There was nothing wrong with regular camcorders—at least it didn't seem that way until Pure Digital released the Flip Ultra. Here was a video recorder that solved every problem that you never really knew you had with other camcorders. Like the fact that you forgot to charge your battery most of the time, and usually filmed in low light. And it packed the solutions into a smart, pocket-sized body that didn't trade down in quality or affordability. Pure Digital has gone on to sell 2 million camcorders since releasing the original Flip in May 2007, generating an estimated $150 million in revenue. No wonder Cisco bought the company that makes the Flip, Pure Digital, last month for $590 million.
Luckily, you only have to pay $199 to buy Pure Digital's newest camcorder. For the past week, I've been testing the Flip UltraHD. Trying to improve on a device that is successful because of its simplicity can be dicey. Adding features often means increasing complexity, as well as the heft of a device—and the UltraHD is bulkier than its predecessor. The Flip's makers are keenly aware of these tradeoffs, which is why at first glance there appears to be only one major change in the new product: It now records in HD video (720p). But on closer inspection there are a number of upgrades included in the UltraHD that ought to make it even more popular than its best-selling predecessor, or the even sleeker Flip MinoHD.
What's New in The Flip UltraHD
* 2 hours of record time (an extra hour versus the previous models)
* AA batteries that recharge when you plug the camera into a computer
* 2-inch screen (up from 1.5-inch in other Flip models)
* Stereo audio from two microphones, one on either side of the lens
* Crisper images from an upgraded video processing engine
* Lens has increased field of view (48 degrees up from 42 degrees on the MinoHD)
The UltraHD is just as simple to use as the original Flip, and it looks nearly identical to its predecessor. The increased size and weight is immediately noticeable, but this is not an entirely bad thing since the rest of the Flip line can be accused of feeling like expensive toys that are easy to break. The 2-inch screen on back is larger, making it easier to hold the device at arm's length while recording, and much easier to view in sunlight.
It's still got the mechanical buttons for play, record, and other functions (as opposed to the flat touch-controlled buttons of the MinoHD). The UltraHD is not as sleek and shiny as the Mino either—but it's targeted at a different crowd. The Ultra is made for mom and dad, who want to record a whole soccer game. That's one reason the recording time increased to 2 hours, up from 1 hour in the original. It's also the reason the UltraHD still accepts AA batteries, so that it can be powered up in a pinch without the need to recharge.
The AA batteries that come included with the UltraHD are rechargeable in two ways: You can flip-release the USB arm from the side of the camera and plug it into your computer to charge up, or buy the wall charger accessory for $24.99. A full charge using the USB plug takes about 6 hours, but only a couple of hours using the wall charger.
The upgrade to high-definition quality video in the camcorder is a sign that mom and dad recently purchased a very large TV. The addition of an HDMI output on the side of the UltraHD means that the camcorder can be plugged directly into the back of that high-def television so that videos can be viewed right away, without having to download, encode, and transfer them first. But when it is time to share those videos, the UltraHD is just as easy to pull video out of as in the past. Once it's plugged into the USB port, you can either drag and drop the videos directly from the device to a Mac or PC, or use Pure Digital's FlipShare software for processing and organizing your library.
There is very little to complain about with the UltraHD, unless you happen to own the Flip MinoHD. (Full disclosure, I happen to own the MinoHD.) The two cameras are mostly alike, the chipset inside the camera is the same, so is the basic video quality and recording time. But UltraHD has a slightly better lens, stereo mics instead of mono, and an improved video processing engine that delivers clearer images. And the Flip UltraHD is $30 less expensive. The MinoHD's smaller, sexier body (it now comes in chrome as well) keep it attractive, but the UltraHD is superior in a side-by-side comparison.
Here's a sample video I recorded that shows the improved image quality of the UltraHD. The colors are a bit crisper and more true to life.
Flip cams are renowned for their low-light capabilities—these tiny cameras produce decent images in settings that would normally require a much more expensive camcorder. The video processing engine in the UltraHD should have improved the camcorder's low light abilities even more, but that didn't pan out in my comparisons. Here is a side-by-side of the UltraHD and the MinoHD at sunset. Look closely at the buildings in the lower part of the frame, the UltraHD is much noisier and darker.
But qualitative reviews of this magnitude are generally reserved for more expensive and fancier video cameras. That's an indication of the UltraHD's overall excellence. Yet it remains simple and fun to use. Competitors including Kodak and Genius are maneuvering for Flip's throne, and I'll be reviewing those soon as well.
Flip will also release an updated non-high definition version today, the UltraSD. It's $50 less expensive than the HD model, and aside from the lower definition it has new features—stereo microphones, a new lens—and comes in yellow and pink.
Colors: Black, White (with chrome trim)
Records: 2 Hours
Memory: 8GB (2 Hour)
Screen: 2" Transflective
Video Resolution: High Definition, 1280x720 Frame Rate: 30fps Progressive Scan
Video Format: H.264, MP4
Average Bitrate: 9.0Mbps
Batteries: 2 x AA + Rechargeable Pack (incl.) Battery Life: Up to 3 Hours TV Output: HDMI Widescreen
Zoom: 2 x Digital
Colors: Black, White, Yellow, Pink
Records: 2 Hours
Screen: 2" Transflective
Video Resolution: 640x480
Frame Rate: 30fps Progressive Scan
Video Format: H.264
Average Bitrate: 4.0Mbps
Batteries: 2 x AA + Rechargeable Pack (incl.) Battery Life: Up to 4 Hours TV Output: SD Composite Video
Zoom: 2 x Digital
Related: The Fast Company 50 - # 7 Pure Digital Technologies
Related: The Fast Company 50 - #5 Cisco Systems
Related: Cisco Buys Flip Video Cam Maker for $590 Million
Related: Flip's Ultra HD Camcorder Battles Genius and Kodak for Your Pocket
Related: How Cisco's CEO John Chambers is Turning the Tech Giant Socialist From Issue 131 | December 2008