Hardware preview: DroboPro

Updated 1/14/19: I have revised my opinion of Drobo devices. After experiencing multiple, serious data loss events on multiple Drobo models, even recent ones, I no longer consider them safe for my data.

Updated 11/23/09: The new DroboElite is now available. It differs from the DroboPro because it offers two Gigabit Ethernet ports instead of one, multi-host support, and up to 255 Smart Volumes.

Today, April 7, 2009, Data Robotics launches a new product aimed at professionals and SMBs: the DroboPro. I got a preview of it yesterday. Let me share what I learned with you.

Drobo Pro top

The DroboPro has some really cool features, some of which I, along with others, anticipated and looked forward to seeing. As I wrote in my review of the Firewire Drobo, Data Robotics was looking at making an 8-drive Drobo, possibly rack-mounted. I also thought they might introduce the capability to safeguard against two drive failures. And, as I wrote in this comment on that same review, in response to a reader’s wishlist for the Drobo, I thought they might at some point build networking capabilities right inside the Drobo.

Well, the new DroboPro does all those things and more!

  • 8 (eight) drives
  • 2 form factors: desktop and rackmount
  • Dual drive redundancy
  • Gigabit ethernet
  • iSCSI
  • Smart volumes: create up to 16 different virtual volumes, each of which can grow to 16TB
  • Price is $1,299 for entry level DroboPro or $3,999 for a loaded model with eight 2TB drives
  • Instant $200 rebate with customer loyalty program

Let’s dive into those new features a bit. Keep in mind my knowledge is as yet limited, since I haven’t seen the full specs; I only had a phone briefing.

8 drives

You know how the drives are arranged horizontally in the regular Drobo? They’re arranged vertically in the new DroboPro, which is about the same height, and a little less than twice the width of the original.

Drobo Pro cover off

Two form factors

The DroboPro comes in a desktop form factor which is 12.17″ wide, 5.46″ high and 14.1″ long. The length is about 3″ more than that of the original Drobo. I think the extra space houses the additional circuitry for the network, power supply and other features.

The other form factor is a rackmount with a 3U height. If I understood correctly, the rackmount kit can be attached and detached as needed, so you can interconvert between the two form factors if you like.

DroboPro dimensions

Drobo Pro rackmount kit

Built-in power supply

One thing that’s easy to miss if you look at the back of the DroboPro is that it no longer has a DC adaptor port, but a regular 120-240V connector. Have a look and see. This means the power brick which converts 120-240V AC to 12V DC has been eliminated. You’ll also notice a power switch on the back. That’s new too.

Drobo Pro back

Dual drive redundancy

As it was explained to me, the DroboPro comes standard with single drive redundancy, and the dual drive redundancy is an option that can be turned on at any time. In case you’re not familiar with the concept, this means two of the drives inside the Drobo can fail, and your data will still be safe.

Gigabit ethernet

Business-class networking is now built right into the DroboPro, along with enterprise-class features, like iSCSI with automatic configuration. The ethernet port on the DroboPro does not replicate the functionality of the DroboShare, as I initially thought. It only works through the iSCSI protocol, which means it needs to be mapped directly to a host, like a server or workstation, which can then share it among multiple servers or workstations. In that sense the DroboPro is not a NAS (Network Attached Storage), but a SAN (Storage Area Network).


If you’ve set up iSCSI volumes in the past, then you know how much of a headache they can be, and how bad the performance can be if it’s not set up correctly or if the hardware isn’t working as it should. I know firsthand about this. With the new DroboPro, the iSCSI setup is automatic. It’s as easy as plugging it into the network. The Drobo Dashboard software then finds it and mounts it as a volume on your machine via iSCSI. The work is done behind the scenes so you don’t have to worry.

For Windows, the DroboPro uses the Microsoft iSCSI initiator, and for the Mac, the folks at Data Robotics wrote their own iSCSI initiator. Those of you who work with Xserve and Xsan use Fibre Channel technology to connect to the network volumes, and you may wonder why Data Robotics went with iSCSI. It’s because iSCSI is more utilitarian. It doesn’t require special network hardware to work; it can use the existing ethernet network infrastructure, so there’s a lower cost of entry and maintenance.

