Suppose you’re going for a walk one day, and across the street, you happen to spot Steve Jobs. He’s getting out of his top-secret iCar and strapping on his top-secret iJetPack. Sensing the opportunity of a lifetime, you pull our your digital camcorder, but by the time you have connected the relevant accessories and configured the settings and focus, Steve has already escaped into his top-secret iTeleporter Shuffle.
Whether it’s because of an incredibly unlikely opportunity, or just the incredibly short attention span demonstrated by many people in the information age, there are a growing number of situations where even an advanced, sophisticated video camera just won’t do you any good if it is too complicated or slow to capture the action. Recognizing this huge potential market for fast, easy video cameras, Pure Digital Technologies has introduced the Flip camera line, including the new Flip Video Ultra series. As you might have guessed, the Flip Video Ultra doesn’t offer all the features or quality of a pro-level camera, but it actually comes a lot closer than you might expect. In short, if convenience is one of your highest priorities in a digital video camera, the Ultra is a slick and effective choice.
They Call It Flipper
Measuring 4.17” x 2.16” x 1.25” and weighing 4.9 ounces, the Flip Ultra is a small, rectangular unit with an understated appearance. Versions are available in black, white, orange, and pink (but not blue, strangely enough). On the front, you’ll find the fixed-focus lens along with the built-in microphone, while the back side holds the user interface, which includes a 1.5” TFT screen that displays your videos as well as how much recording time you have remaining, a built-in speaker, and eight buttons. Simply snap in two AA batteries on the front side and slide the power switch on the left side panel, and the Flip Ultra is ready to record in under three seconds, storing AVI video files at 30 frames per second with a resolution of 640 x 480. Battery life is approximately 2.5 hours with two alkaline batteries. With a hefty 2 GB of built-in storage, the camera can store up to 60 minutes of footage at a time. Recording is as simple as pressing the large red button on the back, while the other buttons make it equally simple to play back or delete videos you have previously stored. A compatible tripod is also available separately.
The right side panel features the Ultra’s two data connectors: One port connects the camera directly to an NTSC television via an included cable, while the other is a snap-out USB 2.0 plug. We’re not talking about some proprietary connector that only works with a special dongle that you probably lost a month ago; this is a regular USB connector that you can plug directly into your computer, although you can also purchase an extension cable if you would prefer. Additionally, you can take the Flip Ultra to participating retailers nationwide and have a DVD made from its contents, although more advanced users will probably find this option to be needlessly expensive and time-consuming.
The Flip Ultra also comes with a wrist strap and carrying pouch. These are handy, but considering the otherwise all-in-one design of the device, it seems a little odd that, other than the carrying case, the lens has no other included protection; a built-in retracting cap would’ve fit better with the product’s philosophy and improved its overall durability.
The Flip Ultra includes basic video editing software that enables you to truncate or mix your video clips, as well as providing the ability to upload clips to YouTube or AOL Video. If you’re like me, you may already be frantically searching for the CD (did you check the dongle box?), but there is actually no need; the software is stored on the camera itself. That’s right – just plug it in and you can load the software from the Flip itself, and this doesn’t cut into your 60 minutes of recording time either. This feature is the type of clever idea that may cause you to exclaim, “Why don’t ALL cameras do this?”
You’re probably expecting this to be the part of the review that says, “Mac users are just out of luck.” Well, we’re not! The built-in software does, in fact, include tools for Mac OS X, although some of it is PowerPC-native only (meaning it will run under the slower Rosetta mode on Intel Macs). The Mac software includes a codec that enables Flip videos to work with QuickTime-based software, which means you can use them with pretty much any major Mac video program, although it’s worth noting that a default installation of QuickTime (without this codec) will not be able to play back Flip vids.
With all the convenience offered by the Flip Ultra, you’d probably expect that it would also have some significant drawbacks. Well, it does. The only zoom available is a 2x digital zoom, which means that not only are you limited to zooming in a relatively small amount, but you are also stuck with the lower quality provided by a digital zoom (as opposed to an optical zoom). Moreover, the memory is not expandable, the camera does not provide any form of flash or lighting, and there isn't any still picture capability either (although the software does enable you to snap single frames from a video). There is also no motion stabilizer to prevent jitters in videos taken with a shaky camera. Finally, the Flip Ultra has a compatibility issue with iMovie 08, which will cause you to do all the work on your iMovie project normally, only to find at the very end of the process that you are left with completely blank video. (Pure Digital says that they and Apple are working on this issue, but you can work around it for now by transcoding Flip videos into a different format BEFORE importing them into iMovie 08.)
To a casual observer, the Flip Ultra may look almost like it is just some toy that only produces videos filled with unrecognizable blobs. However, video quality is actually where the Flip Ultra crosses the finish line and establishes itself as a worthwhile purchase. First, I tested the Flip Ultra with close-range, indoor situations with limited lighting, such as this video of my feline friend Bernie:
Then, I also tested the Ultra’s ability to perform under direct sunlight and from a greater distance, by filming the following train:
Under virtually all lighting and distance situations, the Flip Ultra captured motion smoothly, and the picture was remarkably sharp and clear for such a low-end camera, although the zooming used on the train video does make it somewhat blurrier. Overall, the Flip Ultra’s video is so impressive that some users actually have difficulty believing that the clips it produces didn’t actually come from some other, pricier camera.
Tales From The Flipped
You may remember that digital audio players were around long before the iPod – but it was the iPod that made digital audio players accessible, and desirable, for the average user. Similarly, the Flip Video series, and especially the Flip Ultra, are shaping up to become the first portable digital camcorders that average consumers will actually fantasize about owning and won’t have difficulty using. The Ultra does have its share of limitations, so it probably isn’t suitable for filming the next Hollywood Blockbuster, but it will certainly exceed your expectations for everyday situ… hey, I think I hear someone using an iJetPack!
Pros:Convenient and portable design; simple, fast, and elegant user interface; nice viewfinder screen; software installers built into the unit itself; supports Mac OS X in addition to Windows; includes TV-out cable; very high quality video with high frame rate.
Cons: No optical zoom; digital zoom limited to 2x; no lighting.