As is my nature, I've been poking around lately for the best possible camera for the least amount of money. I still own and use my trusty Canon Optura Pi, but it is showing its age. I've wanted to snag a Canon HV20, but available funds (and constant car repairs) have been a problem. So, while I can't exactly upgrade right now, I sure can look.
I've also been intrigued by the idea of the "fast-cam", which is something small enough to fit in your pocket, encodes video to an SD card (which keeps it compact) and is simple to operate. I think cell phone cameras will eventually fill this need, but right now the video is compressed so horribly (in the .3gp format) that I'd be embarrassed to even put it on YouTube. Not to mention that you'd have to convert it if you wanted to edit, then render it out to something else. Not worth it.
There are quite a few neat little cameras out there that fit this bill, even spilling over into the hard drive camera market (despite them not really fitting into a pocket all that well), with one problem--mic inputs are becoming scarce on entry level models. I went into Best Buy a few days ago and asked an employee which models had mic jacks and snickered when they pointed to the A/V port.
It used to be that every camcorder had a way in for external audio (which migrated over from Super 8 sound cameras), but no longer is this true. If you want to open up your sound world to an external mic, you're going to have to spend at least $600. This may "sound" silly to some ("just get a real camera!"), but there is nothing wrong with learning how to make movies on a cheap camera. What is wrong is not to learn the importance of audio by using the built-in camera mic. It will set a bad precedent, and when you do want to graduate to audible sound, you may be stuck with a camera that won't let you.
This recent development leads me to a bit of a rant. Why has the mic input (and its brother the headphone jack) become scarce? How much money and camera size is really saved by eliminating these very useful connections? Could it be a steady diet of crappy clips has desensitized the public to quality? My guess is that most people don't care. Joe Six Pack never used that little hole anyway, so why start now?
So, when looking for a camera to buy or borrow, make sure you get a mic input. The "fast-cam" is great for shooting spontaneous stuff, but would be even better if you could interview someone without having to jam the camera up their nose so you can understand what they are saying. A cheap external mic is better than the most expensive built-in one.