I was assured that iSCSI throughput on the DroboPro is very fast. I guess it’s up to us to do some testing once the DroboPro starts to ship, so we can see just how fast it is. See the iSCSI guide on Drobo’s website for more details.

Smart Volumes

With the DroboPro, you can create up to 16 different virtual volumes, each of which can grow to 16TB. This is very important for the enterprise market, where companies want to be able to separate the data onto separate volumes and assign separate access privileges to each. Those of you who are network admins can readily appreciate how useful this is. Those of you who are creatives can also appreciate being able to assign a volume for Time Machine backups, one for videos, one for photos, and so on. Furthermore, each volume can be resized as needed, which is a huge leap forward compared to the difficulty of resizing LUNs set up over RAID volumes.


The entry level DroboPro (enclosure-only) costs $1,299. The high end DroboPro, which includes the rackmount kit, two drive redundancy and is pre-loaded with eight 2TB hard drives for a total of 16TB of space, costs $3,999. There’s also a handy customer loyalty program which will give you an instant $200 rebate if you’ve purchased a Drobo in the past.

Those of you who might balk at the price should compare the features and ease of use of the DroboPro with other comparable products on the market. I’m going to walk you through a different kind of comparison, one that looks at the cost of the original Drobo and the cost of the new DroboPro.

Think of the DroboPro as two regular Drobos in one. The original Drobo is $499 for the enclosure, so that brings the price to $998. The difference between $998 and $1,299 is made up by the additional networking features and the complexity of the circuitry and auto-management algorithms of an 8-drive array. Keep in mind the DroboPro has enterprise-class features like dual drive redundancy, iSCSI and smart virtual volumes. Those features alone warrant charging several hundred dollars to thousands more for it, as other companies who make similar products have already been doing.

Drobo Pro side


The DroboPro is a fantastic addition to the Drobo line. Its enterprise-class features, its incredible ease of use, and its unmatched storage flexibility make it the perfect external storage solution for busy professionals with serious storage needs or business server rooms. Users will appreciate all of the space it makes available for their work, and system admins will appreciate how easy it is to set up and maintain. From a design point of view, it’s a drool-worthy beauty. Having been a Drobo user for almost 1½ years, I can tell you it is my storage solution of choice, and I look forward to upgrading to a DroboPro some day.

Images used courtesy of Data Robotics.


Hardware review: WD My Book Studio Edition II

WD MyBook Studio Edition II - 02

I have been working daily with a WD My Book Studio Edition II drive for the past eight months (since April ’08). I mentioned it back in July in my popular “What’s on my desk” post. It is a quad interface (USB 2.0, FW400, FW800, eSATA) 2TB drive that can run in RAID 0 (2TB total space) or RAID 1 (1TB total space). My review can be summed up in these three words: it works great.

I should say here, just as I said in my other two reviews of the My Book Pro Edition drive (see paragraph below for links), that this drive was given to me by WDC as a replacement for my faulty My Book Pro drive. I didn’t purchase it, but at the same time, I am under no obligation to anyone to praise it needlessly. I do so because it has really worked for me.

After all these months of heavy use, I have nothing bad to say about this drive. I have put it through its paces, transferring terabytes of data back and forth from it to my laptop and to my other drives, I have used it daily, I have put it through sustained data writes of several hundred gigabytes at a time, and it has not failed me yet. In stark contrast to my experience with the WD My Book Pro Edition II drive, this drive has outshined all of my other external storage devices, including my Drobo.

True, while nothing beats the Drobo when it comes to sheer storage space and flexibility in terms of its building blocks (the drives themselves), the My Book Studio Edition II drive has been faster than the Drobo when it came to working with my photos in Lightroom, in both RAID 0 and RAID 1 modes, and it has also been faster when it comes to data transfers (writing to the drive itself).

