Holiday Gift Guide 2010: Top camcorders under $250

The budget camcorder market is hotter than ever this year. Here's a list of my five favorite sub-$300 camcorders of the moment.
Written by Janice Chen, Inactive

With practically every consumer electronics maker jumping into the budget camcorder market, consumers have a plethora of well-priced options to choose from this holiday season.

Unless you're shopping for a video enthusiast who wants to do more than the typical pointing-shooting-uploading  (and maybe a little light editing), you can easily find a full-featured camcorder for under $250.

To help you narrow down the options, here's a list of my five favorite budget camcorders of the moment (from most to least expensive):

Kodak Playsport Though Kodak has a newer pocket camcorder out, I still like the Kodak Playsport, which is essentially a waterproof version of the popular Kodak Zi8 from last year.

Waterproof to 9.8 feet and dust resistant, the Playsport is more rugged than most pocket camcorders, though Kodak doesn't make it crushproof or freeze proof like many of the ruggedized digital cameras on the market. The unit uses a 48mm (35mm equivalent) lens and delivers excellent 1,920x1,080 (30 fps) video quality for this price point.

Though it doesn't include a built-in USB connector like many of its (non-waterproof) competitors, and uses a proprietary USB cable to boot, I do like the inclusion of an HDMI cable, especially given its super-low price ($140 list).

[See a photo gallery of the Kodak Playsport.]

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Sanyo VPC-PD2

While the Sanyo VPC-PD2 may not be the best pocket camcorder around (the Kodak Playsport and Flip UltraHD are arguably easier to use and get better image quality), it stands out from the crowd for its 3x optical zoom lens, built-in flash, and ability to shoot 10 megapixel stills (in addition to the 1080p video at 30fps, of course).

The lens is nice and wide, ranging from a wide angle of 38mm to 114mm. While there's only 80MB of built-in memory, the SD card slot accepts up to a 64GB SDXC card and is also compatible with Eye-Fi cards, so you can upload images and video via WiFi.

Another nice touch is the stereo microphones on both sides of the device. With a list price of just $170, the VPC-PD2 delivers a lot of bang for the buck feature-wise.

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Flip UltraHD 2 Hour

Cisco's Flip Video was the camcorder maker that ignited the whole budget camcorder market a few years back and the company has five different models available, all of which sport the now-ubiquitous flip-out USB connector, one-touch uploading to social networking sites, and "candy-bar" body design. But my favorite of the bunch remains the Flip UltraHD.

This year's model has been updated with  image stabilization, a new proprietary accessory port, as well as a slimmer body design, and has bumped 1,280×720 video recording to 60fps (up from 30fps).

It's not as slim as the MinoHD line, but I actually find the additional heft makes it easier to shoot with. Instead of using a AA NiMH rechargeable battery pack (or two AA batteries) like the original, the new UltraHD 2Hour uses a slimmer Lithium-Ion rechargeable.

Unfortunately, the lighter battery comes at the cost of battery life, which is now rated at 1.5 hours, down from 2.5 hours, and means you can no longer use easy-to-find AA alkalines in a pinch. Like the rest of the Flip camcorders, the new UltraHD ($200 list) can be customized with your own graphics or images, or one of Flip's ready-made designs.

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Sony Bloggie MHS-CM5 For those who prefer a more substantial-feeling camcorder that's still pocketable (okay, so maybe coat pocket, not shirt pocket), the pistol-grip style body of the Sony Bloggie MHS-CM5 may be a better choice.

The larger size allows it to accommodate a 5x optical zoom (41- to 205mm, 35mm equivalent) as well as a versatile 2.5-inch swiveling LCD screen, features that similarly priced candy-bar style camcorders (such as the Flip UltraHD) can't match.

The Sony model (list price, $200) is also capable of shooting both 1080p and 720p HD video, and supports both SDHC and Memory Stick Duo cards.

[See a photo gallery of the Sony Bloggie MHS-CM5.]

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Panasonic SDR-T50

Finally, if you're less interested in resolution and more interested in a broader feature set, you may want to opt for a full-featured standard definition camcorder rather than a low-end HD camcorder.

For just $25 more than you'd spend on the Flip or Sony camcorders on this list, you can get the Panasonic SDR-T50, a compact standard-defcamcorder with a whopping 70x optical zoom lens and full manual controls.  The SDR-T50's optical image stabilization is impressive, though you'll still want to use a tripod to shoot with the lens fully extended.

I also like that the lens is relatively wide at 33mm (35mm equivalent).  With 4GB of internal flash memory, the T50 can also be expanded with SD, SDHC, and SDXC memory cards. If your budget is tighter, you can save about $20 and opt for the SDR-S50, which is an identical camcorder minus the built-in memory.

Panasonic also offers the SDR-H85 which is also identical but includes an 80GB hard drive rather than the 4GB flash memory and costs about $72 more than the T50.

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