|Introduction & Specifications|
The popularity of video-sharing sites, such as YouTube and Viddler, coupled with the integration of video-capturing technologies into common consumer electronics devices, such as cell phones and digital cameras, has turned virtually everyone into budding videographers and documentary filmmakers. But perhaps the biggest push toward putting video into everyone's hands, started with the introduction of the inexpensive pocket camcorder in 2006. This new camcorder design did not resemble the size and shape of what we traditionally expect a camcorder to look like; instead it resembled a thick candy bar with a lens on one side and an LCD on the other.
Pure Digital Technologies started the pocket camcorder revolution when it released the Pure Digital Point and Shoot, which was to be later renamed the Flip Video camcorder. Pure Digital Technologies followed with additional pocket camcorder models in the Flip Video product line, and soon other manufacturers were releasing their own pocket camcorders, such as Creative, Kodak, and Sony. Most of these were sub-$200 camcorders, which suddenly brought the video camera well into the budget realm. Pure Digital Technologies claims that its Flip Ultra model is the "number-one selling camcorder in the U.S., while the Flip MinoHD, launched last November, is currently the top-selling HD camcorder in the country."
Pure Digital Technologies recently announced two new products in its pocket camcorder lineup: the Flip UltraHD (MSRP: $199.99) and the Flip Ultra (MSRP: $149.99). Both models build upon the existing Flip Ultra line by offering new features, such as two-hours of recording time and increasing the LCD size to 2.0-inches (diagonal). The Flip UltraHD also offers high-definition (HD) video recording (1280x720) and an HDMI Mini TV-out port. We spent some hands-on time with the Flip UltraHD to evaluate its capabilities.
Despite being the latest, highest-end pocket camcorder from Pure Digital Technologies, the Flip UltraHD is surprisingly not the most expensive camera that the company currently sells. The most expensive camcorder is the $229.99 Flip MinoHD. The Flip UltraHD and the Flip MinoHD share similar specs (they both use the same CMOS sensor and optics), but the Flip MinoHD uses a more compact design, has a smaller (1.5-inch) LCD, has only 4GB of internal memory (for 60-minutes of recording time), and its rechargeable battery is not removable. As the Flip UltraHD is a newer product, it uses a more advanced video compression engine (the Flip Video Engine 3.5, versus version 3.0 in the Flip MinoHD).
From a pure bang-for-the-buck perspective, the newer Flip UltraHD offers a better value. That said, if having your pocket camcorder as small and light as possible is your top priority (the Flip MinoHD measures just 3.94x1.97x0.63-inches and weight 3.3-ounces), the Flip MinoHD might then be the better way to go.
|Design & Build Quality|
The Flip UltraHD is available with a black or white body. We looked at the black-colored model, with its front, back, top, and bottom covered with a black, rubberized plastic. The sides of the unit are covered with a silver-colored, metalized plastic. Despite the plastic body, the camcorder appears to be sturdy--although we'd be hesitant to see what would happen to it if we dropped it. The 4.25x2.19x1.17-inch, 6-ounce device, felt comfortable and light in our hands, and never felt slippery--even when our hands became sweaty from holding it for long periods of time.
The front of the camcorder contains a fixed-focus (1.5m to infinity), fixed-aperture (f/2.4) lens. (The Flip UltraHD comes with a cloth carrying case that does double-duty as a lens cloth.) Next to the lens is a grill that covers the built-in microphone. A recording light, hidden behind the grill, lights red when the camcorder is recording.
The entire front section below the lens, slides off to reveal access to the removable battery. You could swap in a second rechargeable battery or even a pair of traditional AA batteries to extend the camcorder's recording time beyond the battery's rated 2.5 hours. The bottom of the camcorder houses the lock for the battery compartment, as well as a tripod mount.