WD MyBook Studio Edition II - 07

I did not have a chance to use the drive through the eSATA interface. I used it mostly through the FW800 interface, and, briefly, through the FW400 and USB interfaces. Given that it can transfer data at up to 3GB/s through eSATA, I might just buy an adaptor for my MacBook Pro in the future. I was pretty happy with the FW800 speeds though (up to 800 Mb/s).

My feelings about this drive are somewhat harder to understand for those of you that have not had to deal with a My Book Pro Edition drive. If you did not have to put up with constant overheating, data loss, fan noises, disconnects and computer resets while using that drive, then you can’t possibly appreciate how WDC managed to get things so right with the My Book Studio Edition drive.

Somehow, they have, and for me, it’s a pleasure to use this drive. It suffers from none of the problems of its predecessor. It works reliably, each and every time. It’s fast. It’s quiet. It doesn’t overheat. It doesn’t cause my computer to crash. It doesn’t lose any of my data. The enclosure looks even better. The white LED on its front is much less annoying than the blue LED on the My Book Pro. It has greater capacity. It has more interfaces. It has a 5-year warranty, which amazes me when I consider that most tech products have a 3-year projected lifespan. The list goes on and on, and I have only good things to say about it.

The drive uses the new GreenPower drives from WD, which use 30% less energy and do not get as hot as older hard drives. This means the new enclosure doesn’t need a fan. Another cool thing is that it’s much easier to replace the hard drives, since you won’t need a screwdriver. The enclosure opens easily, and the hard drives pull out with the aid of tabs. Having needed to open the enclosure for the My Book Pro Edition drive, I can tell you it was a lot more convoluted than this.

WD MyBook Studio Edition II - 08

The wonderful thing about this drive is that it’s such a great deal right now. As I pointed out in a previous how to article entitled “A look at hard drives: finding the best deals“, it’s always a good idea to compare the price of the hard drives themselves to the price of the enclosure plus the hard drives, to see how much you’re paying for the packaged, branded product, and whether it’s worth it. Well, 1TB hard drives are anywhere from $100-140 at the moment (there are two of them in the My Book Studio Edition II), and the product itself costs about $280-290 right now. That means, if you factor in the best price scenario for the hard drives, that you’re getting a quad-interface enclosure which is quiet and it actually works on most computers (which isn’t something I can say about other off-the-shelf DIY enclosures) for about $80-90. That’s a great deal in my book.

Detailed specs for the My Book Studio Edition II drive are available from the WDC website. You can buy it from Amazon or from B&H Photo.

Photos used courtesy of Western Digital Corporation.


Hardware review: WD My Book Pro Edition II

Less than a month ago, I reviewed the WD My Book World Edition II, a NAS device from Western Digital, and I promised that I’d also review the My Book Pro Edition II, which I also bought. Here are my thoughts.

Updated 12/13/2007: Before I say anything else, I need to discourage you strongly from buying this drive. There are MANY flawed units of this drive on the market. There are serious problems with cooling, which result in excessive fan noise and even random drive shutdowns while in use. Scroll to the end of the review to read the updates and see what sorts of problems I’ve had with the drive.


The Pro Edition II should be a better and faster external hard drive than the World Edition II when it comes to working with my photo library, since it connects directly to my computer instead of going through the network. Its exterior design is just as good as that of the World Edition II, and the photos enclosed below will show it.

I have to confess that I’m design-obsessed. If something looks good, I’m willing to overlook the fact that it may not work as expected, which is definitely the case with this device. Of course, if it were truly designed well, it wouldn’t have the serious problems that it has, but at least it looks good on my desk… I suppose I could call it a very expensive paperweight. It’s so unfortunate that Western Digital couldn’t deliver with this product. It looks so nice, and does so poorly…

WD My Book Pro Edition II (front)

The drive has three interfaces: USB 2.0, Firewire 400 and Firewire 800. A nice touch is the inclusion of two Firewire 800 ports. This is probably because most computers have only one Firewire 800 port, and the WD engineers wanted to give us the ability to daisy-chain other devices onto the drive. In terms of the RAID settings, it has RAID 0 and RAID 1. I’m using my drive in RAID 1, to get the data redundancy I need when it comes to my photo library.

