Firewire is still, as of this writing, the best option for connecting a camcorder to a computer. That’s why when my sister asked me about what camcorder to get for an anniversary present, I recommended one that uses MiniDV tape. All digital camcorders that record on either MiniDV or HDV tape have FireWire interface sockets, so that gives her a pretty wide choice.
The camcorders that do not use Firewire include Hard Disk Drive camcorders, Memory Stick and some DVD disc camcorders, all of which use USB connectors. USB is fast enough if you only want to transfer still images from a digital camera or camcorder to your PC or Mac. But transferring video from your camcorder requires more speed, so Firewire, known technically as IEEE1394, is needed for the best results.
The reason is that tape-based camcorders can only transfer at the speed of the tape, as it is streaming data in real time. (A 20 minute clip will take 20 minutes to transfer, or “capture”) The tapeless camcorders store video data in solid state memory, and that can be transferred much more rapidly. Don’t forget, your computer needs to have a firewire port on it, to connect to, if you want to transfer the video from your camcorder and edit or store it.
Remember that Firewire devices, unlike USB, are not hot-swappable; the camcorder as well as the computer needs to be turned off before you connect them. Failure to do so can damage your camera’s Firewire port. So I made this list of Firewire camcorders just as a starting point for shopping research, and to show the wide range of models out there.
1. Panasonic PV-GS80– This MiniDV camcorder (shown in photo) is a popular entry level model. At only 1 pound and 3 inches x 2.86 inches x 5.36 inches, it is small, portable and easy to fit in one hand. The 32X optical zoom lens is amazingly good for the price. It also features the same Optical Image Stabilizer that comes on higher priced Panasonic models. One of the things people don’t like about this camera is the placement of the firewire port. It is located behind the battery, such that you need to take out the battery and hook up the a/c adapter in order to transfer video to your PC. It’s not a huge problem, just something to be aware of. Price new- $599. (Discontinued, replaced by the PV-GS90, priced at $349.00)
2. Canon VIXIA HV40– This camera uses MiniDV tape, but shoots video in 1080 High Definition format. The HV40 has a 2.96 megapixel image sensor for crisp digital video capture, along with the high quality 10X optical zoom lens. In addition to the Firewire port, it also has a HDMI connection, for hooking the camera up directly to an HD television. One feature that is unusual on a camcorder that lists at $1,099 is the different shooting modes, especially the ability to shoot at 24 frames per second, the standard of celluloid film, instead of at the 60i standard. This gives a more film-like look to your video, and you can even shoot in a special 24 fps Cinema mode, which changes the tonal look of your video to give it an even warmer analog feel.
3. JVC GY-HD110U – Listing for $6,295, this is a professional MiniDV camcorder, the kind you carry on your shoulder rather than in your hand. It comes with a 16X optical zoom lens, but this is detachable and interchangeable with other bayonet-mount lenses. Although it might sound expensive, it’s actually on the low end of the price range for a camera with professional features like XLR mike connections, 24P shooting, advanced DSP and 12-bit A/D conversion and the ability to record to DV tape and an optional external hard disk drive at the same time. Definitely one to look at for pro filmmakers wanting a reasonably priced High definition tape-based camera.
4. Sony DCR-HC52 Handycam- An entry level MiniDV handheld with 40x optical zoom lens that lists for 249$. It has some good extras, like a touchscreen flip-out LCD viewfinder as well as the usual auto focus and auto exposure control. The only thing that might be a negative here is this camera’s battery has a relatively short life of only 115 minutes, so if you are going to be using it for any length of time, plan on purchasing a second battery. Sony has their own proprietary version of IEEE1394, called iLink, but it works with any Firewire cable and connection port.
5. Sony HDR-HC7 – High definition MiniDV handheld that lists at 1599$. This camcorder uses a 3.2 megapixel CMOS sensor instead of CCDs, for sharp detail and better battery life. It has a 10X optical zoom lens made by Carl Zeiss. Lightweight for a high def corder at only 1 lb. 6 oz. (650g) with tape & battery. It is amazing that these days you can shoot video with a camcorder that fits in your hand, packed with state of the art electronics and optics, and play it back directly on your HD TV, having it look almost as good as broadcast quality video. And for beginners, it has a big “Easy” button that sets everything on automatic for effortless shooting. All for less than 2 grand. (Amazon has it listed for $1,450 at the moment)
The trend in camcorders priced for the “consumer”, as opposed to professionals, is definitely toward more and more models using Hard Drives and DVD media, rather than MiniDV tapes, but if you do some looking around, you can still find some good lower priced camcorders that use Firewire.
Firewire Technical Details
Firewire is Apple Inc’s brand name for the IEEE 1394 serial bus interface standard. It is for high-speed communications and isochronous real-time data transfer, frequently used by personal computers, as well as in digital audio, digital video, automotive, and aeronautics applications. IEEE 1394 is a set of specification documents defining the architecture and implementation of the standard. allows peer-to-peer device communication, such as communication between a scanner and a printer, to take place without using system memory or the CPU.
FireWire also supports multiple hosts per bus. It is designed to support Plug and play and hot swapping. The copper cable it uses can be up to 15 ft long and is more flexible than most Parallel SCSI cables. In its six-circuit or nine-circuit variations, it can supply up to 45 watts of power per port at up to 30 volts, allowing moderate-consumption devices to operate without a separate power supply.