July 2009


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Review: Flip UltraHD camcorder

9:14 PM Tue, Jun 30, 2009 |
Posted by: Walt Zwirko

If you haven’t looked recently, camcorders have changed.

A lot.

Seems like it was just a couple of years ago that all portable video cameras used either 8mm (analog) or DV (digital) tapes for storing your moving pictures. This necessity made them both bulky (for the motorized tape-handling mechanisms) and power-hungry (for the same reason).

For a short time, DVD-based camcorders flowered. These used smaller discs than the familiar movie-size platters but had two distinct advantages: They could store a lot of video in a relatively small space and you could pop the mini-discs in most home DVD players. It’s still essentially a mechanical and motorized process, however, and most DVD camcorders were still bulky as a result (and good luck finding the blank discs when you need them!).

Camcorders were waiting for an elegant storage solution, and it arrived when the price of solid-state flash memory began to plummet, making it a viable alternative to tapes and discs.

The original Flip camcorder wasn’t the first to take advantage of flash memory, but it did have a big impact on the marketplace. The user-friendly design, ultra-simple controls and computer-friendly interface gave it the flexibility consumers were seeking. The Flip concept eschewed a lot of standard camcorder features like a zoom lens and autofocus. Heck, the first model didn’t even have a tripod mount.

But you could pop the 2007 Flip in your pocket or purse and keep it with you everywhere. It was a camcorder anyone could use.

 Fast forward two years and Flip has evolved, but it’s not much different.

In fact, Pure Digital Technologies, the company that makes the Flip line of camcorders, has come out with two new models that are more like the original product than last year’s incarnation.

Let’s take a closer look at the Flip UltraHD, at a list price of $199 the more advanced of the new models.

As the name implies, it shoots widescreen 1280 x 720 pixel footage and can store up to two hours’ worth in the built-in memory that comes with the camera.

 The six-ounce UltraHD sports a two-inch diagnonal viewing screen on the back. It measures about an inch thick, about four inches tall and about two inches wide.

Flip has addressed several shortcomings of its first-generation high definition camcorder, the MinoHD, which — while weighing half as much as the UltraHD and sporting slightly sleeker dimensions — was designed with an iPod-like sealed rechargeable battery system, which meant that a user could not pop in a new power source when the charge was running low.

 Part of the UltraHD’s additional bulk is the battery compartment, where you’ll find a replaceable battery pack that recharges when you plug it into the USB port on a computer (or a separate USB power supply; the unit does not come with a charger). You can also use standard AA batteries in a pinch, a bonus.

With the MinoHD, there was no option to view your HD video creations directly on an HD televison set; you’d have to settle for your computer screen. UltraHD rectifies that omission by adding an HDMI port that lets you connect the camcorder directly to a flat screen TV with a matching connection. That cable, however, is an optional accessory ($25), and UltraHD offers no analog output for playback on older TVs or direct transfer to a VCR or DVD recorder.

 UltraHD does mark Flip’s welcome return to more tactile controls on its rear panel. The MinoHD sported high-tech “touch-sensitive capacitive buttons” that offered no user feedback apart from “beeps.” Most of the UltraHD controls have a satisfying but subtle “click” to provide reassurance to the photographer. The exception is the spongy four-way pad that surrounds the red “record” button and is used for secondary camcorder functions.

Flip’s recording process itself remains blessedly unchanged. Just turn on the camera and before you can say “high definition,” the screen displays a reassuring “Ready” message along with an estimate of the recording time that remains. Press the big red button on the back of the camera and you’re rolling; press it again and it pauses, ready for your next scene.

Like most camcorders in this price range, the UltraHD makes better pictures when you are outdoors or have a good source of artificial light. It will, however, give you a reasonable image in low-light situations (but not in near-total darkness like some higher-end models).

 The UltraHD retains the fixed memory of its predecessors; there’s no way to physically remove the storage card inside or to supplement it with a removable and inexpensive SD card. For this camera, it means you’re stuck with a two-hour recording limit before you have to attach the UltraHD to a computer and transfer files. If you’re thinking about this as a vacation camera, make sure you tote your notebook along.

Flip’s namesake feature, the flip-out USB connector, is retained on the UltraHD. When you first plug it in to a PC or a Mac, the camera offers to install its FlipShare utility software that now has some new features (go to for an upgrade to the latest version). FlipShare transfers clips from your camcorder to your computer and, once saved, lets you erase the content from the camera to free up more memory.

FlipShare 4.5 features are rudimentary but are designed to be simple to use (click the image for a larger view of the software).

• You can play back your clips, of course (in a window or full-screen)

• You can share them via e-mail or online sites like YouTube and MySpace (FlipShare creates a lower-resoluton version of your HD video that’s more suitable for Internet streaming)

• You can create an online FlipChannel to showcase your work

FlipShare has improved its ability to “trim” clips that can then be assembled into very basic “movies,” but don’t expect to create the next viral video with it; you’ll need full-featured editing software for that.

Likewise, you can use FlipShare to generate standard definition TV content suitable for A DVD, but you’ll need third-party software to actually burn the DVD.

Another FlipShare function is an improved snapshot generator that makes it easier to select individual frames from a video clip to save and print out as photos. While the camcorder is high definition, even low-end point-and-shoot digital cameras will give you better results for stills.

Bottom line? The Flip UltraHD is hard to beat as a simple, inexpensive, but effective do-it-all camcorder to preserve family memories in high definition. There’s a reason the Flip series has — almost overnight — gained a reported 20 percent share of the consumer camcorder market.

And that success hasn’t gone unnoticed. In the past year, better-known names have come out with similarly-sized high definition camcorders that sport more features at comparable prices.

Kodak’s Zi6 ($160) and Zx1 ($150) both have removable storage and can shoot 3 megapixel still photos along with three different resolutons of video clips.

Sony recently introduced the Webbie HD model ($200) that shoots 5 megapixel stills and has a 5X optical zoom lens.

And the Sanyo Xacti VPC-CG10 ($200) also has a 5X optical zoom lens, autofocus, a digital image stabilizer, 10 megapixel stills, and a number of manual controls.

Let’s hear it for competition.

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I love my Flip! I highly recommend it. But it doesn’t have a light. Other than that I love it!

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