Hands-on with the Flip Video Camcorders


Flip-video-image It’s said that good things come in small packages. Flip Video’s line of ultra-small camcorders proves this can be true, so long as you’re prepared for a few trade-offs.

If you own a camcorder, I’ve got a question for you: What’s the single biggest frustration you have with it?
For most people the answer tends to be one of the following:

“It’s so bulky that I often end up not taking it with me when there are events I could be recording.”

“Once I record video, I’m stuck with a pain-in-the-rear process for getting that video off the camera and onto the TV, a DVD or being able to share them online. Most of my tapes are just sitting in a drawer and we never watch them.”

It’s no wonder that for many families, the camcorder has become the fondue set of the media age – everyone feels they should own one, but after the initial flurry of recording every meal, school play, picnic, party and birthday, it often ends up gathering dust in a drawer at home while the much smaller digital still camera comes out to capture most of the action.

It was this gap between people’s desire to shoot video and their reluctance to carry a camcorder around that led the creative minds at PureDigital to develop the Flip Video. They determined that what people really wanted but simply couldn’t buy, was a small, pocketable, dead-simple camcorder that would let them shoot, save and share video as easily as they could listen to music on their iPod or call people on their cellphones.

The result is a camcorder that does two things very well: Let you capture decent quality video whenever the mood strikes you, and then view or share the clips effortlessly.

Flip camcorders come in two different form factors and two different video formats depending on your needs and or tastes. The “Mino” series is Flip’s smallest version. They come in both SD (Standard Definition) and HD (High Definition) flavours. In overall dimensions, carrying around a Mino is like having a thick iPod Nano in your pocket. They’re big enough to be able to hold it comfortably while shooting, but small enough that you barely notice it when not in use. Their small size it partly due to their internal rechargeable battery, which is good for about two hours of use before needing a recharge. If you’re just shooting and not doing a lot of playback, this should be more than enough given that the Mino’s can only hold 1 hour of video before needing to be emptied onto a PC.

The Ultra series (again, available in SD or HD) are, feature for feature nearly identical to the Minos with two major exceptions: The Ultras can hold two hours of video in their internal memory, and you can use two regular AA size batteries to power them, or choose a rechargeable battery pack. This flexibility when it comes to power options means that the Ultras are quite a bit bigger than their Mino cousins: Almost twice as thick at 1.17” (vs. 0.63” for the Mino) and a little taller (4.25” vs 3.94” for the Mino).

The extra heft of the Ultras is actually a good thing when it comes to shooting – they feel more substantial and people with large hands will have an easier time managing the controls on the back of the camcorder’s body. Unfortunately, it also means that pocketing the Ultra is something you’ll only want to do if you’re wearing a jacket.

Shooting with the Flip

The Flips start up in about three seconds after you activate the power button (which on the Mino is a very small control – not very big-finger friendly). This lag may bother people who are used to a faster start-up time, but in casual shooting scenarios it isn’t an issue.

After start-up, your choice are simple: push the big red button on the back to begin recording and use the up and down buttons to take advantage of the Flip’s 3x digital zoom. That’s it. There are no manual controls for focus, iris, white balance or any other adjustment you’d find on a larger camcorder. And that’s the whole idea. Nothing should come between you and the action you’re trying to capture. You don’t really miss these manual controls. The Flip does an excellent job with variable lighting, adjusting its iris quicker than many much more expensive camcorders.

There will be times when you wish the Flip had a greater zoom range.   The 3x digital zoom works well enough, but there’s a noticeable softening of the focus when you replay segments that were shot at full zoom. This is unavoidable given that the zoom effect is being driven by software enhancement and not the camera’s lens. The solution to this problem is to change your shooting style to take advantage of the Flip’s strength: its size. With such a small camcorder, you are free to get in close to the action and move around without a heavy piece of equipment slowing you down.

Apart from the lack of zoom, the only other thing I found myself wishing for was an image stabilizer. Without it, every jerk of your arm – even a small one – is captured as you shoot. I have become so accustomed to the smoothing effect of technologies like Sony’s SteadyShot that it is quite jarring (literally) to watch video that is shot without it. It’s not a deal-breaker – especially given the Flip’s low price-point, but its absence, combined with the lack of an optical zoom prevents the Flip from becoming a true replacement for a conventional video camera. One last thing to note regarding the Flip’s optics is the lack of decent macro. The closest you can get to an object before the focus begins to soften is about 1.3 feet.

One thing that surprised me when shooting with the MinoHD, is that the zoom controls are locked out when you aren’t recording. This means that if you want to star a shot with the camera fully zoomed in, you’ll need to record a throw-away clip to zoom in first, stop recording, then start again. It’s an odd choice from a usability point of view, made odder by the fact the Ultra doesn’t suffer from the same limitation.

Sound quality is average, and I wouldn’t expect much more out of a camera like this. If you’re after Dolby 5.1 surround sound, look elsewhere.  While the Minos are limited to mono sound, the Ultras have stereo microphones.

Built-in Software

Part of what makes the iPod so popular is the powerful combination of hardware and software. An iPod without iTunes is just a very well designed media player. But add iTunes to the equation and you now have one of the best solutions to discovering, buying and managing that media available today.