The back of the Flip UltraHD contains a 2-inch LCD, speaker (above the LCD), and the camcorder's controls. The LCD is the only means of viewing what is being recorded, as the camcorder does not include an additional optical viewer. While small, the LCD is bright and sufficient for monitoring what the lens sees. Typically, when you use the Flip UltraHD, you use the camcorder with your arm extended out in front of you. When recording, the LCD shows how much recording time is left on the device.
The controls are easy to use and very basic, providing only record, stop, and zoom functionality during video recording. The big red record/stop button in the middle makes starting and stopping recordings a no-brainer. Pressing the dedicated playback button automatically plays back the most-recently recorded video. During playback, you can raise and lower the playback volume, fast-forward and rewind through a clip, advance through multiple saved video clips, and delete saved clips. If you press and hold the red record button when you power on the device, it takes you to the setup menu, where you can set the camcorder's date, time, enable or disable tones (which are the beeps the camcorder emits when doing things like starting or stopping recording), and enable or disable the red recording light.
One side of the camcorder has the power button and a receptacle for the included wrist strap. We were able to go from powering on the camcorder to start recording a video in about three seconds. The other side of the device contains the USB interface and an HDMI Mini TV-out port. The USB interface is attached to an arm that swings out when you press a release button. The arm is less than an inch long, however, which makes it quite challenging to connect to the USB port on many computers. We used a USB extension cable to make connecting the camcorder to our computer a much less cumbersome process. We had to supply the cable ourselves, however, as the Flip UltraHD does not come with such a helpful item. If you want to display the Flip UltraHD's saved videos on a TV or monitor, you will need to get your hands on an HDMI Mini-to-HDMI cable or adapter.
We also ran into a problem when charging the Flip UltraHD. A number of times while charging the unit, the camcorder's LCD displayed an error message saying that the unit was too hot and charging was halted. We found that charging would not automatically continue once the unit cooled back down; and instead we had to unplug the camcorder's USB connection from our computer and then reconnect it in order for charging to continue.
|Image Quality, Performance & Software|
It is important to note that the Flip UltraHD uses a significantly smaller sensor to capture video than most traditional--and more expensive--camcorders. You should not expect to see the same level of image quality from the Flip UltraHD as you would from more expensive camcorders. That said, we were relatively satisfied with the image quality that the camcorder generated. As long as there was ample light, captured video was bright with crisp colors. When compared to HD footage captured with higher-end camcorders with larger sensors, however, footage captured with the Flip UltraHD appeared a bit softer. The Flip UltraHD did a decent job of capturing footage in relatively low light conditions as well, but not without adding a noticeable amount of noise to the captured images. Using the 2x digital zoom also introduced some additional softness and noise to captured video as well.
We were impressed with the audio quality of the Flip UltraHD's integrated, stereo microphone. It did a very capable job of picking up audio sources that were both very close and as well as those from a relative distance. As with most omnidirectional microphones, however, it tends to pick up sound from more sources that you might desire, such as that from the wind. Unlike more expensive camcorders, the Flip UltraHD does not support using external microphones.
While we were satisfied with the video and audio capture quality, the Flip UltraHD suffers from a significant Achilles' heel, and that is its lack of image stabilization. The problem with handheld cameras is that most peoples' hands are not very steady. We're used to seeing blurry pictures from still cameras where the picture taker moved the camera while the camera's shutter was open and capturing the image. The same thing can happen with video; but in addition to potentially blurry shots, unnecessary camera motion can also make for some very jerky-looking shots. Many cameras and camcorders today come with built-in image stabilization that helps to minimize this problem; unfortunately, the Flip Ultra HD is not one of them.
The result is that much of the footage we captured--including that when we were standing still and trying to keep the camera as still as possible--has an annoying shaky feel to it. As to how much shakiness can be tolerated is in the eyes of the beholder; so what annoys us, might not bother you at all. If you find that you have very steady hands, then you might have better luck than we did. Some video-editing applications, such as Apple's iMovie '09, have image-stabilization features that can potentially help smooth out some of the footage's jerkiness.