Serious problems

I’ve read complaints about the drive being loud, and I agree. I’ll say this: when it works fine, it’s quiet. When it has problems, it’s VERY loud. There are persistent cooling issues with the drive, that have been partially solved through firmware updates, but they keep showing up even on later builds. I think the WD engineers still have a LOT of work ahead of them when it comes to this model. See below for more on this.

My workflow involves working mainly with Adobe Lightroom, and doing the following:

  • Importing and viewing RAW files
  • Winnowing
  • Adding meta data
  • Editing images and
  • Exporting them to JPG files for the web or for clients

The drive is usually fine with this, but if I spend more than an hour (and sometimes, even less than an hour in Lightroom), it’ll start to overheat. Then the fan speed will auto-switch to what I call “medium speed”, and the drive will get a little louder. If after a few minutes or so, I’m still not done working, the drive fan will kick into high gear, something that I and others call “hairdryer mode”. After a couple of minutes at that speed, the drive will either return to “medium speed” or shut off completely, leaving me and Lightroom wondering where the photo library went.

I’ve learned to save my work and exit Lightroom when the drive fan goes into “hairdryer mode”, because I can almost certainly expect the drive to shut off. I called WD Support on this, and I applied a firmware fix a few weeks ago, but the cooling problem is still there. By the way, the drive has to stand vertically at all times, or you’ll have even more serious cooling problems.

Getting support

I need to say that WD Support are responsive, but they live in serious denial. They will agree to an RMA, but they insist that these drives are just fine, which is definitely NOT the case. Speaking from personal experience, WD Support is better than the support I’ve gotten from other tech companies like Microsoft and HP. At least they try to be helpful and polite. This was one of the main reasons I stuck with the drive through serious, repeated problems.

As I stated at the start of this post, I continue to have problems with my drive, even after two replacements. I like the design, and I like the fact that it has three interfaces. But I cannot use it long-term, because, let’s face it, it’s an unreliable piece of crap, and it’s very frustrating to use it when it overheats and crashes my computer. I’ve already bought a Drobo (which I love) for my photo library, and I’m going to re-purpose this drive to store some other files.

Working with the drive

In my review of the My Book World Edition II, I mentioned how I’m in a mixed OS environment at home. I have both an iMac and a Windows laptop. It’s necessary for me to be able to read and write to my external devices from both computers. This is in case I do large file transfers, which are obviously a lot faster to do over a USB or Firewire connection than a wireless network. So what I did to solve this problem was to format the My Book Pro Edition II in the Mac file system (HFS+ Journaled). Now I can read and write just fine to it from both machines because I purchased MacDrive, a piece of software that lets you access Mac drives on Windows as if they were NTFS or FAT32 volumes.

WD My Book Pro Edition (back)

Let’s review

I like the drive, and the design, but it has SERIOUS quality control problems and manufacturing defects. Make sure to read through the Updates section below for the latest news on the drive, and remember to spare yourself the agony I’m going through by NOT buying it.


Updated 10/30/07: It turns out the cooling problems with my drive weren’t normal. After calling WD Support a second time, I was offered an RMA. They sent out a replacement drive to me via 2-day Fedex, free of charge, and let me keep my old drive for a month while I transferred my photos over to the new drive. During that month, I worked exclusively on the new drive, to make sure that it wouldn’t overheat and shut off anymore. While it goes into “hairdryer mode” once in a blue moon, the fan speed always returns to “low speed”, which is barely audible, and the drive never shuts off. Whatever problems existed in the earlier builds of this drive, WD fixed them, and the new drives work just fine. If you’re having cooling problems with your My Book Pro, I encourage you to contact WD Support and see if you can exchange it.