To a lesser extent, the same is true of the Flip. Embedded within every Flip Video camcorder is the FlipShare software. It resides permanently inside the camera’s internal memory, ready to be installed as soon as the Flip is connected to a PC (or a Mac).  The FlipShare software gives you a simple set of tools that helps you:

  • Browse the contents of your Flip and save the clips you want to keep on your computer
  • Perform basic  editing of your clips (trimming them to the desired length)
  • Create videos by joining your clips together with titling and either stock music or your own .mp3 music file
  • Burn DVDs of your movies
  • Prepare your videos for uploading to popular sharing sites like YouTube
  • Share your videos using “Flip Channels” – a way to keep your videos online, yet only accessible to your friends and family
  • Create video emails or video greeting cards
  • Capture still images from your videos (while this function is handy for emailing photos, the resolution of 424×318 is unsuitable for prints)

FlipShare is another example of a user interface that follows the example set by iTunes. Folders, devices, channels and other options are presented in a left-hand column, while the contents of a folder or device appear in the larger right-hand column which takes up the remaining width of the window. Video clips can be sorted by date taken, clip length, clip name or the date they were labelled as a favourite, and viewed as single videos, thumbnails, or thumbs plus descriptions. Kind of like the different slide views in PowerPoint.

Everything is very clearly laid out with big buttons for common tasks like viewing videos full screen, sending emails or creating movies.

The Flip Channels feature is a new addition to the FlipShare software and fills a gap left by previous versions. Now, instead of relying on email attachments (which can often be too large) or sharing sites like YouTube which typically don’t offer private viewing options, you can create as many of your own “channels” as you like, and upload your Flip video clips to them. Once uploaded, you can create email notifications that go out to anyone on your recipient list, or have those people notified automatically whenever new clips are added.

It’s an ideal way to segregate your videos according to who you want to share them with.  E.g. a child’s birthday party videos could be shared with all the people who attended, while a separate channel could be created for just immediate family for all videos of the kids.

Here's a link to a "public" channel I created that has 4 video clips that I shot with the MinoHD. Keep in mind, when sharing clips via Flip Channels, the videos get down-converted and saved as .wmv files. This means that they loose much of their HD quality and resolution in favour of a smaller file size that can streamed more easily over typical broadband connections.

Creating movies from your individual Flip clips is a snap and is done through the use of a simple 4-step wizard. Your choices are very limited: Choose your clips, order them any way you want, choose to add a title slate for the beginning and/or a credit slate for the end and then choose your musical accompaniment if so desired. That’s it.

There is no option to control the transitions between clips, and no choice in terms of font style or colour for the title and credit screens. There is also no choice when it comes to output resolution, file format or bitrates. Keep in mind, this is supposed to be fast and easy, not a Spielberg-level production.

If you really want to take control over your videos, you’ll need to find an editing program that can work with H.264 format files, which is what the Flip records in natively.

The software lets you choose 3 settings for the music volume: lower than recorded video soundtrack, same as, or louder than. I found that even with the lowest setting, the music tended to drown out all but the loudest dialogue, so if you go with the music option, you’d better hope your images tell the tale.

As with most video editing software, rendering out the final product can take a while, but my Core 2 Duo T6400 was able to crank out a 17 minute movie in about 40 minutes, which ain’t bad considering it’s full 720p HD video we’re working with.

Something to keep in mind when choosing one of the HD Flip models is the minimum specs for the FlipShare software, which are:

  • Intel Pentium 4 3.0 GHz processor or faster
  • Windows XP SP2 with 512 MB of RAM, or Windows Vista with 1 GB of RAM
  • USB 2.0 port
  • SVGA display monitor and video card, with display set to screen resolution of 1024 by 768 pixels or higher and color quality/depth set to 24-bit or higher (to check/change setting, open Control Panel > Display > Settings)
  • Windows Media Player 9.0 or later
  • Microsoft DirectX 9.0 or later

Don’t take these specs lightly. When I first received my test MinoHD, I installed the software on my aging P4 2.4Ghz desktop PC. Guess what? It couldn’t handle the CPU-intensive task of working with HD resolution video at all. If your PC doesn’t meet these specs, it might be time for a new computer (I actually used this sad event as an excuse to upgrade) or you should consider sticking with one of the SD models – I tried the Ultra SD and it worked without a hitch on my poor old P4, which incidentally is now living out its remaining years as a learning computer for my father-in-law.

Video Quality

When viewed on a PC or on an HDTV via an HDMI cable from your PC, the video quality is really pretty amazing given the tiny size of the Flip.  More impressive is the Flip sensor’s ability to handle varying lighting conditions with such ease. Whether indoors or outdoors, contrast remains high and colours remain vibrant.

Conclusion

Though the Flip isn’t going to replace your full size camcorder when it comes to things like zoom, or image stabilization, the trade-off is worth it when you think of all the times you just didn’t feel like lugging around an extra piece of gear with you. The Flip will go anywhere you go, and if that means you get to capture moments that would have otherwise gone un-filmed, you likely won’t look back and think “jeez, that could have looked better”, you’ll just be happy you’ve got the memory saved for as long as you want it. And with prices that start at about $145 for the Ultra SD, it’s not a decision that will break the bank.

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