By Rob Pegoraro
Thursday, June 26, 2008
Technically speaking, Flip camcorders have no reason to exist.
These cheap, lightweight devices do only one thing -- capture short video clips. But most digital cameras and cellphones already handle that job, sometimes with much better-looking results.
And yet Pure Digital Technologies' family of soap-bar-size, $130-and-up video cams has lodged itself in the bestseller lists of Amazon and other retailers. The Flip might not be the iPod of camcorders, but no other model can even pretend to compete for that honor.
Earlier this month, the San Francisco firm -- which also makes single-use cameras and camcorders sold in CVS stores -- shipped a new, lighter, smaller model, the $180 Flip Mino. Like the earlier Flip Video and Flip Ultra models, the barely three-ounce Mino combines cheap video circuitry, baked-in movie software and a few simple online services.
The Flip Mino is also one of the tragically small number of devices that demand no memorization of manuals. The only configuration a model loaned by Pure Digital required was to set the date and time, a task made brainless by prompts on the small but bright (and daylight-tolerant) screen.
From there on, it was a matter of aiming the lens toward the subject, pressing the large red button below its screen to start recording, then pressing it again to stop. You zoom in and out by touching plus and minus signs above and below the red button. (You can tell those symbols do something because they light up when recording while other buttons stay dark.)
After recording, you can quickly browse your videos and delete ones that didn't work out. Pure Digital says the Mino's rechargeable battery lasts four hours, but because the Mino only holds an hour of video, you're unlikely to run it down.
Many of these things could be said about the video modes of the better cameras and phones out there. But those competing gadgets don't act anything like the Mino when you connect them to a computer.
For one, the Mino, like earlier Flip models, doesn't require a separate cable or cradle. A regular USB plug flips out of its top, allowing you to connect the thing to a PC or Mac to recharge its battery and transfer videos.
For another, Flip cameras don't require a separate software CD. Each one's editing application comes preloaded in its memory, though the first time you connect it to a Mac (Mac OS X 10.4 or 10.5) or PC (Windows XP or Vista), you'll need to install some separate supporting video software.
This bundled software barely counts as an "editing" tool -- it only lets you trim the start and end of a clip and stitch together separate videos into a mini-movie. You can try editing these files in other movie programs, but many, such as Apple's iMovie '08, can't read them. Instead, Flip's software focuses mainly on sharing your videos online.
With it, you can e-mail a link to a video or a "video greeting card" that incorporates the clip. Or you can upload a clip directly to AOL Video or YouTube. The software also touts MySpace support, but it only prepares a video for that site, leaving it to you to switch to a Web browser and upload the file.
This nearly painless online sharing will, however, cost you image quality. Out of the camera, Flip clips look as sharp as videos shot with any decent camera (it yields the same 640-by-480 pixel resolution as most cameras), with correct exposures and a crisp focus.
But once the Flip program squishes a video for Web viewing, you're left with a blurry, blotchy echo of the original. Trying to make out background details in one of these compressed clips is like trying to read the headlines in a watercolor painting of a newspaper.
During two weeks of testing, though, the biggest issue with the Flip's software turned out to be not the quality of its output but how it struggled to reach that point.
Among four setups, the test Mino reliably coughed up edited and shared clips only on a MacBook Air laptop -- but even then, it needed an absurdly long time to prepare a video for Web posting, taking 10 minutes or more to process 1 1/2 minutes of video.
On an old IBM laptop running Windows XP Home, the Flip software repeatedly stalled when preparing clips for sharing. On another XP Home system, it uploaded videos without complaint but crashed with an uninformative error message while stitching three clips into a movie. A Vista Business laptop froze completely every time I plugged in the Mino until a tech-support rep walked me through disabling a component of Vista's USB software.
That's not an appealing record of reliability. About the only things that can make it look good are the complex, cranky applications included with too many other digital cameras -- or the software absent from many video-capable phones, leaving users to guess how to extract a clip to a computer.
In a better gadget universe, we wouldn't need anything like the Flip; cameras and phones would feature programs that made it a treat, not a trial, to get movies out of those devices and on the screens of friends. Until that happens, Pure Digital might be on to something with this simple machine.