WHEN IT COMES to photographs, the quality of smartphone cameras has been edging closer to that of point-and-shoot cameras, but the same, unfortunately, cannot be said about video. To record footage that you're going to enjoy watching years from now, the best tool is not one that fits in your back pocket.
Camcorders are built to overcome the most common pitfalls of video capture. The best have image processors capable of reducing the digital grain that plagues dimly lighted shots; they're big enough to house a long-zoom, stabilized lens that reduces camera shake; and their proper strapped-down grips make them easier to hold steady.
Luckily, you don't have to venture into the ultra-pricey stratosphere of professional models to get great results. The four camcorders shown here offer essential features that will make your home movies produce less nausea and more nostalgia.
For thrill-seekers hoping to document their exploits in hi-def, the GoPro HERO3 line has been a favorite for slapping onto helmets and handlebars. The top-of-the-line Black Edition shoots crisp, wide-angle 1080p video at 60 frames per second—twice the standard frame rate—giving you the option of playing your footage back in exceptionally smooth slow motion. This model also snaps rapid-fire still images—up to 30 shots per second—and it's one of the few cameras that can shoot in 4K, compatible with bleeding-edge Ultra HD televisions. Although such sets are just hitting the market (at astronomical prices), they should be standard-issue by the time your kids are old enough to watch your collection of sky-dive videos. $400, gopro.com
Camcorders may be bulkier than smartphones and point-and-shoot cameras, but the extra room allows for long, telescoping zoom lenses. Canon's Vixia HF R42 knocks it out of the ballpark with a whopping 32x optical zoom that should guarantee tight close ups of the school play, no matter how far back in the auditorium you're seated. The camera also has one of Canon's most innovative (and cute) new features: Baby Mode. When you record, the camera automatically tacks on a few seconds of footage before you physically hit the button. (The device constantly captures, then dumps video, even in standby.) This should improve your chances of catching those first steps or funny sneezing fits. $500, usa.canon.com
Most camcorder makers cushion parts of the lens and image sensor to mitigate camera shake. Sony's Balanced Optical SteadyShot technology—one of the best-performing in the industry—goes a step further. It keeps the entire lens block suspended within the camcorder frame (imagine a capsule within a capsule) to smooth out hand-held shots. This technology delivers astoundingly stable images—even inside a moving car. With the HDR-PJ430V, released in March, the feature is available for the first time on a sub-$1,000 model. Bonus: The camera also has a built-in 13-lumen projector that displays up to a 100-inch diagonal image. You can even use it as a stand-alone projector for a laptop or DVD player. $850, store.sony.com
While all camcorders are designed to adapt to dim conditions, Panasonic takes a unique approach: Instead of using a single sensor to capture light, it has three, each of which gathers information only on a specific color (red, green or blue). The system, called 3MOS, was originally only available in the company's pro models, but the HC-X920 features the latest iteration of this darkness-fighting technology. Called 3MOS System Pro, it has a larger sensor array for improved detail and color preservation. The HC-X920 is also one of the few camcorders to include wireless syncing, allowing you to beam its video, live, to an Internet-connected TV that's on the same Wi-Fi network. $999, panasonic.com