Summer vacation is nearing and you're finally considering purchasing a camcorder (a portable video camera that's also a VCR) to record all the memories of fun in the sun and trips on the road. While its true that basic camcorder prices are lower than ever, the confusion among all the fea-tures/options/brands available isn't - it's higher than ever.

Camcorder is a word (CAM from camera and CORDER from recorder) that can only be found in the most recent of dictionaries, but it is today's most popular electronic gadget and highly rated TV shows like "America's Funniest Home Videos" (the No. 1 TV show in Utah) confirm this.Camcorders haven't replaced 35mm cameras, but they're definitely a neat gadget with an instant playback that includes sound.

Today's consumers use camcorders to record such things as catalogs of their possessions for insurance purposes, vacations, weddings, birthdays, reunions, living wills and video letters. Some camera owners even get lucky and record disasters or crime sequences that appear on national television. Other camcorders double as second home VCRs.

According to the Electronic Industries Association (a non-profit trade association), four years ago, only one family in 30 owned a camcorder. Today, it's one in 10 and more are buying them all the time.

Not only have the prices come down (for example, the popular Sears/Hitachi/RCA full-size model camcorder cost $999 in 1988, but today it sometimes sells for just under $700), but so have the size and weight of the units.

A decade ago, video enthusiasts had to carry around 35 pounds-plus of separate video cameras and separate recorders. Five years ago, that weight total dropped below 15 pounds as the camera and recorder merged into one piece.

Then came the microchip, and today some small camcorders fit in one hand and weigh as little as two to four pounds.

There are 3 types of camcorders:

1. Standard VHS. Uses full-size tape and weighs five to eight pounds.

2. VHS-C. Uses the same size tape as a VHS but in a smaller cartridge that must be placed into an adapter to play in your VCR.

3. 8-mm. Uses a small cassette tape that must be played through your camcorder's VCR mode into your television and then copied by your VCR on a VHS tape.

Prices range from $500 to $2,000-plus. Nationally, the full-size VHS is the best seller (controls 45 percent of the market) and the 8-mm model is the No. 2 seller.

However, in Utah and the West, the smaller (nicknamed "palm-quarters") camcorder models are the most popular, according to John Kirton, Salesman at Salt Lake's TV Specialists store. He believes this is because they are so much easier to pack around than the full-size model.

Camcorders are also available for rentals at some electronics stores. For example, Salt Lake's Videoland rents camcorders for $30 a day or $47.50 for two days. The weekly rate is $122.50.

Options on camcorders vary a lot, and what a buyer gets as standard equipment (hard carrying case, strap, battery, etc.) in the base price is important. Other options (discussed below) can add to the price of the unit.

- VHS or 8-mm or VHS-C?:

This is probably the first question prospective camcorder owners have to answer. Do I want the big size or one of the two smaller sizes?

None of the three types really offer that much better picture, but if you're going to just tape things around your house or town (birthday parties, weddings, sporting events, etc.) then the full-size VHS camcorder is likely the best choice. If you are going to use a camcorder primarily for vacations, then one of the smaller two versions is probably your best bet.

VHS advantages: Purchase price is less, perhaps offers more stability, is probably easier for dealers to repair and is directly compatible with regular videocassette VHS size tapes.

VHS disadvantages: Large and bulky (takes a small suitcase full of space on vacations) and possibly less picture resolution than the 8-mm.

8-mm advantages: Smaller, easy to carry, less threatening to home video stars. Produces a better picture when copied on other tapes than other models do.

8-mm disadvantages: Perhaps more vulnerable to damage because of its compact size, you either need an adaptor to play the 8-mm in a VHS VCR, or you need to copy the 8-mm tape onto a VHS tape. 8-mm tapes cost a little more than VHS tapes.

VHS-C advantages: only weighs 3-4 pounds, small size.

VHS-C disadvantages: tapes only have 20 minutes of recording time vs. two hours for VHS and 8-mm. Tapes cost about the same as 8-mm tapes.

- Options to consider:

- Sound quality: Some 8-mm camcorders now have stereo. Be aware that all camcorders pick up sound in all directions, not just where the lens is pointed. Built-in microphones offer marginal sound and are worst in windy areas. Separate microphones are needed for the best sound capabilities.

- Reproduction quality. All camcorder recordings lose some image quality when copied. The 8-mm has the edge in recording and by some estimates loses only about 10 percent of image quality per copy. The VHS loses about 30 percent, and the VHS-C loses about the same and even loses an additional 15 percent when it is put into the adapter alone.

- Shutter speed. Many camcorders automatically set the shutter speed - 1-60 or 1-100 of a second for normal shooting. Some more expensive models offer 1-4000 or 1-10,000 of a second.(You'd only need 1-10,000th of a second to capture a moving bullet.)

- Lens aperture, or f-stops. The lower the f-stop, the better the low-light power. Most cam-corders have a capability of f-1.6; more expensive models, f-1.2.

- Lux ratings. These describe how sensitive the camcorder is in low light conditions. One lux is equal to one candle, at 10 feet, burning in a room. The lower the lux rating, the better the camcorder can tape in low light conditions.

In lower light areas, you lose color sharpness and have some graining. Most camcorders have a 5 lux rating, but some of the high-end models can have a lux rating as low as .5. Ultimately, in low light, even the best of camcorders is marginal - despite manufacturer claims. (Some buy extra lighting fixtures for their camcorder.)

- Zoom lenses. Most camcorders have auto-focus zooms, so you don't have to worry about focusing. The average camcorder has a 6-1 or 8-1 zoom ratio, meaning it can magnify the image six times or eight times to one. More expensive models have a 10-1 or 12-1 ratio.

- Automatic white balance. A standard feature on most camcorders, the white balance adjusts the camera so that it maintains accurate color in variable light conditions.

- Editing capabilities. Most camcorders (all 8-mm and many of the VHS models) have a flying erase head, which allows the user smooth transition from shot to shot. Many have edit search and review capabilities, allowing you to play back what you've just shot.

Higher-priced models include more elaborate editing possibilities, such as adding an insert into an existing shot or offering split-screen techniques. Some camcorders have a fade button and can even put titles up on the screen.

- Batteries. Most are not interchangeable among the different brands, so you have to buy the battery the camera manufacturer makes. A one-hour battery costs about $45; 2-hour, $75. The batteries don't last forever and gradually recharge for less and less time.

- Tapes. Don't buy cheap tapes for cam-corders. Use the recommended tapes for cam-corders for best results.

- There are other options with devices that help keep a picture steady.

- Camcorder problems:

Heat/moisture: Although many camcorders have moisture warning lights to warn users, cam-corders are especially vulnerable to heat. Many units are black and excessive heat can trigger sensors inside that release lubricants and eventually gum up the camcorder. This turns into a costly repair bill. (Too bad they don't have heat warning lights, too.)

Maintenance: Some dealers offer extra warranties that can be purchased for annual fees. These programs are worth considering since most repair places won't even estimate the cost of a cam-corder repair for less than $30. It's also best to have annual service on a camcorder.

Accidents: All camcorders are highly vulnerable to damage cause by dropping them. They're a fragile device.