Camcorders: Mini DV-C v. Mini DVD

Both DVD and DV camcorders are coming way down in price as well as size and weight. Which on is the best buy for you? We compare the pros and cons...

The Recording Medium and Cost

Mini DV-C is a tape based medium. Tapes currently cost about $5.50 each.

Mini DVD is a small disk. Disks currently cost about $5.50 for DVD-R or DVD+R and about $8.50 for DVD-RW, DVD+RW and DVD RAM.

Recording Time and Resolution or Clarity of Image

The DV-C tape records 60 minutes at up to 530+ lines of resolution (VHS tape is 240 lines, broadcast TV is 340 lines, Hi-8 is 400 lines, DVD is 480, digital TV and HDTV are both 700+ lines) or you can lower the picture and sound quality on some camcorders (probably to DVD quality of 480 lines with 12 bit audio instead of 16 bit audio) and get up to 90 minutes of recording time. Approximately 5 to 18 GB of data storage.

The 8cm (centimeter) DVD disk camcorders provide about 20 minutes of recording time at 500+ lines with 16 bit audio or 30 minutes at DVD quality (480 lines with 16 bit audio) or up to 1 hour at VHS quality (240 lines). Approximately 1 to 2 GB of data storage.

Data Recording Type

The Mini DV-C camcorders uses a half-speed ENG DV Cam format, which is the same format used by TV news mobile units, but their systems run at faster speeds and use larger (full size) DV-Cam cartridges. This is a compressed media stream in digital format somewhat similar to an AVI file on a PC.

The Mini DVD camcorders record using MPEG-2 or MPEG-4 standards, which are lower quality formats than AVI files, but they are also smaller and use the same file types that are used by the commercial industry to make DVD movie disks. MPG has more “artifacts” and compression than AVI and less clarity to the image, especially on titles which are soft on the edges.

Recording Format and Playback Compatibility

The Mini DV-C tapes generally play back in all Mini DV camcorders without any problems and some professional DV Cams (such as those used by cable TV stations and network news mobile units) can play back these tapes using a special adapter (much like your home VCR can playback some VHS-C tapes using a special adapter), providing the DV Cam has half-speed playback capabilities. You can also playback the tapes on any home TV set or VCR using the audio visual (AV) cables that come with virtually every Mini DV camcorder. Virtually every Mini DV camcorder has a “Fire Wire” port so you can connect this to any modern computer (those made after 2003). You can also transfer still pictures and sometimes full motion video to some computers from select camcorders that offer a USB port. Not every camcorder has USB ports and not every USB system will transfer the full motion video!

The Mini DVD disks generally playback in almost every DVD player made after 2003, using a drawer type loading system. Laptop computers generally use a slot type system and these disks can’t be used in this type of DVD player without an adapter (which you must generally buy) to increase the size from approximately 2” to 3” (which is the approximate size of regular DVD disks). Older DVD players may not play every disk or format. The most popular formats are: DVD-R, followed by DVD+R. The least popular format is DVD-RAM which is only found on Panasonic DVD players. DVD players made before 2002 have only a 50/50 chance of playing back a home burnt DVD disk, including those from a camcorder.

Play Back Of Your Videos

The Mini DV-C tapes require you to use the camcorder and connect it to your TV set or a VCR using three color coded RCA plugs (yellow, white and red). If you have a set-top DVD burner you can burn DVD disks by plugging the camcorder into the unit, pressing the “record” buttons and then turning on the camcorder playback. You can also make VHS tapes this same way. It is also possible to connect the unit to a computer using either the A/V cables (a capture card on your computer is required, such as the one from Pinnacle or the ATI All-In-One-Wonder card), the Fire Wire (found on almost every camcorder) or possibly a USB (found only on some camcorders and this may not be fast enough for video transfers). A few camcorders even support S-Video (the type used by games) output. Most computers or capture cards bring in the files as AVI format, which you can then edit using software. After editing you can burn a full size DVD disk if you have a computer based DVD burner.

