Flip Video camcorders from Pure Digital Technologies are über popular.  I’ve been playing with their high def $230 MinoHD modelIs it a hit or a miss?  Hang on for my review with useful, comparative information you won’t likely find elsewhere.

UP FRONT –

 

What’s Hot?

• Small size, convenient to use anywhere/everywhere

• Easy to operate

• Records in 720p high def

• Great on-board FlipShare software installs easily for Mac and Windows

• Easy sharing with FlipShare software including direct to YouTube, others

• FUN!

• Focus-free from about one foot to infinity

• Long per-charge battery life

• Easy recharge through USB or optional accessory AC charger

• Good low-light performance

 

What’s Not?

• Difficult to hold steady – no image stabilization; expect shaky videos

• Image-degrading digital zoom only, and then only 2x zoom at that

• Lack of optical zoom limits suitability for many situations

• Tiny display barely adequate for making recording, worse for playback

• Though video recordings made in high def, plays only in standard def through direct connection to TV

• Records audio in mono only

• Cannot add to memory for longer recordings

• Possible disadvantage with battery – not user replaceable

• No built-in method for easy display of original high def videos on TV

• Same or better high def video capability with 3x or more optical zoom available on many new digital still cameras starting at less than $50 more, but with larger size, still easy to use, providing both still and HD video in one product.  These new cameras can play HD video direct to TV and have much larger displays.

 

Let’s get to the specifics.  Ease of use and simplicity are the keys to the brand’s success.  Consumers seem to love the ease of shooting and transferring to computer with the built-in FlipShare software for modern Macs running OS X and Windows PCs.  They love the sharing ease with one-click access to YouTube, AOL Video, MySpace and to other Websites.  It’s equally simple though their free and built-in software to email and to create movies, grab snapshots and even to create a DVD either on your own computer or through third parties. (More on the software later.)

 

With the addition of the MinoHD model the quality of the images is now excellent.  There are two basic levels of HD video – 720 and 1080.  What do the numbers mean? As one might expect, 720 is not quite as good as 1080, but to the eye, both are outstanding.  DON’T get hung up on the numbers, which I have simplified here. Just don’t do it!  That said, the MinoHD records at 720p (p for progressive, but, again, don’t concern yourself with the tech talk beyond recognition that there is a difference between 720 and 1080 and that this product records at 720).  With 4GB of onboard memory (that cannot be supplemented with a plug-in card) MinoHD records one hour of video.  Each charge of the battery lasts up to about two hours, depending upon how long the unit is on and waiting to record or if it is used for playback.

 

There is a side-mounted power switch – press and hold to turn it on and do it again to power it off.  On the back and below the tiny 1.5-inch non-glare display is a red button that just cannot be mistaken for anything but press to start recording and then press to stop recording.  Note the image on the screen you see in the photo above, as I will refer to it later in this article.

Above and to the left is play/pause button, identified with the universal right arrow and vertical double bars for pause.  Above and to the right is the trash can symbol to manually delete videos in the field.  To the left and right of the record button are < and > symbols to direct users to the next and previous videos during from-the-camera playback.

During record mode, that is, after pressing the red button to begin recording, the buttons discussed above lose their backlighting and two other touch-sensitive control/buttons become back-illuminated and, therefore, ready for use.  Above and below that red record start/stop button are + and – symbols, there for your convenience to engage the limited digital zoom in and out capabilities.

 

There is a jack on the left side that looks like a headphone jack that is marked TV.  Here is where you would connect the supplied audio/video cable for direct playback to your TV.

Not only is the Flip MinoHD easy to use, it is equally easy to charge the battery, an internal Lithium ion battery that is not user replaceable.  There’s a little flip out USB arm on the top that connects the camcorder to the computer for video transfers and also acts as a method by which the battery is charged.  Additionally, any USB-type charger for car or home may also be used and there are plenty available on the market today starting at about $10.

The video images are excellent.  Performance in low light is quite good, as well.  Audio is acceptable. And all the sharing possibilities are great.  The fun factor is very high, very high indeed.

For all the fun, all is not perfect, though for many users, the negatives cited here will fall on deaf ears because of all the positives mentioned to now.  It’s difficult for many consumers to look past something so easy to use even if it’s not ideally suited for the purpose for which the product may be purchased.  This and all Flip Video products are very small.  They fit perfectly in just about any pocket.  Grab and go, and never miss a video moment.  The Mino series from Flip, including this MinoHD, is even smaller.

Its size and what it does not have technologically speaking renders it just about impossible to hold steady unless the user is perfectly still.  That means don’t try to walk or be a passenger in a moving vehicle and get steady videos.  Shaky videos, sometimes difficult to watch, are just about guaranteed much of the time, unless the MinoHD is mounted on a tripod using the provided mounting hole on the bottom.  That’s just not very practical, however.  Other camcorder and camera makers have addressed the shakes with technologies that stabilize the images somewhat, though none is perfect.  Camcorders from the names you know that have this technology are also more expensive and larger.  Flip has no such stabilization. They’ve kept it simple, remember?