Updated 12/03/07: I’ve just arranged to receive my 2nd replacement drive from WD via RMA. While I like the consistently high level of customer support they provide, I have to point out that there are manufacturing defects that still haven’t been ironed out. While my first drive, the one I purchased from a store, only overheated, and worked okay otherwise, the replacement drive had three problems. It also overheated, although less often than the original drive. Its Firewire 400 connector didn’t work. I tried different cables, to no avail. The computer just didn’t see it while it could see other Firewire drives just fine. Most importantly, it kept crashing my iMac every time I connected it. Not right away, but within minutes or less than an hour, it would crash the system so badly that I’d have to reset it. I’d get the standard Apple screen of death with a message that asked me to reset the computer. When I’d look at the logs, they’d always point to the USB as the problem for the crash, and the only drive I had connected via USB was the My Book Pro. Let’s hope this third drive that WD will send me will finally work properly.

Updated 12/13/07: As stated at the top of this post, DO NOT buy this drive, for the reasons already detailed. I am NOT alone in having problems with this drive. Many Mac users are having the same problems with it, and you can see this by doing a search on the Apple forums for “My Book Western Digital“.

The drive also DOES NOT work as advertised. The specs say it works with USB, Firewire 400 and Firewire 800, but it DOES NOT work with Firewire 400. I have not had the chance to test it with Firewire 800, so I can’t speak about that, but I know for sure that Apple computers cannot see it when connected through Firewire 400. It does work with USB, but it tends to crash Apple computers when connected to them through that protocol. Trust me on that last bit, I’ve checked the error logs every time and confirmed it reliably — it’ll crash my iMac, which runs Leopard (the latest Mac OS X), when connected through USB, while other USB or Firewire drives can connect just fine and have no problems. Have a look at this article of mine for a video of the crashes it causes, and for photos of the damaged drives that WD sends out as replacements.

Western Digital is also NOT doing a good job testing these drives before they send them out. I’m now on my third replacement drive from Western Digital (My Book Pro), and it exhibits the same problems: overheating and NOT working with Firewire 400. Western Digital Support refuses to believe it and continues to stubbornly cling to the idea that the drive works just fine since it can connect through USB. They offered to send me out another replacement drive, and I refused. I’m not going to spend my entire life swapping drives and data until Western Digital decides to get their manufacturing and quality control processes in order.

I also want to mention that the re-certified drives they send out can be scratched, scuffed and smudged. They are NOT cleaned, and Western Digital simply DOES NOT care if they send you a drive in bad aesthetic condition. My re-certified drives arrived in progressively worse condition, to the point where this last replacement drive looks absolutely horrible. It looks like it’s been banged up and dragged on the floor. It’s got oily smudge marks on its sides… basically, it’s a mess.

DO NOT BUY this drive unless you want to run into the problems I’m having right now, and believe me, it’s not fun at all. Western Digital needs to get its act in order on this model, because they’re churning out some real duds.

Updated 7/3/08: I updated my other post about the My Book Pro as well with the following information.

On 4/16/08, I received a replacement drive from Western Digital. It’s a 2TB Studio Edition II drive, which works in USB, Firewire 400/800 and eSATA modes. I’ve been using it since in RAID 0, and it’s been working great. To see how I use it, read this recent post of mine, where I talk about the hardware I use on a daily basis. I also plan to write a detailed review of the drive shortly.

I guess the lesson is that the My Book Pro line had serious faults, and WD got things right with the My Book Studio line. So, if you’re in the market for a drive, DO NOT get a My Book Pro. But DO get a My Book Studio drive. They seem to work alright.

More information


Hardware review: HP Pavilion m7480n desktop

I’ve been using the Pavilion m7480n desktop for the last 2 and a half months, and I’m pleasantly impressed. This is a great desktop system, it’s fast, stable, packed with great features, but most of all, it’s well designed, and that’s what sets it apart from other desktops on the market.

HP Pavilion m7480n Desktop

HP Pavilion m7480n Desktop

I have never seen so many great and useful features packed into the desktop form factor. Let’s start with the front side of this computer, which is, as far as I’m concerned, fantastic.

HP Pavilion m7480n Desktop

HP Pavilion m7480n Desktop

A lot of computers have flash memory readers, but not a lot of them have them custom-built into the desktop case, located right at the top for easy access, and have so many choices when it comes to card formats.Want an all-in-one solution for writing DVDs and CDs? The LightScribe drive is it. Not only will it write single- and double-layer DVDs, DVD-RWs, CD-Rs and CD-RWs, but it will also print your label for you. Also included is an extra DVD-ROM/CD-ROM drive, just for fun.