The Mini DVD disks can be played back from the recording camcorder (no warranty that a disk made in one camcorder will play in another camcorder) directly to a TV set or VCR using the RCA A/V cables (yellow, white and red). You can also clone or burn disks on a set-top DVD burner. DVD camcorders using the “minus” or DVD-R/RW formats must finalize (close) the disk inside the camera (and you can no longer record on that DVD-R disk once this is done, but the RW disk can be erased and re-used) before you can play the disk back on many home or computer DVD players that have a full tray loading system. Those camcorders using the DVD+R/RW formats can often playback these disks directly without having to finalize, however not every DVD player is compatible with the “plus” formats. Only Panasonic DVD players made after 1998 can play back the DVD RAM disks. Many DVD camcorders don’t have USB, S-Video or Fire Wire so transfer from the camcorder to the computer is not possible, however you can upload or copy the MPEG 4 files directly from the DVD disk to your hard drive and work with them in video editing software, although you may need to convert the MP4 format to AVI type files before you can edit or do effects. It is unclear of computers can burn back to the smaller 8cm Mini DVD disks, but computer based DVD burners can then make full size DVD disks of the videos and even do compilation videos of up to 90 minutes in length from several Mini DVD disks.

Still Pictures

Note! Most camcorders, be they Mini DV or Mini DVD, only take pictures at 640 x480 resolution (less than a megapixel) and the best you generally can find is about 1.5 megapixel which is good enough for 4x6 prints but not enlargements.

Mini DV-C records these on tape as a general rule, with a few high end units also allowing you to record them on a memory card (often an SD format card, which is the most popular). You generally transfer these to a computer using a USB cable (which you may have to buy separately) and special software (which you may have to buy separately). You can also view them on a TV set using the AV cables. If you camcorder uses a memory card, you can print them on units like the Fuji Aladdin or the Kodak Picture Maker, found at many department and drug stores, by just inserting the card. You can also use an accessory “card reader” (priced from $20), plus many modern computer (those made this year, 2005) and a lot of printers (made since 2004) also take many memory cards directly into slots.

Mini DVD records on either the RW or RAM disk (some may allow recording on “R” disks, but you can’t delete or erase these), which allows you to edit or delete unwanted pictures (these disks can be erased) or on some high end units in memory cards (Sony camcorders often use the Memory Stick, while most other units such as Canon, JVC and Panasonic use the popular SD card format). You can only show these on TV sets from disk or insert the disk into a computer DVD reader and then import the file, which is often JPEG compatible, but not necessarily a true JPG file. It is unclear if there are any comparability problems with photo editing software, especially older versions made prior to 2003 (e.g. Corel Photo Paint 4 or Adobe PhotoShop 5). Pictures saved to memory cards can generally be read using any slot or card reader, including the Fuji Aladdin and Kodak Picture Maker machines, computer printers, etc.

Special Considerations

Mini DV-C camcorders always require using a Mini DV camcorder for playing back the tapes, however almost any brand will play back tapes made at full speed (SP) in another camcorder. You must also have the AV cables and a TV set or VCR with easy access to the RCA plugs. You also need a nearby power outlet and must bring the camcorder power supply, otherwise you will be running on the battery which is only good for about 1 hour of playback. There is no limit as to how many sessions you can put onto a tape, however you must fast forward and rewind to find a given section or scene. If the tape jams you may lose everything on that tape. If the tape bends or crinkles you will lose that area of the tape. After about 2 years tape tends to shrink and curl if you don’t store it sideways, in a room with proper temperature and humidity. Even then after about 5 years the tape starts to curl badly, so you should make clones or back up copies with fresh tape every two years. Tape oxides also flake off and wear on the recording/playback heads. You need to buy a head cleaning kit for Mini DV and use it once a year or more. As oxide flakes of existing tapes (during normal wear of playback) the signal degrades or glitches.

Mini DVD players have a variety of sometimes incompatible formats. The “minus” or DVD-R is the most widely used format and should playback on almost any player made after 2001. The DVD+R format is more compatible with computer CD/DVD drives, however many home DVD players rated as “all media” can play these back. DVD-R/RW requires formatting the disk before use, and closing or finalizing the disk before you can play that disk in another machine (it will play back inside your camcorder without finalizing). If an error happens in finalizing (closing) a “minus” disk (DVD-R) you will not be able to play it in any other camcorder or DVD player and your own camcorder may have problems playing that back. You should make a VHS or DVD clone using the AV cables in such an instance. If a disk gets scratched it may not play back some tracks. RW disks don’t read as well in other DVD players unless they are “all media” and if left in bright light RW disks can lose signal or become totally erased. DVD RAM disks only play back in Panasonic made units or those made under Panasonic license. DVD “plus” disks (DVD+R) may not play back in older DVD players, but they don’t require either formatting or finalizing (closing). If stored in a normal temperate (55 – 90 F), normally lighted area, inside a plastic case or paper sleeve, most DVD disks will last at least 10 years. Currently, there are few if any DVD lens cleaning kits, so if your unit gets old or dusty you may have read/write problems as with any DVD player or burner, except that full size lens cleaning kits are readily available. This may change in the coming years.


