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New Camcorders Cutting The Tape

Although camcorder sales have held relatively steady over the past three years at over 5 million units, a sea change is occurring under seemingly placid waters.

The format mix is undergoing a huge shift as consumers embrace DVD-based models instead of tape, no matter if it’s miniDV, Digital 8 or VHS-C. Also making inroads are high-definition models and new models that replace tape and discs with solid-state memory cards or mini hard disk drives.

Because of this, average selling prices and total category dollars are rising (up 2 percent to $1.7 billion), even though unit sales almost dipped 5 percent in 2005, according to the Consumer Electronics Association.

The following is a glance at what major camcorder manufacturers are planning to introduce at International CES:

Sony will offer its first hard-disk-drive (HDD) camcorder, which is scheduled to arrive in May. The DCR-SR100 has a 30GB drive, a 3-megapixel CCD, a 10x optical/120x digital T* lens and a 2.7-inch 16:9 touch-screen LCD. It takes 3-megapixel stills (4:3 and 16:9), has a built-in flash. It records Dolby Digital 5.1-channel surround and is center mike ready. It will also be supplied with DVD burning and backup software.

The company will introduce five new DVD camcorders starting at $500, four miniDV models opening at $350, a $1,100 HDD model in May, as well as continuing over its two HDV editions from 2005. The company will also carry more than one Hi8 model (CCD-TRV138 for $240), a single Digital8 (CCD-TRV280, $300) and the miniDV DCR-VX2100 for $3,000.

In DVD cams, Sony’s camcorder products director Linda Vuolo said the company will be adding some new features to separate them from the pack, including a bigger emphasis on 5.1-channel surround recording, a new ClearVID CMOS sensor in the top model as well as 16:9 still recording. All models record in the DVD-R/-RW/+RW formats and ship in February, other than the DCR-DVD505. The entry-level piece is the $500 DCR-DVD105 with a 680K pixel CCD, 20x optical zoom (880x digital) and a 2.5-inch touch-screen LCD. The $600 DCR-DVD205 moves to a 1-megapixel CCD for either 4:3 or 16:9 1-megapixel stills. It has a 2.7-inch widescreen LCD and a 12x/800x zoom.

The $700 DCR-DVD305 is Dolby Digital 5.1-channel surround ready and is supplied with a microphone. It adds a Memory Stick Duo slot, A/D conversion and USB2.0 connectivity. The $900 DCR-DVD405 has a 10x optical zoom (120x digital) and jumps to a 3-megapixel CCD for 3-megapixel stills (4:3 or 16:9). DD 5.1 recording is 5.1-channel center microphone ready. The top-of-the-line DVD model (DCR-DVD505, $1,100) uses a 2-megapixel ClearVID CMOS sensor, takes 4-megapixel stills and has a built-in flash and improved Carl-Zeiss Vario-Sonnar T* glass. It can take a 3-megapixel still while recording video and has a 3.5-inch 16:9 touch-screen LCD panel.

In miniDV, Sony is cutting back the number of SKUs like most other manufacturers. All models will be available in February and have top-loading tape slots. The entry point is $350, a $50 drop from 2005. The DCR-HC26 has a 680K CCD, a 20x/800x Carl Zeiss Vario-Tessar lens, a 2.5-inch LCD and color EVF. The $400 DCR-HC36 adds a Memory Stick Duo slot, has a better menu system and a remote. The $500 DCR-HC46 with a 12x optical zoom (800x digital) moves to a 1-megapixel CCD, a 2.7-inch widescreen touch panel, takes 1-megapixel stills and is supplied with the Handycam Station. The top unit is the 3-megapixel CCD DCR-HC96 for $800. It has improved T* glass, a 10x/800x zoom, a built-in flash and hot shoe.

Mitch Glick, product marketing assistant manager for Canon‘s video division, said there are no plans for consumer-priced HD model in the near future.

