December 5, 2007

Camcorder Shopping:

All the major brands except Canon give only 90-day warranties on labor, making extended warranties an attractive add-on. But there are numerous small brands that give the full year on both labor and parts. Meanwhile, extended warranties are priced low by some retailers, while a few try to get more for the protection plan than they do for the product it covers.

In all the product warranty and extended warranty reporting we did last year, we never once did a roundup of camcorder warranties. And so when somebody asked which manufacturer has the best warranties on camcorders, we had no answer for such a simple question.

As the data below details, it's not such a simple answer either. For while Canon U.S.A. is alone among the major consumer electronics brands to provide one year of manufacturer's coverage for both parts and labor, there are several lesser-known brands that also do so.

Most manufacturers provide only 90 days of free labor, which means that any warranty work done after three months is going to cost the consumer money, even if the parts are free for a year. The consumer might believe they have a one-year warranty, but when it comes time to get a repair, they find out otherwise. When they are told the labor isn't free, will they abandon the repair and replace the unit instead? Well, isn't that the point of short warranties?

Product Warranty Durations

Table 1 details the product warranty durations of some 21 different camcorder manufacturers that we found on the shelves of major U.S. retailers. This is by no means a list of all camcorder models now for sale. Rather, it's a sampling of each manufacturer's product line -- the low end, the high end, and some midrange models.

What we were looking for were manufacturers that provide better warranties at the top of their lines than they do at the low end. But we didn't find any. Instead, all 21 manufacturers provided more or less the same warranty durations for every model they sell. We're not sure if it's the same in Europe and Asia, but at least in the U.S. and Canada, one size does seem to fit all.

Table 1
Camcorder Warranties

  Brand, Make & Model  Parts  Warranty  (years)  Labor  Warranty  (years)

  Aiptek ICAM 2.4 1 1
  Aiptek A-HD 1 1
  Aiptek MPVR+ 1 1
  Aiptek MZ-DV 1 1
  Aiptek GO-HD 1 1
  Archos Technology 404 1 1
  Bonica Precision Snapper SNAP-DV 1 1
  Canon ZR800 1 1
  Canon ZR830 1 1
  Canon ZR850 1 1
  Canon DC210 1 1
  Canon DC50 1 1
  Canon HV20 1 1
  Canon HG10 1 1
  Canon XHA1HD 1 1
  DGX Technology DGX305VBC 1 1
  DGX Technology 506V 1 1
  DGX Technology DGX-506VK 1 1
  DGX Technology DGX-505VS 1 1
  DGX Technology DGX-589V 1 1
  Hitachi DZGX5020A 1 0.25
  Hitachi DZGX5080A 1 0.25
  Hitachi DZHS300A 1 0.25
  Hitachi DZHS500A 1 0.25
  Hitachi DZBD7HA 1 0.25
  iSonic Snapbox DV566 1 0.25
  iSonic Snapbox DV3156 1 0.25
  iSonic Snapbox AV80S 1 0.25
  Jazz Products DV-150 1 1
  JVC GR-DA30US 1 0.25
  JVC GR-D770 1 0.25
  JVC GZ-MG130 1 0.25
  JVC GZ-MG255US 1 0.25
  JVC GZ-HD3US 1 0.25
  JVC GZ-HD7US 1 0.25
  Klegg Electronics V1802 1 1
  Klegg Electronics V1803 1 1
  KYE Systems Genius G-Shot DV1110 1 1
  KYE Systems Genius G-Shot DV1210 1 1
  Mustek DV5300SE 1 1
  Mustek DV9300 1 1
  Mustek DV520T 1 1
  Oregon Scientific ATC2K 1 1
  Panasonic PV-GS80 1 0.25
  Panasonic PV-GS85 1 0.25
  Panasonic VDR-D210 1 0.25
  Panasonic SDR-H18 1 0.25
  Panasonic SDR-H200 1 0.25
  Panasonic HDC-SD5 1 0.25
  Panasonic SDR-S10 1 0.25
  Pure Digital F130W 0.25 0.25
  Pure Digital F160W 0.25 0.25
  Pure Digital F230W 0.25 0.25
  Pure Digital F260W 0.25 0.25
  RCA Small Wonder EZ101 0.25 0.25
  RCA Small Wonder EZ201 0.25 0.25
  RCA Small Wonder EZDVD1BD 0.25 0.25
  Samsung SC-D372 1 0.25
  Samsung SC-DC173 1 0.25
  Samsung SC-MX10 1 0.25
  Samsung SC-DC575 1 0.25
  Samsung SC-HMX10 1 0.25
  Sanyo C6 1 0.25
  Sanyo VPC-HD1 1 0.25
  Sanyo HD2 1 0.25
  Sony NSC-GC1 1 0.25
  Sony CCD-TRV138 1 0.25
  Sony DCR-HC38 1 0.25
  Sony DCR-DVD108 1 0.25
  Sony DCR-DVD308 1 0.25
  Sony DCR-SR42 1 0.25
  Sony DCR-SR82 1 0.25
  Sony DCR-SR300 1 0.25
  Sony HDR-SR5 1 0.25
  Sony HDR-HC7 1 0.25
  Sony HDR-SR7 1 0.25
  VistaQuest VQ-DV7 1 1
  VuPoint Solutions DV-DA1-VP 1 0.25

