Before my first son was born, I bought a camcorder so we could capture all of the precious moments of his life. Now, almost six years later, I have a box filled with unwatched video, mostly of a baby not doing anything in particular. That set me wondering what would it take to have done something useful with this video. The answer, at least for me, was that it was just too complicated to transfer the video from the tapes to my computer in order to edit it. With my family growing, I simply did not have time for all that was required to transfer my videos from the tape to my computer. An easier solution was required. I needed something that would just interface directly with my computer and give me easy access to the videos. Enter the Flip Video Ultra. With its one step recording and included software, it claims to be the easiest camera around. Let’s take a closer look and see how it lives up to these claims.
What’s In The Box: Before we get to what is in the box, let’s take a look at the box which I thought was pretty cool. First, the color scheme of the box is tied to the color of the camera. Mine was white with gray accents. As you can see, the box is similarly colored, white with gray accents.
The inside portion contains several flaps which open to show you what this camera can do, before finally revealing the came itself.
Underneath the camera, you will find:
RCA video cable
soft carrying case
two AA batteries
Setup and Controls: One of the great things about the Flip camera is the ease of use. This begins as soon as you open the box. To setup the camera, just “flip” open the front panel and insert the batteries. No complicated settings to remember, no initial charge of the battery, no memory formatting. Just insert the batteries and start recording. So, let’s take a closer look at the camera itself. On the face is the lens, which we will get to in a moment, and the microphone, which does a pretty good job of picking up audio for your videos (whether you want it to or not).
Slide off the face, and you will find the battery compartment, in which you can insert two AA batteries (as shown above).
The right side contains the USB plug, which folds conveniently into the side of the camera. To release it, just slide the release lever and the USB plug will pop out, ready to connect to your camera. My one concern here was that the USB plug was contained on an inflexible plastic arm. When plugged into your USB port, it will hang from the side (or back) of your computer, dangling by that fragile arm. I strongly suggest purchasing an extension cable so that you can rest the camera on a desk of table while it is plugged into your computer. This will significantly reduce the risk of damage to the USB arm. Beneath the USB plug is the TV out cable, which will allow you to display recorded content from the camera on your TV.
On the left side is the power switch. Flick it once to turn on the camera, ready to record. Flick it again to power down. On the bottom of that side is the wrist lanyard loop.
On the bottom of the camcorder, I was impressed to find a standard tripod mount, meaning you can connect this camera to any tripod. This is also where you will find the locking switch which holds the front panel securely over the battery compartment.
Now, we turn to the back of the device, where we find all of the controls you will need to make fantastic videos. On top is the 1.5 inch VGA screen. Not the biggest screen you could ask for, but more than big enough for this camera. Beneath the screen is the four way controller. You will use this to control the zoom during filming, control the volume during playback, scroll through your video library, and various other functions along the way. In the middle of this control is the big red record button. This works pretty much the way you would expect. Press it once to record. Press it again to stop. On the left hand side of the controls is the playback button. Use this to control and view your recorded videos. On the left is the delete button. Press this while in the video library to delete a recorded video.
Optics: The most important part of any camera is the optics, or lenses. The lens is what determines how the camera will perform and, more than anything else, determines how many sophisticated or advanced functions may be available. A poor lens on a camera will result in poor quality video, because it is not processing the picture as well.
In my tests, I found the lens in the Flip Video to be satisfactory. I thought the images it took looked fine when played back on the screen, however, they did get a little bit grainy on my laptop. I was disappointed, however, to find that there was only a 2x digital zoom. This is really not sufficient for most videos. I need a lens which can zoom closer and widen further. In fact, several other cameras in this price range offer a 5x or more digital zoom, so I was sorry to see that the Flip was not keeping up with these cameras in terms of the included optics (some others can also take up to 5 megapixel still images, which the Flip also cannot do).
This camera also did an excellent job of autofocusing. I could whip it around from a close shot to a farther shot across the room, and never felt that my video was out of focus. For a camera which is designed to be grabbed out of a pocket and quickly thrust into action, this autofocus can be critically essential, and it lived up to that expectation easily.
I was a bit less impressed, however, by the white balance in this camera. It frequently would not transfer well from a dark environment to a light one, or vice versa. Likewise, taking it outside on a sunny day created an unacceptably high level of glare which most cameras would have filtered within a few seconds. As convenient as this camera can be, there were times that using it outside simply did not work as well as I had hoped. Although this may not have been common, it did occur, and I would like to see better light filtering and automatic white balancing in future versions of the Flip.
Memory: Depending upon which version of the Flip Video you purchase, there will be either 30 minutes (1 GB) or 60 minutes (2 GB) of memory available for your use. A message on the screen will tell you how much recording time you have left to use. I started with the 60 minute version, however, after experiencing some problems with it, I was given the 30 minute version. I found that as long as you had a laptop nearby on which to transfer the videos, this was more than sufficient for my use of the camera. I found that I did not tend to film long videos with this. Instead, I primarily used it to make what I would call a “moving snapshot”. It is great for capturing those moments which should live forever.
Nonetheless, I did note that some other similar cameras included memory cards. I can certainly see the benefit to a memory card in this camera. An external memory option would provide you with a place to transfer (or record) the videos when you do not have a computer available to download. In this way, when you ran out of space to record, you could simply swap to a new memory card and keep going.
