Digital Camcorders: A Guide to the Megapixel

Consumers are faced with a dazzling array of features when it comes to shopping for digital camcorders. How many megapixels should you have? Should you have digital zoom or optical zoom? What type of storage media is best?  While the answers to these questions aren't always simple, you might be surprised to discover that megapixels don't matter as much as the manufacturers would have you think.

What is a megapixel?
Megapixels are units of measurement for digital camcorder resolution. In cameras, a pixel is a tiny dot that makes up part of an image, and a megapixel is a collection of a million of those pixels. When you're talking about 6MP, you're referring to six million pixels. Theoretically, more megapixels equal a higher resolution because you have more points of information that can render subtle details. However, that's not always the case. As it happens, the number of megapixels is only one of several important factors that determine image quality.

Is bigger really better?
With pixels being the building blocks of images, you might think that more is better. You might be wrong. The truth is that pixel calculations are based on multiplying the number of vertical pixels by the number of horizontal pictures. While 8MP sounds like a much higher number than 6MP, and therefore a better image, the truth is that the difference between a 6MP and 8MP isn't significant. In fact, in some circumstances, an 8MP digital camcorder can be worse than a 6MP model.

Megapixels are only one aspect of the equation: sensors play a big part.
Since so many consumers don't understand megapixels, manufacturers often skimp to offer more of them. Unfortunately, all those megapixels are typically crammed onto a sensor than is no bigger than that of a model with fewer megapixels. You might see a 5MP and an 8MP digital camcorder with the same size sensor, but the 8MP camera has three million more pixels on the same area.

From a practical perspective, the smaller the sensor, the less light it can distinguish, meaning that you'll lose some detail. Larger sensors distinguish light more easily, and more light enables digital camcorders to capture more accurate color and better detail. It's better to have a 6MP digital camcorder with a larger sensor than an 8MP digital camcorder with a smaller sensor, because the video quality is better on the larger sensor.

How many megapixels does an HD digital camcorder have?
Believe it or not, HD digital camcorders don't have significantly more megapixels than standard-definition digital camcorders. More does not equal better when it comes to megapixels of the HD variety. Most entry-level HD digital camcorders have a resolution of 5MP. Don't let the megapixel fool you, though; some high-end HD digital camcorders may only have 3.3 megapixels.

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