Canon and ten other manufacturers provide one year of coverage for both labor and parts. Some say so explicitly, while others simply say the warranty lasts for one year. For source material, whenever possible, we went to the back pages of user manuals to read the actual text of the warranty cards. It's there that you find out whether labor is covered for the full year or not. Many retailers neglect to mention when the labor is covered for only 90 days, which invites consumers to mislead themselves.

Eight manufacturers, including leading brands such as Sony, Panasonic, JVC, Hitachi, Samsung, and Sanyo, provide product warranties where the parts are covered for one year but the labor is covered for 90 days. Two more manufacturers -- RCA (Thomson) and Pure Digital -- cover both parts and labor for only 90 days.

Extended Warranty Sales Opportunity

This is clearly an opportunity for retailers to pitch an extended warranty plan. Some of these units sell for more than a thousand dollars, and repairs can cost several hundred -- even for just the labor. As much as some researchers believe these items never break, sources tell us they in fact do. And when they do, an expired labor warranty is not a very good idea.

Therefore, to prevent the unit from turning into a throw-away item should it need a repair after the labor component of the product warranty expires, consumers could purchase additional coverage from the retailer. In fact, those extended warranties might sell themselves -- even online -- if only retailers did a better job of disclosing the 90-day labor coverage. "Great product, short labor coverage, better buy the service plan!"

There's just one problem: retailers charge different prices for both the camcorder and the additional coverage. Some keep the product's price low and try to make it up on the service plan. Others price both low, or both high. And while most would agree that a service plan that costs more than the product it covers is a rip-off, what should it be called if it costs less than the sales tax? At what price point does a service plan become a compelling accessory? What if the extended warranty was free? Would that also be a rip-off?

There are differences in price as well as in coverage. Some service plans begin coverage at the time of purchase, while others wait for the manufacturer's warranty to expire first. Some last for two or three years, while others last or four or five years. Some ask the consumer to mail away the unit, while others arrange for a drop off. There are some service plans that even allow for a pick up in the home, though these plans are more common with larger and heavier items such as televisions.

The point is, the terms and conditions are different, so of course the prices of the service plans are also different. But the products in the next three pairs of tables are the same. And yet their product prices also vary tremendously. For instance, in Tables 2 and 3, the price of a Canon HV20 camcorder ranges all the way from $450 to $950, despite a $1,000 list price. In Tables 4 and 5, the price of a Hitachi DZHS300A ranges from $300 to $400. And in Tables 6 and 7, the price of an Aiptek A-HD ranges from $135 to $200.

Delivery Not Included

In no case did we include shipping or taxes, which some online retailers charge but others don't. At most, these units weigh only a few pounds, so ground shipping should not be more than $20 (although for some merchants it could become another opportunity to price gouge). In addition, sales tax is not an issue either, because whether or not the retailer collects it, most buyers still owe it. New York State, in fact, has now begun leaving space on its tax returns for consumers to add in the sales taxes they owe but didn't pay for interstate purchases during the preceding year.

Table 2 details the service plans of some 30 retailers for an identical product: the Canon HV20 MiniDV camcorder. All of these service plans have a duration of two or three years, though some last for two years after the expiration of the one-year product warranty, while others last for two years from the time of purchase. Table 3 contains many of the same retailers plus a few others who sell four- or five-year extended warranties.