Mac users with the newest, 2009 version of Apple’s excellent suite of programs called iLife ‘09 can take some comfort in applying stabilization capabilities in iMovie ’09 to remove much of the shakiness, but not when it is extreme.

In addition to the likelihood of shaky video, all Flips are equipped with only digital zoom and, at that, only 2x.  Unlike optical zoom, digital zoom always degrades image quality.  So, don’t expect to get up close and personal from afar and remember, the closer the zoom, the shakier will be your video because zooming magnifies the result of shakiness.

The lens is focus-free which means it stays in focus from about a foot away to infinity.  It’s not a wide-angle lens, so in tight quarters, such as a typical kid’s bedroom, you will need to back up quite a bit to get in what you may wish to capture.  There is no lens option or adapter.  Keeping it simple!

Still, it is hard to deny the fun factor, the cool-and-hip factor of this little gadget.

What about playback?  You’ve taken high def videos, and now you want to watch them, right?  You can see them on the tiny built-in screen, an activity that will not be very satisfying.  Even when taking your videos, that tiny screen is just a bit too tiny to see things clearly.  Still, it is adequate to the task of seeing what it is you wish to capture to video.  In addition, the high definition video standard calls for displays that are in an aspect ration of 16:9.  The Flip Video displays are 4:3, the old TV standard ratio.  The result is that the image on the display, being natively wider than tall and not the same as the display’s 4:3 aspect ratio, appears even smaller than normal, with blank bars above and below the video.  Remember that I asked you to pay attention to the picture above that shows the screen?  Look again and note that the image fills the screen.  It’s fake and inaccurate as to its dimension.  What you would see on an actual product is a shrunk-down image to accommodate the additional width of the natively wider screen that is part of this 16:9 video format in all high def products. Now you know, but do you care?

Now, you will confront what everyone who buys a high definition video camera faces – you can take ‘em in high def but how can you watch ‘em in high def?  Aha! That TV port on the side connects to a standard audio/video cable, you know, the ones with red for audio and yellow for video.  This is standard definition, not high def.

Get this straight – you’ve bought a high def camcorder but you cannot play it back from the camcorder connected directly to your TV and see it in high def.  That is right!  You can play it back directly on your TV with the standard A/V connections only and see it in standard definition.  This is a problem in my view.

OK, then burn the video files to a high def DVD?  Not likely.  More on this later.  Only a very small percentage of computers is equipped with the requisite Blu-ray DVD burner to do the job and the blank discs are still quite expensive, in the area around $10 EACH and up.

One way you can see the high def in actual high def is by connecting the Flip Video MinoHD via its USB jack directly to the USB connector on a $100 (shop online for the best price) WD TV, which, in turn, is connected via HDMI cable to your high def TV.  This works simply and beautifully as I proved in my own tests!  That’s a solution for playback directly from the MinoHD. What about when the video is offloaded from the camcorder and its internal memory is erased to make room for fresh video?

Once in the computer, the videos can be edited with the FlipShare software (in standard definition only).  In addition, they can be edited on a modern Mac using QuickTime or iMovie that comes with all Macs, and especially excellently with the new iMovie ’09 as mentioned above.  On Windows PCs, users may use whatever video editing software that is their choice, such as Nero 9.  I did all my testing with a Mac, as this is my preference.

Once on the computer and not using the provided FlipShare software, users will burn a standard DVD and not a high definition DVD using Blu-ray equipment and a Blu-ray blank DVD.  Why?  It’s just too expensive to do today as detailed above. Blank Blu-ray media is $10 or more, whereas blank standard DVD media costs from about 30 cents to about one dollar.  Still, we want to keep those high def files in their native format for the time when, as it will, Blu-ray becomes more reasonably priced.

For now, those native files transferred to computer can still be viewed through the excellent little WD TV by putting all of the files on just about any USB hard drive, including what I use – a little Western Digital My Passport drive that is connected to the WD TV.  Even the least expensive flavor of My Passport works just fine. Watch and control it all using the remote control from the WD TV.  That, friends, is an excellent solution to the conundrum of high def video made watchable on our high def TVs whether you buy this MinoHD or ANY high def camera or camcorder.

Let’s have a look at the FlipShare software. Flip Video has an advantage over any other device because this software automates the process of several activities.  And it only works with Flip Video products.

Emailing videos, for example is through one click on the FlipShare window on your Mac or Windows PC.  Here’s how that works.  Clicking the Email link opens a window into which you can drag the videos from the main FlipShare window, those that you want others to see via an email link.  Your recipient will receive an invitation to view the videos you specify.  Once you click to complete the operation, the main FlipShare window reflects at the bottom left that emailing is in progress.  This means your computer is uploading lower resolution versions of your videos to servers somewhere in cyberspace.  Your recipient will see those videos through a link in the email that will open a browser window and stream the videos for viewing. This is a very efficient process not easily duplicated for the uninitiated, non-techies out there. You simply cannot actually send videos directly through email.

