I still remember a conversation I had a couple years ago with a digital camera product manager about movie recording in his company's cameras and why it was limited to clips only 30 seconds long. His response was "our research tells us consumers don't use the movie mode or don't even know it's on their camera so it's really not a concern for us." YouTube and other video-sharing sites weren't exactly a secret at that time so the answer--regardless of research--seemed pretty off to me.
Since then, camera makers have been steadily rolling out improvements to movie recording. The main thing they've gone after--no surprise--is resolution. Slapping "HD" on a camera is the video equivalent of megapixels. Put "full HD" on a model and you'll really grab some attention. Squeeze an HDMI jack on the camera and you're in even better shape to sell some units to consumers interested in getting one product that takes good photos and videos and can play them back instantly on an HDTV.
One of the biggest missteps in this quest for the perfect movie mode, however, seems to be whether you get use of the optical zoom while recording. Kodak was one of the first, if not the first to add HD capabilities to its cameras. Its longest megazoom, the EasyShare Z980, is currently under review and like most of its other cameras features HD-quality movie capture with full use of its 24x zoom lens.
So, is a good movie mode crucial to a purchase decision these days or is it just one more thing manufacturers can slap on the box to up-sell you?
See the latest reviews of digital cameras in all types and sizes that capture HD video after the break.
Canon PowerShot SD780 IS
If you were considering picking up an HD pocket camcorder, you should take a good look at this Canon. It's smaller than most of the mini camcorders, but takes great 12-megapixel photos as well as HD video. The 3x zoom doesn't work while recording movies, but the pocket 'corders don't have optical zooms either.
Sony Cyber-shot DSC-W290
It's disappointing that Sony locked down the 5x zoom on this camera for use while recording movies. However, the 720p video is very good as is the rest of the camera. The biggest downside is that you have to buy a proprietary cable so you can connect the camera directly to an HDTV's component inputs.
Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS3
The ZS3 shoots 720p HD video and can use its full 12x zoom while recording. It even has a dedicated movie-record button so you can go directly from shooting stills to video without much thought.
Canon PowerShot SX1 IS
While Canon gives you no use of optical zoom in its HD-capable Digital Elphs and megazoom SX200 IS, the 20x zoom lens on the SX1 IS is fully functional while recording movies. Plus, its video resolution goes up to full HD 1080p instead of only 720p like most cameras offer, and it has a mini-HDMI output.
Panasonic Lumix DMC-GH1
This camera is more than just a glorified point-and-shoot with interchangeable lenses. The video shooting experience is better than that of any current dSLR with very good 720p results.
Video still isn't a good reason to pick one digital SLR over another. The D5000 might take very good photos, but it only shoots 24fps 720p, which isn't a fast enough frame rate to render quite as smoothly as we've come to expect and doesn't scale very well to full-screen playback. It's usable, and fine if you're interested in experimenting, but it doesn't look sharp or polished.