In just a glance, the appeal of Pure Digital's Flip camcorder is immediately apparent: the device's compact body, one-button operation and low price tag are a triple threat to all amateur videographers out there. Like a bulked-up version of a Nokia candybar mobile phone, the Flip is video recording at its very basic. Thankfully, the output is far better.
It was only a week ago that Pure Digital launched the second-generation of its Flip UltraHD mini digital camcorder, and I've been tagging around with the model since that day, getting a feel for shooting video with one fist, rather than one cupped hand. I've used a Flip camcorder before, back in its first incarnation, and I can say confidently that the product line has really come a long way, adding nuance and build quality while preserving its core goal of recording video, simply.
What's it like?
The most recent generation of the Flip UltraHD camcorder fits in the hand rather nicely, curved on the front end, where your fingers would wrap around (you hold the Flip much the same way as you hold a mobile phone when taking a photograph). The back, front, top and bottom faces all are covered in a thin, rubberized coating, lending a soft and slightly tactile touch to the device (the sides shine, and smudge, with a chrome finish).
The device has a nice heft to it, which isn't to say that it is heavy. The perceived weight actually makes it slightly easier to hold the device steady while recording -- wonderful, since it's very tempting to move your arm with such a small device (the minor heft is not enough to fatigue a hand or arm during use).
On the front is an enclosed, fixed focus (f/2.4) lens; on the back is a two-inch screen that is both surprisingly bright and crisp, and shows a live image quite well (there is a not-unsubstantial degree of motion blur as you move around; I don't recommend shooting action scenes with a Flip). Also on the back is a big red (you guessed it) record button, surrounded by up, down, left and right keys for navigating the video menu on playback. Flanking the recording button nucleus are play and delete ("trash") buttons.
On the right side, a flush power button and lanyard hole; on the left, an HDMI port for TV playback and a retractable USB arm that swings out, spring-loaded, to 90 degrees for data transfer and recharging the AA-size NiMH rechargeables within. The bottom has a "lock/unlock" function and a hole to mount the camcorder on a tripod.
There's also a 2X digital zoom, but it's rather slow and given its short distance, I advise just moving your feet instead.
The $199.99 UltraHD I demoed shoots two hours of high-definition, 720p, 1280x720, 30fps, H.264 compressed video that exports in MPEG-4 format; there's a standard-resolution (640x480 VGA) model available for $149.
So how's it perform?
When I first took the UltraHD out of its box and turned it on, a friend couldn't help but remark how cool it was. And it is -- for the price, for 720p video, for a sharp 2 in. screen, and for the compact nature of the camcorder, it's a real treat.
The 8GB of internal memory allows you to record 2 hours of video; that can be a perceived drawback for some, but you should consider what you'll be using this camera for: quick, on-the-go video, or on-the-beach moments, or the kids playing in the yard. Really, it's plenty of space, and you can always unload the video with a laptop.
The process of shooting and transferring videos to a computer was a breeze. Without many menu options to choose from (record, play, delete), it's hard to screw it up -- perfect for non-techies in the family. Flip's software supports both Windows and Mac and offers basic editing features (you don't have to use it if you don't want to).
I used the UltraHD in both fixed and handheld positions with varying results. The video is relatively sharp and colorful outside, but shots inside (particularly with fluorescent lighting) appear flat. Noise is pretty good in dark places; the audio was clear and loud unless it was distant or especially quiet. The auto-white balance did a respectable job. The most difficult hurdle to overcome with the Flip is keeping your own hand still.
Here's a quick clip of my cat. Nothing riveting, but you can see how movement, focus and light are handled (ignore the ho-hum YouTube resolution; it's a bit crisper in its original form, as you can see in the image above):
Does it compare to video produced by a real HD camcorder that costs a few hundred dollars more? Of course not -- but it's pretty darn good for such a little device.
Why not the MinoHD?
What's the difference between this and the MinoHD? For starters, the MinoHD is a bit slimmer in profile and thickness. It also comes in smaller storage sizes (4GB and 2GB, rather than 8GB and 4GB for the UltraHD) and has a 1.5-in. screen as opposed to the UltraHD's 2-in. screen.
The UltraHD also has a newer version of Flip's Video Engine, allowing for slightly better video overall.
On the power side, the MinoHD uses rechargable Li-ion batteries, while the UltraHD also supports standard AA and gets about 30 mins more juice (but takes longer to charge).
For a comparison of the various Flip models, the company provides a comparison chart here.
So would you buy it?
If you have a need to record video but aren't employed to do so, the Flip UltraHD is your answer. Succinctly, I would buy it in a heartbeat. It's easy to use, physically and digitally, it offers reasonably good HD video and it's a mere $200 for the best model the company makes.
Every time I pull the UltraHD from my bag, people around me smile. People just think it's cool -- and it is. They're wowed by the crisp screen on the back and the ease in actually using it. It's the kind of camcorder that I'd be just as likely to give to my grandmother as to my own child -- without worrying about either of them snapping a traditional camcorder's swivel display off (though watch out for that USB arm).
Is it a stand-in for a traditional camcorder? In a pinch and in less-than-important video situations (read: no weddings). I've definitely been seeing professional videographers, particularly journalists, toting Flips as backup devices for their traditional gear (Including myself, such as for the Amazon Kindle DX launch). It offers much better output than anything that could come from a mobile phone, and it doesn't involve all the work of a traditional camcorder.
But back to the smiles: there's something about this device that makes people want to be in front of a camera. For that intangible factor alone, I recommend it.