See the two panel doors? One of them is for the Personal Media Drive Bay, which is hands-down, the coolest feature you’ll find in any desktop computer. Want extra storage? Just slide in a Personal Media Drive. Want to add another hard drive? Just slide in another Personal Media Drive. Seriously, it’s that easy! The drive slides in, and automatically connects to the computer through USB, and is also powered by a special connector, no wires required. I don’t know about you, but I’m really annoyed by the extra power cords and power adapters that come with external storage drives. Sure, the drive may look nice by itself, but when you add the bulky adapter and power cord, it’s suddenly not so nice and neat. So the great thing about HP’s Personal Media Drives is that there are no cables and power adapters – you only need the drive, which is a beautiful thing.

HP Pavilion m7480n Desktop

You’d think HP would charge you a ridiculous price for this extra convenience and the custom form factor, but they don’t, which is also nice. Currently, they come in three sizes: 160GB, 300GB and 400GB. The 160GB PMD is $149.99, the 300GB PMD is $249.99, and the 400GB PMD is $319.99, which runs a little above the low margin of the market for personal storage, but not by a lot.

Let’s look at the other useful front panel: the Connectivity Center. Tell me honestly, have you seen such a thorough front panel on any other computer line? I haven’t. There’s an S-Video port, composite video ports, the standard headphone/microphone jacks, two USB ports, and — a really nice thing — a Firewire (1394) port. Finally, a computer manufacturer gets it, and puts a ready-to-use Firewire port on the front of a computer.

HP Pavilion m7480n Desktop

Also on the front side of the desktop, let’s not forget the little things, like the sliding doors that hide inside the chassis for the front panels (the Personal Media Drive Bay and the Connectivity Center). They’re very useful because when you don’t use the panels, you can close the doors and hide away the ports. And, you don’t have to flip them up, like on a Dell desktop (yuck), or you don’t have to slide them up and have the door fall back down after it’s gotten a little used — no, you simply slide them to the side. It just works. An added bonus on the front is a Wireless Lan light that turns on when a connection has been established — this is a great visual indicator for those of us who are less tech savvy.

It isn’t just the front of the desktop that’s interesting. I like the side cooling grille as well. One small note: although the finish of the desktop case looks like plastic, it’s actually metal. Only the front and top side of the case are plastic — the sides are metal. Another useful feature is that this desktop runs very quietly. I’ve had desktops in the past that really made a lot of noise, so I can readily appreciate the silence in the room when I use this system. The only sound I can hear out of it is the hard drive — and that only when I really push it.

HP Pavilion m7480n Desktop

Another notable feature is the dock for an HP Photosmart printer right on top of the computer. Like the Personal Media Drive Bay, this is a feature that’s unique to HP desktops, and I really like it. Who’d have thought of building in a dock for a photo printer on top of the computer — but it makes perfect sense. You have the card reader right on top as well, so you simply slide in the flash card containing your photos or you connect your camera, and print your photos right away. You don’t have to worry about where you place the printer, because it’s right on top of the computer. This is beautiful, functional design.

HP Pavilion m7480n Desktop

The cover for the dock is easily removed, and the really nifty thing is that HP designers included a slot at the back end of the dock for the printer wires (USB, power). That way, you can slide them right through the case and out the back, easily connecting the printer to the computer and the power supply. Very, very nice! For example, I used the dock to sit my wireless antenna in it, and I slid the antenna cable through the very same slot, pulling it out through the back of the case, as you can see below.

HP Pavilion m7480n Desktop

The back panel itself is also very useful. Besides the usual connectors and ports, it has digital sound in and out, connectors for 5.1 speakers, 4 USB ports and another Firewire (1394) port, a video card with S-video and RCA video out ports, and an input slot with the following ports: composite A/V, S-video, TV/Cable antenna and FM antenna. I would have liked to see a DVI-out connector on the video card, but other than that, this is a pretty good collection of connectors and ports.

