Lee: yes, you'll find that e.g. the Mustek camcorders are cheap because they use cards, not tape (among other reasons). The brands you note are all good, as far as I'm concerned, and I'd probably add Panasonic (I'm a fan of Panny stuff - you get a lot of camera for not much money and mine, touch wood, has been very reliable). In terms of things to look for:
Size of the CCD: for your budget, you're unlikely to find a 3 CCD model, but the more pixels, the better. 800,000 is a good number to aim for.
Zoom: I like to have the maximum optical zoom possible - a recent Panny (now discontinued, I fear) in your price range had a 24x optical zoom. Don't worry about digital zoom - it's useless.
Low light: many of my early family videos are all but unwatchable because they're so dark - my first camcorder coped very badly with low light. Check to see what the spec is on low light performance.
MiniDV: make sure it's miniDV, not the other one (digital 8 or something): miniDV is more expensive (but still within your price range) but definitely the way to go.
USB vs. Firewire: there seems to be a trend for camcorders to support USB in preference to Firewire, although many support both. Everyone on here will tell you that Firewire is the way to go.
Software: don't get seduced by bundled software. Windows Movie Maker is just fine for starters till you find out more. The only thing that may be worth going for is if the software includes a DVD authoring capability.
I'm sure others on the board can come up with different ideas, but that's my two penn'orth.
Premiere Pro, Encore, Photoshop, Ulead VS6, WXP Pro, Core 2 Duo, 2GB, 2 x 250GB SATA3 drives, 2 x 250GB USB 2 external drive, DVD writer, GeForce 7300 GS 256MB
The biggest fool can ask questions that the wisest man cannot answer...