Table 2
Canon Model HV20 Camcorder
Product & Extended Warranty Price Comparisons
(for Two- and Three-Year Service Contracts)

  Retailer  Camcorder
Price in $ 
Extended Warranty
Price in %

  PC Nation $735 5.4%
  US1 Camera $719 5.6%
  Norman Camera $778 6.4%
  Target $890 6.6% $750 6.7% $708 8.5%
  Calumet Photographic $899 8.9%
  One Call $780 10% $695 11% $707 11% $749 12%
  J&R Electronics $799 13%
  Ritz Camera $800 15%
  Wolf Camera $800 15%
  Tiger Direct $850 17%
  42nd St Photo $700 21%
  Lenses n' More $849 24%
  Circuit City $750 24%
  Foto Connection $614 24%
  Crutchfield $900 27%
  1 Way Photo $679 29%
  Butterfly Photo $722 32%
  Expo Cameras $599 33%
  Circuit City (with ADP) $750 36%
  Best Price $449 40%
  Express Cameras $449 45%
  RainbowTronics $549 109%
  Expecam $509 118%

Yes, we double-checked those last few entries. For while we used to think that a service plan was getting expensive when it cost 50% as much as the product it covered, evidently retailers such as Expecam Ltd. and don't mind when the price of the service plan is actually higher than the price of the product it covers.

Notice that they show up again as the "leaders" in Table 3 as well. wants only $549 for the camcorder, but wants $1,300 for the four-year service plan. In comparison, Expecam is a bargain, asking only $509 for the camcorder and $1,000 for the service plan. In all of the product research we've done over the years, this is the first time we've ever seen a retailer ask for twice as much for the protection as they did for the product. No doubt the coverage is better than some of the $50 plans, but is it 26 times better?

Table 3
Canon Model HV20 Camcorder
Product & Extended Warranty Price Comparisons
(for Four- and Five-Year Service Contracts)

  Retailer  Camcorder
Price in $ 
Extended Warranty
Price in %

  PC Nation $735 6.8%
  US1 Camera $719 7.0%
  Adorama Camera $750 7.3%
  Norman Camera $778 7.3%
  Wal-Mart $899 10% $708 13%
  Tri-State Camera $701 13%
  ABT Electronics $899 13% $695 14%
  Best Buy $950 14% $750 16% $749 16%
  J&R Electronics $799 18%
  One Call $780 18% $707 18%
  Calumet Photographic $899 19%
  42nd St Photo $700 29%
  Foto Connection $614 29%
  Abe's of Maine $719 35%
  Lenses n' More $849 35%
  Circuit City $750 36%
  1 Way Photo $679 44%
  Broadway Photo $629 48%
  Expo Cameras $599 50%
  Circuit City (with ADP) $750 51%
  Camera Addict $589 51%
  Butterfly Photo $722 55%
  Best Price $449 62%
  Express Cameras $449 67%
  Expecam $509 196%
  Rainbowtronics $549 237%

The HV20 is not quite the high end of the Canon line -- the HG10 and HR10 sell for a little more and the Canon XHA1HD sells for a lot more. But it is one of the most widely distributed camcorder models of all. It therefore provides us with the widest possible picture of the different service plans from 35 different retailers.

Notice that we listed Circuit City twice. This was done because the company has different service plans that include or exclude accidental damage protection that cover mishaps such as droppage. For the two-year service plan, ADP costs an extra $90, and for the four-year plan it's an additional $110. No other retailers offered a choice of plans with or without ADP, though undoubtedly it is bundled automatically into some of the highest-priced plans on these lists.

If one were to search for a retailer that had average prices for the HV20 and low prices for service plans, US1 Camera and PC Nation would be good places to start. Both charge over $700 for the camcorder but charge $50 and under for the service plans. In contrast, Best Price and Express Cameras have the lowest prices for the camcorder and above average prices for the service plans. Either way, the combination of the two prices will be among the lowest, with the $629 bundle at Best Price being the absolute lowest.

And then there are 12 retailers who want more than $1,000 for the camcorder with a service plan. In fact, the highest price asked for the bundle is $1,849. Yes, that is almost triple the price of the lowest. Suffice it to say that it pays to shop around -- not only for the product but also for the protection plan.