HP Pavilion m7480n Desktop

This system comes standard with a wireless keyboard and mouse, and they both work great. The battery life is as expected or longer: I only had to replace the batteries in the mouse after 2 months, and the keyboard batteries are still going strong. The only thing that could be improved on the keyboard are the keys. While they work fine, they’re a bit loud, and could stand to be made quieter. The multimedia controls on the keyboard also work all the time, which, at least for me, is a departure from the norm. I’m used to seeing multimedia keys on other laptops and desktops be unreliable, so it’s nice to see them working non-stop for a change.

The HP Pavilion m7480n is one great desktop. It comes with an Intel Dual Core chip, which clocks in at 3.00GHz for each core. My system had 2GB of RAM in it, and it ran wonderfully on that. The hard drive was 300GB, and HP reserved 10GB of it for a separate recovery drive that can be used to restore the OS and applications when needed. But what sets this desktop apart isn’t necessarily the specs (which are top of the line anyway) but the amazingly useful design. Serious thought was given to functionality and ease of use when it came to the case of this desktop, and that’s what impresses me and really counts.

How To

How to choose a camcorder

If you’re interested in purchasing a camcorder, this guide will help you decide what to get when you look at the dizzying array of products out there.

At the moment, the industry is “in the 80’s”, caught between 4:3 and 16:9 aspect ratios, and standard and high-definition video. The HDV, 16:9 camcorders are still expensive, while the standard 4:3 camcorders are months to years behind the technology curve. There are some mongrel/hybrid models out there, that offer a mix of standard to high-def recording, on both 4:3 and 16:9 aspects.

To make things more complicated, there are multiple high-def formats: 480p, 780p, 1080p. There are also multiple media: Hi8, DV, miniDV, DVD, miniDVD, and hard drive. Each kind of media has its pros and cons. Finally, there are multiple connections: Firewire, mini-DVI, S-video, RCA, etc. There are caveats with each connection, and the quality of the video output varies with each, even on the same model camcorder.

So, how do you make sense of all this nonsense? Well, my recommendations are:

  • 16:9 aspect ratio (the extra width to the picture truly makes a difference, and allows you to compose your shots a lot better)
  • HDV (780 or 1080p, preferably the latter)
  • Firewire or mini-DVI connector
  • MiniDV or hard drive media

I should mention that some people like the convenience of storing directly on DVD – just realize that if you do that, it’s harder to edit the video. You have to import it to the computer from the DVD or the camcorder, then edit it, which is a slower process overall, plus most DVD media isn’t reusable, etc. Also, if your camcorder will record to mini-DVDs, realize that some DVD players won’t be able to play them, in particular the slot-loading ones that you find on Apple computers or some in-car entertainment systems.

You should also look for a good optical zoom, low-light capabilities, and optical image stabilization. Good, intuitive controls should also be present, and it’d be nice to have good battery life as well.

If you’re more than an amateur/home videographer, then you should look at the capability to use different lenses, and the presence of relevant physical controls directly on the camcorder’s exterior. You probably also want to look at the ability to switch between different frame rates.
Before you go out there and try to find a camera with all these features, realize the market’s in disarray, and you’ll be disappointed if you look for a camera that has it all. A camera that has my list of desired features will cost over $1,000 at the moment, and that’s out of reach for many people.

CNET’s put together a camcorder guide which will help you narrow down your choices, and my advice is to look through that as well. On their site, they also have reviews of many camcorders. Just realize that the editors are people, and the reviews are subjective, in particular the video reviews. I remember viewing one where the editor referred to the LCD panel as very small, literally “the same size as the viewfinder”, when it was clearly 4-5 times larger in terms of surface area.

The best thing to do is to come up with your own wishlist of features for your dream camcorder, using this guide and other guides like the CNET guide, then go to the stores, and see which model most closely fits your wishlist. You’ll have to compromise or give up on some features, but you’ll come out with a great buy in the end, because you’ll have done your homework.