a blogger, tweeter and or other mobile communicator, you need something small enough to throw into a pocket or a backpack -- a palm-sized handheld video camera.

The Flip video camera is the best-known device in this league; since it first came to public attention in 2007, the Flip has spawned a tide of similar models, each attempting to leapfrog the other in features and ease of use.

The latest wave of recorders is now packing resolutions that cell phone videographers can only dream of: 1,280 by 720 pixel video at 30 frames per second (fps) -- better known as HD video. We tracked down three models in this category, all of which are available for around $200 or less: The Flip UltraHD, the Kodak Zx1 and the Sony WebbieHD.

The Flip is the priciest at a list price of $200, with the others running about $30-$50 less. Two (the Kodak and Sony) come with virtually no onboard storage (the Flip comes with 8GB) and use external SD or Memory Stick Duo cards to store their video (the Flip doesn't support external storage). They are all palm-sized, around 4.5 inches tall, less than 3 inches wide and just over an inch deep.

To evaluate them, I shot freeform video for a week, just to get used to them, then took the devices to an outdoor festival, the hazy summer light of an open field, and the torture test of video capability: an aquarium. Each of the cameras shot the same scenes to make comparison easier. (I've included edited versions of the test footage so you can perform your own eyeball tests.)

To test audio output, I also recorded music played on a graphically equalized stereo sound system and used the audio program Audacity to check the dynamic range and volume of each recorder at its default settings.

Although these devices record at HD resolution, they're not going to be used to shoot any summer blockbusters. True, they manage 720p at 30 fps (actually, the Sony can handle 1080p, and the Kodak cranks up its 720p to 60 fps), but because of their inexpensive circuitry and lenses, what is theoretically high-definition video is not up to professional quality. That said, results from all three units did look great if the camera was held steady enough.

They all handled a fair range of audio pretty well too, keeping that high-pitched background hiss at acceptable levels, not topping out (the sound you get when you tap a microphone) from percussive sounds and capturing loud and quiet sounds pretty well. But any finger-fidgeting or fumbling with controls shows up on the soundtrack, and there's no way around it: There's no option for plugging in a quality external mic with any of these, so what you hear is what you get.

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