Hitachi Price Comparisons

The Hitachi DZHS300A camcorder is more of a mid-priced unit, with an average street price around $345. Unlike the HV20, which uses tape, it actually uses both DVDs and hard disks to record video, plus SD flash memory cards to record still images. As is obvious in the shorter length of Tables 4 and 5, it is also much less widely distributed than the Canon model.

For two- and three-year plans, B&H Photo & Electronics Corp. is the price leader, while for four- and five-year plans, Best Buy Co. Inc. is the price leader. For the Hitachi camcorder itself, Foto Connection and 86th Street Photo & Video are the price leaders. For the combination of a service plan and a camcorder, and B&H are the price leaders.

Table 4
Hitachi Model DZHS300A Camcorder
Product & Extended Warranty Price Comparisons
(for Two- and Three-Year Service Contracts)

  Retailer  Camcorder
Price in $ 
Extended Warranty
Price in %

  Target $380 7.6%
  B&H Photo $330 14%
  First Avenue Electronics $400 17% $331 21%
  Circuit City $331 21%
  Foto Connection $314 48%
  Circuit City (with ADP) $331 50%
  86th Street Photo & Video $299 50%
  Broadway Photo $319 62%

In Table 5, there's yet another example of a retailer asking more for the service plan than they do for the product it covers. But this time, it's Broadway Photo LLC that's asking $319 for the camcorder and $349 for the service plan. It's a worldwide extended warranty (which may appeal to those shopping for dollar-denominated bargains) but it doesn't cover accidental damage (which Circuit City does for $130 less).

Table 5
Hitachi Model DZHS300A Camcorder
Product & Extended Warranty Price Comparisons
(for Four- and Five-Year Service Contracts)

  Retailer  Camcorder
Price in $ 
Extended Warranty
Price in %

  Best Buy $380 18%
  Wal-Mart $400 22% $331 30%
  First Avenue Electronics $400 32%
  Abe's of Maine $329 46%
  Circuit City $331 50%
  Foto Connection $314 57%
  Circuit City (with ADP) $331 66%
  86th Street Photo & Video $299 67%
  Broadway Photo $319 109%

Finally, we wanted to take a quick look at a most curious product called the Aiptek A-HD camcorder. We found it for sale at only nine retailers, but we also found it selling for as little as $135. Why is that so amazing? This is a High Definition camcorder that's roughly one-quarter the price of other low end HD units. And it's only low end because the built-in microphone is so weak. Give this company one more generation and they may have the world's first $100 high definition, high fidelity camcorder.

What's also amazing is that the manufacturer covers it with a one-year product warranty. Other low end units such as the Pure Digital "Flip" series get only 90 days of coverage. However, we could not find a single retailer willing to write a five-year service plan contract for either product line. So obviously someone is betting on a short lifespan.

Table 6
Aiptek Model A-HD Camcorder
Product & Extended Warranty Price Comparisons
(for Two- and Three-Year Service Contracts)

  Retailer  Camcorder
Price in $ 
Extended Warranty
Price in % $145 10%
  Target $150 13%
  Beach Audio $157 13%
  Electronics Showplace $146 14%
  CompSource $147 32%
  Circuit City $135 33%
  Circuit City (with ADP) $135 44%

Yes, Circuit City sells accidental damage protection for this unit, which means that for under $200 you could put a drop-proof High Definition camcorder into a child's hands this holiday season. That is simply amazing! Not only does the unit have a low price, but so does the protection plan. At, the product with a two-year service plan costs $160. At Wal-Mart, the product with a four-year plan costs $162 (to be precise, it's the manufacturer's warranty plus a three-year extension).

Table 7
Aiptek Model A-HD Camcorder
Product & Extended Warranty Price Comparisons
(for Four- and Five-Year Service Contracts)

  Retailer  Camcorder
Price in $ 
Extended Warranty
Price in %

  Cameras and Photo $200 15%
  Wal-Mart $139 17%
  Best Buy $135 37%
  CompSource $147 39%
  Circuit City $135 44%
  Circuit City (with ADP) $135 56%

Of course, you get what you pay for, and when you pay only $150 for a camcorder, you can't expect it to be much more than a children's toy. But what a children's toy it would be! There were other low end products we looked at which seemed more at home as Webcams or possibly as security cameras. But this one is built with a hand grip and a viewfinder, and comes with a free car battery adapter. It's even available in both red and blue.

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