Mini DV-C offers more recording time and higher quality for the buck! It is also very compatible with other camcorders including many professional units so it is ideal for production and cable access work. Mini DV camcorders offer more outputs and transfer capabilities, they also use a higher quality recording format. They are smaller in size and the tapes are found at more locations. The price is coming down on these units, as low as $300. You can record HDTV (700+ lines of resolution) on this format using high end camcorders. You can connect to and from the computer with far greater ease.

Mini DVD disks last far longer than tapes, so they archive well. They are able to play back in many DVD players directly, without having the bring along a camcorder, cables and power supply. You can find individual scenes or movies by menu or with the push of a “next” button on a DVD player, just like you can with commercial DVD movies.


Mini DV-C tapes wear, curl, bend and shrink with ages, making this a poor format for archive work. You can’t get directly to a scene without fast forwarding or “scanning” which wears down the heads and the tape oxide. You must bring the camcorder, cables and fully charged battery or power supply if you want to show that at other locations, or you must burn DVD disks or VHS tapes (both of which are lower in quality) to “take along and show the folks.”

Mini DVD disks don’t play back in all players, especially RW, “plus” and RAM formats. You also can’t play any format directly in a “slot” player, such as those found on laptop computers. The maximum resolution available is limited to 500+ lines, which is at or below the level of Mini DV camcorders and well below HDTV. The size of the camcorders is a bit larger, but the weight is about the same. Disk are not always easy to find and sometimes very expensive. The recording and playback formats are still mess so you have only a 60% chance that a disk will play in any given player. If a format or finalization error occurs you could lose the disk or only be able to play it back on the camcorder that recorded the sessions. You don’t get as much recording time as Mini DV. Even at the HQ setting you don’t get a clear of a picture as with Mini DV tapes, because of the MPEG 4 format over the AVI format used by tape systems. You generally can’t transfer from camcorder to computer and back again using cables on many DVD camcorders. The cost of these units is coming down, but still high at about $500 starting price. You can’t record HDTV on the current DVD disks, although in the next year or two new camcorders at higher prices may allow this, but probably with even less recording time or the need to go to a larger, full size disk. These may not be backwards compatible.

Who Should Buy What?

Serious videomakers should only consider the Mini DV tape systems for length of recording, higher quality images and transfer capabilities, but they need to find a better way to archive their masters, such as on removable hard drives or DVD in raw data AVI format, but this requires lots of disks. If you’re intending to edit, this is the best way to get good quality and make transfers to the computer, provided it has workable Fire Wire or a capture card.

Home users might want to explore the DVD disk cameras because it is easier to playback the sessions on many (but not all or even most) players, making it easy to bring along movies to show. They also archive better so you “baby” pictures will still be in decent shape when the kids grow up. It’s also easier to get to different scenes or individual movies with a DVD disk. Laptop computer users should only buy into DVD disk systems after testing your DVD player with a given disk and adapter to make sure it works or you need to get an external tray based DVD player.

Our 2005 Video Special continues with these offerings::

Video Special 2005 | Intro To Digital TV | DVD or DV Camcorders?
High Definition DVDs | Future DV Mediums | Aiptek 5900 MP4 Camera
New HDV Technology from CineForm and RedRock Micro | Three Low Cost DVD Camcorders
64 Bit Computer Technology | New Fall 2005 US Prime Time TV Shows

Our video special continues with these offerings from 2004:

Camcorders 2004 | Capture Cards 2004 | HD-DVD
Digital Theatrical Movies | JVC HD Camcorder | Sigma SD9 and Foveon Technology
Color Imaging Technology | V-Chip | 2004 Network Prime Time TV Shows

From our archives with these offerings from 2003:

Camcorders | Hi-Def TV | Promote Ur Videos | Future of DVD | Computer DVD Burners
New US TV Shows for 2003-2004 Prime Time

From our archives we have these articles from the 2002 Issues:

Doing Video On Your Computer | The Pinnacle Capture Card | ATA Hard Drives
Hard Drive Terms | Western Digital Drives | Producing A Scripted iMac Video
Audio For Video | Lighting For Video | Digital VHS | Removable Hard Drives

From September 2001 Issues:

Buying a Camcorder | Producing A Cable Access Show | Producing Broadcast TV
A Technical Look and History of Film, Video and TV | Stream Video and Webcasting

HDTV | Capture Cards



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All Rights Reserved.