Captured videos are stored in the Flip UltraHD's memory as MP4 video files. When you connect the camcorder to a Windows or Mac computer, you have the option of installing the FlipShare software onto the system directly from the camcorder's memory. You do not have to install the software in order to retrieve the video files from the camera; the camcorder appears to the OS as an attached USB drive and you can simply copy the MP4 files from the camcorder's memory to your computer. However, in order to view the video on you computer, your computer must have the necessary video codec installed. As the Flip UltraHD uses the common H.264 codec, there is a good chance that most Windows Vista and Mac systems already have the requisite codec installed. If not, then installing the FlipShare software will automatically install the needed video codec.
The FlipShare program is a fairly simple application that is meant to help you watch captured videos; save videos to your computer; share videos in the form of e-mails, greeting cards, or online video-sharing sites; and create movies, snapshots, and DVDs. The Windows and Mac versions of the software operate nearly identically.
FlipShare tells you which video clips stored on the camcorder have not been saved to the computer yet. You can copy clips to your computer as well as delete clips from the camcorder. You can also trim clips to remove unwanted footage from the beginning or ending of the clips. The built-in e-mail and greeting card functions allow you upload videos to the Flip Video Web site and send e-mail invites to others to view your videos. Videos are hosted on the Flip Video site for free and can be accessed by anyone with the correct URLs for the clips. FlipShare also lets you upload videos directly to MySpace and YouTube.
The movie creation portion of FlipShare is very rudimentary: it doesn't offer any editing functionality--you can only add additional clips, a title, and end credits. Any real editing of footage captured by the Flip UltraHD will need to be done with a third-party video editing application. FlipShare's DVD option copies selected videos and places them in a new folder on the desktop. From there, you use your own third-party DVD burning app. FlipShare also includes the option to "order a professionally-produced DVD" of your videos--selecting this option opens up a Web browser page on the Flip Video Web site, which walks you through organizing and setting up the DVD for production. DVDs currently cost $19.99 each plus shipping; also note that HD footage is down-converted to a lower resolution and will appear in a letterbox format.
|Summary & Conclusion|
For the most part, we were satisfied with the video and audio quality of footage captured by the Flip UltraHD--as long as we limited ourselves to the level of expectations one would typically have from a $200 camcorder. Higher-end, more-expensive camcorders typically come with better-quality lenses, more image processing features (such as image stabilization), and video that is noticeably less compressed. If you want higher-quality, better looking video, you'll have to pay for it.
Would we use the Flip UltraHD to capture key moments at a friend's wedding? Yes, and in fact, we did. Would we use the Flip UltraHD as the primary source of creating video memories from our own wedding? Not likely--even if we eschewed using a professional videographer and chose to film it ourselves (or more likely, entrusted our camcorder to a friend to film the nuptials), we would likely want to record such an important event with a camcorder capable of capturing higher-quality video.
What the Flip UltraHD offers is an inexpensive and very easy means of recording HD video. It is small and light, making it a great choice when portability is an issue. Two hours of record time should be more than enough for most casual events, and the ability to supplement the rechargeable battery with good old, off-the-shelf AA's could prove to be a lifesaver when you don't have the opportunity or time to recharge the battery.
Some of the issues we ran into are par for the course for inexpensive camcorders, such as lower image quality (when compared to more expensive camcorders), noticeable visual noise under low-light conditions, and not being able to attach an external microphone. The Flip UltraHD's big caveat, though, is its lack of image stabilization, which under some circumstances, can render a video virtually unwatchable. Different people will have different tolerances for the level of image jerkiness they can watch comfortably; some will have steadier hands when recording; and some will be willing to take the extra time to apply their third-party video editing application's image stabilization filters to captured footage.
The Flip UltraHD is available from a wide variety of online and retail sources. We conducted a quick search online and found that most vendors were currently selling the Flip UltraHD camcorder for the MSRP of $199.99.