The videos themselves are stored in AVI format, which is nice because it is a universal format. I was able to play the videos almost anywhere. Obviously, they played back well on the camera itself. However, I was also able to play them without any problems on my laptop and mobile devices.
Power: As I mentioned, the Flip Video utilizes two AA batteries, rather than a rechargeable or proprietary battery. I really liked this because AA batteries are obviously readily available across the world. A proprietary battery does not have the same type of convenience factor. If you run out of juice, just run into the store, grab a few batteries and you are back in action. No need to wait until you get back home or to your hotel, possibly missing priceless memories, to recharge the batteries.
I must admit, however, that I was a bit skeptical when I initially inserted the batteries. Video can be notoriously power hungry, and I was afraid this camera would just eat through the batteries. Not even close. I was able to record enough video to fill most of the included flash memory, transfer it to my laptop and keep right on going. I even frequently viewed videos on the camera when I was not using it to record. I have yet to change the batteries which is most impressive.
Included Software: One of the real benefits of the Flip Video, and I think the key feature which sets it apart from the rest of the field is the included software. This software resides in the camera at all times, so there is no extra discs to lose or forget when you travel. Simply plug the camera into the USB port and the software is ready to load. Since the software comes everywhere the camera goes, you can plug it into any computer and get to work.
From the main screen, you can review and edit any of your videos. Just select the video you want to work with, and push play, edit, or rename. What could be easier? The buttons on the right allow you to save videos to your computer, share a video, make a movie, or delete videos from your computer.
The entire program is menu driven and walks you through all of the steps. You do not need to know anything about making movies or be an expert editor in order to handle this. This is clearly designed for someone with little or no experience manipulating videos on their computer. I felt it did a fantastic job of maintaining this level and ease of use at each step. It even allows you to save your videos with the touch of a single button. You can save the videos to your hard drive, send them to be processed and saved onto a DVD, or save them to be emailed at a later time.
The first thing you will want to do is edit the video you want to post. Just select the appropriate video and hit the edit button. Then, just move the start and end sliders to cut video from the beginning and end of the video. Using this feature, you cannot cut pieces out of the middle or rearrange scenes. All you can do is cut the beginning and end.
Now, you will want to share the video online. Select share and then you will be taken to a second menu where you can choose to share by email, share a greeting, or share online. I am going to share my video on the Internet.
Once I select that option, I can choose from Youtube, AOL, or another website. I was a bit disappointed that I could not upload my videos to Google Video, which is my preferred video storage space. No matter though, we can give YouTube a try.
Once you have made this selection, a popup window asks for your password. Enter your YouTube password and your video will be automatically processed and uploaded. No need for you to interfere at all. The camera does all of the hard work for you. As they say in Staples, “That Was Easy!” So, do you want to see the video I uploaded?
It is just a snippet, but it thoroughly amused us for most of a weekend.
The last thing I wanted to show you is the movie mix. Again, menus and wizards walk you through the entire process.
On this first screen, you can select the videos you wish to mix together, as well as the background music mode.
Hit enter and then we wait.
The end result will stitch together all of the selected videos, playing the music you chose in the background. No complicated timelines and storyboards to worry about. I was a little disappointed that you could not control the order of the videos, but as long as you were aware of that ahead of time, it was pretty easy to work with.
To an advanced user, this software may appear to be very rudimentary. As I have said, however, this is not really designed for the advanced user. An advanced user can graduate to Adobe Premiere or Microsoft MovieMaker. However, programs like that, which allow you to really enjoy your videos, can be complicated and extremely scary to a new user. The software included in the Flip camera makes editing, storing and sharing videos fun, even if this is the first time you ever sat down at a computer or held a video camera.
Conclusion: The press materials included with my review sample of the camera state, “Capture Life’s spontaneous moments.” And I think this is the absolutely perfect description of this camera. It is not a sophisticated camcorded with dozens of advanced features. This is a camera which is designed to throw in your pocket the next time you go on a big ski trip or hiking in the mountains…or, if you are anything like my family…just goofing around the house. Unlike most cameras which make the sale based upon the latest and greatest features, Flip has gone for the bottom rung of the complexity ladder. The idea here is to make a camera which my five year old, and my 85 year old Grandmother could both reach into a pocket and start filming. In that, I think they more than succeeded, both with the camera and the included menu driven software.
Name: Flip Video Ultra
Where To Buy: Flip Video
Price: $149 (30 minutes)/$179 (60 minutes)
What I liked: This is the easiest camera to use, as well as share video.
What Needs Improvement: I thought the lens could have been better. I also would have liked the option of adding external memory cards.
Technorati Tags: flip video ultra, video editing, camcorder, gear diary
4 Responses to “Review: Flip Video Ultra — A Pocket Video Camera For The Rest Of Us”
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1 Judie Lipsett
Dec 8th, 2007 at 11:11 pm
Sarah is a saint! Just watching the boys in the video made me tired.
Great review, btw.
Dec 11th, 2007 at 10:22 am
Would you say this is a good camera for recording things like kids sporting events or plays? I’m a little concerned about your comments regarding the lens. Is there another “pocket” camera out there that is better for this type of recording?
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