There's a Panasonic camcorder (the SDR-H18) that's highly rated by wize.com (rated 93) and by CNET (rated 7.4) that costs about $500. At wize.com, many people commented that they liked this Panasonic model better than the Sony model that's similar.
One camera owner commented, "I truly LOVE my camcorder. My instincts were to buy a Sony - for the name. But I'm so happy that I did a little research and read other people's reviews regarding the Panasonic SDR-H18. I wouldn't trade it! And the price can't be beat!!
The SDR-H18 records to a hard drive (built-in 30 GB) or removable SD card. The camcorder contains a 1/6-inch, 680,000-pixel CCD sensor. This model does not have 3 CCD sensors as is implied on Panasonic's Web site. The camcorder also contains a 32X optical zoom.
CNET has this to say about the camcorder: "Combining the simplicity of SD recording, a roomy 30GB hard drive, a long zoom, and pleasing image quality, the SDR-H18 is a good choice for a standard-definition, hard-drive camcorder."