I am assuming that most divers who will be buying their first BCD want to get something that they can use for a number years, that they will not outgrow in terms of functionality and use, and of course reasonably priced.
We are not going to discuss the history and use of BCD's in SCUBA diving. There are many very good articles published that can be used as a good reference. However, what I would like to do is try to give the first time buyer some considerations that might be useful when you make that all important selection.
Type: BCD's come in various styles and suit various functions. For the beginning SCUBA divers a stablizer jacket is probably the best way to go. A backplate system is an alternative for the serious technical or wreck diver.
Integrated weights: Some BCD's come with integrated weight pockets that allow weight to be carried in the BCD as opposed to a weight belt. I do not have a strong feeling about either option and arguments can be made for each type of weight system. Some divers like the concept of an integrated system for convenience and simplicty. The integrated systems have the benefit that dumping weights in an emergency is very easy since the weight pockets are easy to get to. On the other hand, weight belts are sometimes covered by a cumberband or other pieces of equipment and dumping the weight belt might take a little longer than the integrated weight pockets. I am sure there are those who might disagree on this point, but that has been my observation. The downside to having the integrated weight pockets on the BCD is that sometimes the weights can move around on you causing unwanted movement in the water.
Personally, I have a slight preference for a weight belt, especially when I am wearing a lot of weight. Bottom line: try both systems and see which works better for you. With an integrated system you have more flexibility since you have the benefit of still being able to wear a weight belt if you want to in the future.
Tomorrow I will write more about integrated air systems, dump valves, pockets and a few other essential things to look for in BCD's.