Consumer camcorders, like MP3 players before them, have begun the transition from a high-end piece of consumer electronics to a feature of smart phones or tablets. The lone holdout as of late 2012 is the HD video camcorder, which is where most of the manufacturers have moved to in an attempt to preserve margins. The good news is that this pressure on video recorders has meant that devices have standardized and quality is universally high. Gizmodo has said that there isn't a bad camcorder in any they've reviewed.
1Choose your recording format. There are three to choose from: DV tape cartridge, mini-DVD and digital storage. Digital storage is available on either a built-in hard drive or solid-state flash drive. Of the three recording formats, DV tape and mini-DVD require constant purchases of new recording media and are largely on their way out -- it can be a difficult task finding a mini-DVD camcorder at this point. If you're free to choose a recording media, go with the flash drive version, with the (somewhat more fragile) hard drive version as your second choice. Many of these models also record to SDHC cards as a recordable media format. If you record to an SDHC card, get a Class 6 card or higher for the fastest write speed.
2Consider the impact of your optics. In a mature category, optics are the primary differentiator between models. Every camcorder on the market comes with more than adequate zoom optics -- most have at least 8x or 10x zoom, quite a few have 12x zoom, which is more than enough for casual use. More important than zoom is image stabilization. There are two types of image stabilization: optical and electronic. Optical stabilization has a gyrostabilized free-floating lens element in the optics. Electronic stabilization effectively edits your video as its being recorded. Of the two, optical is the better option. Secondarily to the optics is where the microphone is placed. Most camcorders have the microphone up at the front of the camera; lower priced and more compact models may have the microphone placed at the top of the camera where it might pick up ambient sounds other than the subject being recorded.
3Work through the trade-offs between size and ease of use. The limits of zoom optics mean there's a limit to how small a camcorder can go. Smaller camcorders are lighter and easier to carry -- though as of 2012, even larger high-definition camcorders will still fit into a purse or large coat pocket. For smaller cameras, make sure the controls are large enough that you can use them easily. When you're shooting video, you don't want to be fiddling with the camera. The standard consumer-electronics purchase advice of trying out the controls out on a camera before you buy it still applies.
4Think carefully about video formats and how you'll edit your video. Your camera will probably default to recording in AVCHD; this is a variety of the open MPEG-4 video format that has higher levels of compression and has better image quality than MPEG-4. Most camcorders can also record in MPEG-4 or MPEG-2. The benefits of recording in MPEG-4 are that more devices can read the files, and editing the results takes less impressive computer hardware. If you're planning on doing a lot of video recording and video editing of HD video, you'll want the AVCHD format to save disk space and for the better image quality. You'll also want the most powerful computer you can afford for video editing, which is, honestly, the only consumer application that can tax a quad-core or dual-quad-core workstation.