The addition of twin boys to our family this year sent me on a search to buy our first camcorder. It's a great time to be buying a camcorder as technology has taken off in the past few years and prices are starting to come down for consumer gear.
Coming from a background in photography, I understand that every model will offer pluses and minuses, but I narrowed my wants to a few criterion. Since my wife and I are new to video, I wanted a camera that has a simple user interface with minimal buttons and easy to understand menus. I know how annoying shaky video is, so another priority is that the camera needed optical image stabilization. I wanted a camera that stored footage to flash memory or a memory card as opposed to a hard drive. Of course, I wanted a camera capable of capturing in HD, or 1920x1080 resolution.
I narrowed my search to three different manufacturers: Samsung with the new HMX series cameras, Canon with the VIXIA HF10 or HF100, and the Sony HDR-CX12. The Canon offered optical Image Stabilization (IS) and the best image quality of the bunch, but I could never get over the poor layout of buttons and especially the menus. I knew after a test drive that it would never be enjoyable to use. The Sony HDR-CX12 offered a very intriguing feature in a front wheel that offers fine adjustment of a number of features, like focus and exposure, depending on how you set it up. That alone made it worth looking at. The downside of the Sony is cost - it was several hundred dollars more than Samsung's comparable model.
In the end, I chose to go with the new Samsung HMX-H104 as it met my needs in with the best compromise between price, performance, and aesthetics.
All of the new HMX series camcorders are essentially the same with the only difference being the recording media. The HMX-H100 records to only an SD memory card with no onboard flash memory. The HMX-H104 has 16GB of flash memory, the HMX-H105 has 32GB of memory, and the HMX-H106 has a (for the moment) class leading 64GB of memory. All the cameras operate exactly the same and even look the same with a black finish except for the HMX-H100 which has a silver/bronze exterior.
Samsung made some critical changes to their HD camcorders with the introduction of the HMX-H100, H104, H105, and H106 camcorders that made them attractive to me. The biggest improvement is the addition of Optical IS to replace the ineffective electronic IS. Having optical IS is a must for a small handheld camcorder as it is difficult to deal with camera shake when piecing together your footage. Also, the new HMX series video cameras are lower in cost compared to the last generation SC-HMX-20C.
One important compromise was made with the new HMX series cameras in that the sensor got smaller. The SC-HMX-20C was praised for its low light abilities mainly enabled through a large 1/1.8" CMOS sensor. The HMX-H104 has a 1/4.5" sensor. Smaller sensors hurt low light capabilities. Samsung did make an adjustment to help this. The SC-HMX-20C sensor captured 6.4 megapixels while the new HMX camcorders capture only 2.2 megapixels. On first glance, most people will think this is a bad thing, but it is an effort to lower the pixel density, or pixels per area, for the HMX series video cameras. The only downside is that the still capture capabilities are hurt. Lowering the resolution of the sensor to 2.2 megapixels reduces noise and still offers more than enough resolution to capture high definition video at 1920x1080 resolution.
The highlight of using Samsung's new high definition camcorders is the controls, which are mostly carried over from the SC-HMX-20C. The camera offers minimal external buttons. The back and top of the camera has 4 buttons, one for record, a mode toggle switch to move between capture mode and playback mode, a still capture shutter button, and the zoom control slider.
Rear controls on the Samsung HMX-H104.
The record button on the back is a very ineffective placement. Pushing this to start / stop video record always results in camera shake. I found much better results when using the record button located on the edge of the playback screen.
Flipping open the screen reveals five buttons: a power switch, the easy "Q" button, a flash control button to toggle between flash modes for still captures, and the image stabilization on/off switch.
The outer edge of the video screen has three hardware controls: quick menu, zoom control, and a record on / off switch.
Inside face controls on the Samsung HMX-H104.
The addition of the Optical Image Stabilization button (IS) is a great
addition and a big reason I went with this camcorder. I don't think I have ever turned it off!
The Samsung HMX-H104 has a touch screen interface for most of the camcorder controls.
The remainder of camera functions are controlled through a touch screen interface. The menus are very logical and easy to understand. The best praise I can have for the camera's usability is that a 2o minute session was all it took to understand all of the functions. Generally, the menus are no deeper than 2 levels and making adjustments is very quick and intuitive. Samsung has a distinct advantage over Canon in this regard!
The playback screen on the Samsung HMX series video cameras can rotate around to face the subject, very handy when framing a shot of yourself while working on a tripod.
Video quality from the Samsung HMX-H104 is very good. In good light, the detail and color is outstanding and I couldn't ask for much more. The Schneider lens does a great job of delivering low disortion images with great color temperature. One shortcoming of this video camera, as well as all others in it's category, is that the small sensor makes the depth of field very great. Good for getting everything in focus, but bad if you want to get a subject in focus and the background blurred. A much larger sensor is needed to create this effect.
In low light, the image quality suffers a bit. Dark areas show greater blocky-ness from video compression that becomes more noticeable as capture noise is added to the mix. I think that this camcorder will hold it's own compared to the new models from Canon and Sony; having said that, I have a feeling that in depth test will reveal the Canon is still better in low light. I knew this could be the case when I purchased it and I still think this low light performance tradeoff is worth it to have a camcorder that is easy to use.
One desirable side effect of the smaller sensor that I didn't mention before is that when you make the sensor smaller, the effective lens coverage is widened. The lens/sensor together creates a wide focal length of 37mm (standard 35mm equivalent). This is quite wide for a video camera in this category and a huge advantage over other camcorders that don't go as wide. Every added degree of coverage will help you not cut that person on the edge off for group shots indoors.
With the camera set on Fine record mode in high definition (1920x1080i), the camera can record for up to 142 minutes on the 16 GB card.
The handgrip on the Samsung HMX-H106 has a very nice feature. It can rotate downward and back to almost 180 degrees. This is a very comfortable hand position for low angle shots.
Samsung bundles some video editing software for use with Windows. I'm a Mac guy, so I never even bothered opening it up. The great thing about Samsung is that they have chosen to have their camcorders record in H.264, a format that is readily understood by Quicktime. It's an easier format to deal with compared to AVCHD that Canon and Sony uses.
One warning about video playback: The footage as viewed on a computer is sometimes choppy and overly blocky if you have recorded in full HD. I have found that straight viewing through Quicktime sometimes can't keep up with the video's data rate. Rest easy, when you edit the video and render using editing software like iMovie or Final Cut Express, the video will playback without hesitation and in full definition.