Sharing online is through the “Online” link within the “Share” frame in the FlipShare software.  Click and choose from among the videos saved on your computer that are displayed in the FlipShare folder.  Then click where it is you want to share them from the list in the software –

 

 creating the files that can be burned to DVD (the software does nothing further to make that DVD, however) creates a movie by joining video clips in the order you specify.  You are invited to create simple titles and credits and to add your own music, but only on mp3 format.  For some who keep their music on the computer in formats other than mp3, this could be a problem.

The Greeting Card option under Share simply allows the user to frame email invitations in a wide variety of holiday and occasion options that lead recipients to view videos online.

Videos can be saved back to the camcorder for portable viewing.  This may be useful for those who wish to take their Flip along with the standard video cable.  At the destination, perhaps at grandma’s, connect the audio and video cable to the TV and enjoy, but not in high def, of course.

The question is – Is the Flip Video a hit or a miss?  That, dear readers, is the question, isn’t it?  Were there no more info available, I’d have to say yes, it’s pretty cool despite its limitations, but there is more to consider.

Mainstream as well as relatively unknown camera makers are providing in increasing numbers alternatives to the Flip MinoHD.  Let’s take a quick tour!

First, though, I need to get something else off my chest.  The non-HD Flip video products that you might be considering are also simple to use.  The standard, non-HD Flip’s main competition, excellent, too, is probably part of your menagerie of existing tech equipment.  Your standard digital camera likely has video capability that is better than any standard def Flip product.  Your digital camera has optical zoom, for starters, and also likely shoots better-looking video than any Flip. You’ll also get decent sound recordings from that digital still camera.  You already know how to use that camera for the basic still photography.  It will cost you NOTHING to use its video capabilities.  You already know how to transfer photos to your computer, so you also know how to transfer videos.  They’ll transfer at the same time as your photos.  If you don’t know how to post videos to YouTube or otherwise how to share, I’d bet you will find it pretty easy to click on YouTube and learn.  You’ll need to set up a free account, the same as if you wish to share using a link from the FlipShare software.  If you know how to burn photos to a CD, it is no great stretch to burn videos from your digital still camera to a DVD, so long as you have the software.  Macs come with everything needed. The video resolution of standard definition Flip products as well as your digital camera is 640 x 480 – which looks OK on your regular TV, in the same league as video tape. Playing back the files from most digital still camera is equally easy using the WD TV product described above.

 

Most consumers, unless I learn differently from YOU, will use their MinoHD and the other Flip and Flip-type products to capture the fun of everyday life and events.  However, without optical zoom, even the MinoHD reviewed here will leave some users wanting more.  The lack of image stabilization may also be problematic for some of you.  What are alternatives to the Flip MinoHD?

 

They are many, with more on the way.  There is a trend in the digital camera industry toward hybrid cameras that do double duty as very good point-and-shoot pocket sized digital still cameras that also function as quite adequate HD video cameras.  With these, consumers get the best of both worlds in one product.  Unless you are interested in purchasing two products at greater expense (one high def video camcorder and one digital still camera), these new hybrids are worth considering.

From Canon and Nikon, Kodak and Samsung, Panasonic and others, consumers can choose models starting at under $280 that combine digital still imagery and 720p high def video with at least 3x or 4x optical zoom.  Some have 12 megapixels and 12x optical zoom with image stabilization technology.  With memory cards of the most popular type, that being SD (not used by Sony or Olympus, principally) available in 8GB capacity for about $20, users can get about 30 minutes of high def video AND more than 600 of the best quality photos. Want even more?  Get an SD card with a whopping 16GB of capacity for a bit over $30! That’ll hold well over 70 minutes of high def video and more than 600 photos, more than most of us could conceivably need even on a rigorous two-week vacation.

Even better, these camera manufacturers are providing models that also are capable of shooting full 1080p, the highest of high def video today.  Some models in the next size category, though still pocketable but not tiny point-and-shoot, are available with 24x optical zoom and image stabilization.  Prices for these better models go as high as about $600.  Look around and you’ll see what the manufacturers are offering.  From what I have seen to this day, it appears that the leading contender nearest the MinoHD’s price in the hybrid arena is Canon’s PowerShot SD780 IS, also linked below.

In conclusion, for about $200 with careful online shopping, consumers have an excellent choice for high def video in the Flip Video MinoHD.  Everything’s easy with MinoHD, except seeing those HD videos on a TV.  And, to some, the lack of optical zoom and the likelihood of shaky videos are important considerations.  Still, for many casual video users, the Flip Video MinoHD is a great gadget to have.

Alternatively, starting at only about $50-$75 more (retail price, so careful online shopping will yield lower prices), consumers can choose from among the new and not much larger hybrid digital cameras that feature excellent digital still images along with very good high def video capability.  (Here are just a few examples I found today, but please do your own search as there are many others available: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13.)

Isn’t it wonderful that we have choices?

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