Canon is using CES to introduce its latest miniDV models, which still command 55 percent format share. They are the ZR500 ($299), ZR600 ($349), ZR700 ($399) and Elura 100 ($399). The ZRs ship to dealers in late January while the Elura arrives in February. Glick notes the new ZR500 is $50 less than last year’s entry-level ZR100 and the Elura 100 is the sole replacement for last year’s trio. Lower prices as well as a cutback in the number of miniDV SKUs is a common theme with all manufacturers in 2006.

To distinguish models in the ZR line, each has a color — blue mist, silver frost, gray smoke — as you step up. All have 680K CCD imagers and 25x optical zooms and are a bit more rounded, compact and sleeker than the 2005 models. “We also took away some of the buttons to make it easier to use and added widescreen 2.7-inch high-resolution 16:9 screens.” The ZR600 and ZR700 have SD card slots, nine-point AiAF (like the Optura 50) along with scene modes, imaging effects, simultaneous photo record and PictBridge. The ZR700 adds a white LED light.

The Elura 100 with a 20x optical zoom ($399 retail) ships in late February. It has advanced photo features such as a motor drive mode, AE bracketing and a mega video light.

The inventor of the DVD camcorder, Hitachi will be fine-tuning its 2006 lineup. “Our focus will be refinement, overall image quality, ease of use and customer satisfaction,” said Hitachi’s product manager Jeff Fochtman. “All of our 2006 models will record four DVD formats including DVD-RAM/-R/-RW/+RW. All will have widescreen LCDs and a fast sleep/restart feature to save battery power.”

Every new camcorder has a 16:9 LCD this year. All megapixel models feature oversampling image processing for higher quality stills, and a new 16:9 pixel structure produces high-resolution widescreen video images.

All four new models have a unique silver glossy color and a new cosmetic. The opening price point will be $399 (MAP) for the DZ-BX35A with a 680K pixel CCD and a 25x optical zoom. The line moves up to $499 for the 1-megapixel DZ-GX3100A with a 15x zoom, $599 for the 10x 2-megapixel DZ-GX3200A and $799 for the 10x 3-megapixel DZ-GX3300A. All of the megapixel and above models have hot shoes while the two top models have built-in flashes. The BX35 and 3200A ship in March, the others in April. The entry-level unit does not have a USB connection but all other have a USB high-speed 2.0 connection.

Samsung is making a comeback in the camcorder category in 2006 with a full lineup of DVD camcorders, a refreshed miniDV assortment, new tape-less Sports Camcorders as well as the first HD 720P camcorder using the H.264/MPEG-4 Part 10 format (the SC-HDX15, $1,499, due July).

Samsung is introducing a full line of DVD camcorders carrying long-range optical zooms and dual-layer capability offering up to 40 minutes of recording time.

The SC-HDX15 720P camcorder records onto 4GB of built-in flash memory for around 30 minutes of HD quality video. Storage can be supplemented by CompactFlash, Memory Stick and SD cards as well as Microdrives.

Samsung will have four national model DVD camcorders. They start shipping in February and all will be out by March. The entry-level model has a 33x optical zoom and 2.7-inch widescreen LCD for $449.

The top model, the SC-DC565, will have a built-in light, analog in, a megapixel CCD, 26x zoom, a flash and remote and retails for $549.

All four miniDV models will ship in Q1 and the entry-level piece has a $299 MAP. The lineup includes 30x optical zooms, 2.7-inch widescreen LCDs and improved photo quality on select models.

The new Sports Camcorders have been improved over first generation. It’s the same format factor but with increased memory (from 512MB to 1GB) and an improved MPEG-4 codec, Novak said.

In 2006, JVC will introduce five replacement models in its Everio solid-state camcorder line with lower prices ranging from $600-$900, a $200 drop from last year. Product manager Allan Holland was unable to give specific model numbers, only broad outlines.

The Everio series will be “thinner but larger in the hand” with easier-to-read menus.

JVC will have three miniDV national models under $400. “Along with bigger optical zooms, they’ll have an auto button where everything switches to auto.”

As for analog, “We’ll update them cosmetically for 2006 and hold them at the current $200/$230 price.”