Every six months or so, Flip Video–slated to be absorbed by Cisco by the end of the year–puts out a new model or two of its popular YouTube-friendly point-and-shoot mini camcorders. Late last year it was the MinoHD. Now, for spring 2009, the company brings us two updated versions of the Ultra: a higher-end model, the UltraHD, which shoots 720p (1,280×720) high-definition video, and a less expensive Ultra, which shoots 640×480 VGA video.
On the outside at least, not much has changed from Flip’s first-generation Ultra. But there are a couple of notable differences. For starters, the transflective LCD on the back is bigger, measuring 2 inches, compared with 1.5 inches. The buttons are also bigger and the UltraHD, which comes in black or white, has a sort of rubberized, matte finish that allows you to grip the device a bit more easily.
Most importantly, this model comes with a set of AA-size NiMH rechargeable batteries you can charge in the unit by simply connecting the camcorder (via its trademark flip-out USB connector) to the USB port on your computer. Alternatively, you can swap in a pair of standard AA alkaline batteries if you don’t have time to charge. That standard battery backup option is a nice convenience, but there’s a drawback: the batteries are bulkier and heavier than the slim lithium ion type built into the MinoHD. So by default you’re getting a bigger, heavier camcorder–the UltraHD weighs 6.1 ounces versus 3.3 ounces for the MinoHD. That said, the UltraHD is still pocket-friendly, just not as pocket-friendly as the MinoHD.
One thing we don’t like about the new design is the chrome plastic trim on the sides of the unit. It looks good but you’ll find your self continually wiping off fingerprint smudges with the soft, velvety pouch that ships with the product. We would have preferred some sort of brushed metal, or a brushed-metal look. Another minor ding: there’s an HDMI output on the side for HDTV connections, but no bundled cable. That’s not a huge deal, but Kodak, for instance, includes an HDMI cable with the Zx1, which retails for about $50 less.
Like the MinoHD, the UltraHD shoots 720p video at 30fps, H.264 compressed, and encoded as MPEG-4. The unit lacks a memory card slot, which is too bad, but its 8GB of internal memory allows you to record 2 hours of video. That should be ample recording capacity for most folks, but if you’re on a vacation and shoot a lot of video, it would help to have a laptop along for the ride to offload your video as you run out of memory.
The process of shooting and transferring videos to your computer or uploading them to YouTube and other video-file-sharing sites remains a breeze. Flip has generally nailed the whole simplicity thing. You hit the big red button to record and the play button to play back videos. There is a 2x digital zoom onboard (you don’t want to use it), but nothing in the way of manual or advanced settings, or even a still-capture mode. However, you can pull stills from your video using the software package that’s built into the unit.
For the type of audience these budget camcorders are targeted at, having few choices and menus to toggle through is a good thing. It’s also good that Flip’s software supports both Windows and Mac. It offers basic editing features, but you can always import your video into another video-editing package, including Apple’s iMovie.
As for video, the Ultra has some of the best we’ve seen to date from one of these cheap, Web-friendly camcorders; that is, it’s relatively sharp and saturated in outdoor shots and adequately bright without being overly noisy or blurry in low light, and the audio is clear and loud. It still can’t compare with the video produced by a real HD camcorder that costs a few hundred more–and you do have to keep the device absolutely motionless while shooting for the best results–but the video’s been incrementally improved over that of Flip’s more compact MinoHD. Overall, the video just seemed a bit sharper and smoother, the colors slightly more accurate, and the lowlight performance appeared a tad improved with a shade less noise in dimly lit shots. To be clear, we’re talking about very small improvements, but they are noticeable.
We should note that this model has the same optics and image sensor as the MinoHD, but Flip has managed to refine the video processing to improve the image quality. It’s still not great–and your video can appear jittery if you don’t hold the camcorder very steady–but comparatively speaking, it’s quite decent, especially for a camcorder this small. (For a comparison of the various Flip models, the company provides a comparison chart.)
The UltraHD may not be the sexiest-looking HD mini camcorder out there. Or the cheapest, at around $200. But it does offer relatively good video quality and Flip camcorders are probably at the top of the class in terms of ease of use. If you’ve got it, the extra $50 or so the UltraHD costs over the Ultra is certainly worth it–you’ll probably make it up in batteries over the course of a year, anyway. And we like the new battery setup, even though it adds some weight to the camcorder over the original MinoHD. So it’s your best bet unless you’re really after the smallest, lightweight mini camcorder, in which case the MinoHD and Creative’s Vado HD remain better choices–for now, anyway.