Pure Digital's Flip UltraHD|
"Everyday camcorder" now with larger screen, high definition video, 8G storage, and HDMI interface
(by Conrad H. Blickenstorfer)
Pure Digital Technologies is one of those unlikely success stories that just seems to be too good to be true. They make those little Flip Video camcorders that rocketed from nowhere to being the number-one selling camcorder in the US ever since they became available in 1997. When we reviewed the original Flip Video back in 2007 (see review) we thought Pure Digital did a very nice job in integrating simple hardware with simple software and simple ways of making videos available to others. But truth be told, we didn't quite know if the concept would catch on, what with most digital cameras also able to record video, the Flip's tiny 1.4-inch screen and the proprietary port that supposedly allowed you to have DVDs burned right off the Flip at some 10,000 retailers.
Well, it all worked. Since then, Pure Digital has sold over two million camcorders and prevailed against the well-established big-name competition. Despite the early success, Pure Digital didn't rest on its laurels either and quickly introduced a smaller lighter version of the original Flip, the Mino. In part thanks to a switch from standard double-A batteries to an internal rechargeable pack, the weight of the Mino dropped from the original Flip's already manageable five ounces to just 3.3 ounces, basically cellphone territory. The sleek Mino did everything the original Flip did and then some. Pure Digital also added a tripod mount and further simplified hardware controls, to the extent where they were actually a bit too minimalistic for my taste.
Appealing to consumers
Pure Digital also played with packaging. Unlike most electronics of the day, the original Flip's packaging was very consumer-oriented. Like many toys and gadgets that have a "try me" button where you can check out how something works without taking it out of the box or needing a sales person, the original Flip came in one of those though clear molded plastic packages that let you see and try the product. It let you do a self-demonstration while leaving the actual item ready for sale. Apparently, this put the Flip on the map and moved a lot of product, but Pure Digital apparently never stands still and changed its packaging strategy when the Mino came out.
When we got our Mino, we observed that "The new packaging is iPhone-esque--a tallish, elegant black box with an even more elegant matte-black box inside. It's sturdy and solid and elegant; all downright jewel-like. The Flip Mino itself is presented in a black holder underneath which you find the also iPhone-esque simple instructions, an ultra-slick little baggy made of the softest material ever, a wrist strap, and a video cable." And we concluded, "while packaging isn't that important in the larger scheme of things, the new Flip's boxing is sure impressive. And we all know how important first impressions are."
The Flip Mino was well received, mainly because it was tiny enough to just stick it into any pocket or purse and take it along anywhere. But then another thing happened. While video resolution in digital cameras was pretty much stuck at 320 x 240 and 640 x 480 pixels, and even the ubiquitous miniDV tape standard didn't yield more than 720 x 480 pixel, high definition video came along, and this happened quite suddenly and had a lot to do with the wholesale move away from CRTs and onto flat screen TVs.
The road to high definition video
Let's take a look at how things developed with TVs: for decades we had CRTs that essentially maxed out at 27 to 32 inches, used the standard 4:3 aspect ratio, and had the same video resolution TVs had always had. Sure, there were some tricks to make the picture look better, but it was really the same old technology. Then people began talking about high definition and there was a gradual switch to projection TVs, some of which were "HD Ready," which generally meant they could display in 720p or 1080i formats. In the last couple of years, all of a sudden, the dam broke and there was a wholesale switch to wide-format (16:9 aspect ratio) flatscreen Plasma and LCD TVs that could display either 720p (1366 x 768 and 1280 x 720 pixel) or full 1080p (1920 x 1080 pixel) resolution.
This rapid development in TVs coincided with another equally remarkable advance in video recording technology. It happened in the form of inexpensive CMOS and CCD sensors that are powerful enough to generate decent high-resolution video, the emergence of the H.264 video compression standard that provides good video quality at much lower file sizes than before, and the availability of very inexpensive memory chips with capacities large enough to replace large, bulky and expensive tape or hard drive storage mechanisms. All of this technology--the CMOS sensor, the lens, ancillary circuitry, and storage--fits into a very small place and all of a sudden made amazingly inexpensive HD video possible.
Pure Digital got on the HD bandwagon with the Flip MinoHD, introduced in November of 2008. That was a remarkable accomplishment, but it also made the limitations of the tiny 528 x 132 pixel 1.5-inch display painfully obvious, and despite the efficient H.264 compression, there was only room for an hour's worth of video. Also, with HD video came the HDMI interface cable, and the MinoHD did not support that.
Enter the Pure Digital UltraHD
On April 30, 2009, Pure Digital introduced the second generation of the Flip Ultra. The original Flip Ultra had been a streamlined, more polished version of the original Flip Video, and the new second gen Ultra keeps the look. Which means the new Ultra is a larger and heavier (6 ounces versus 3.3) device than the little Mino. That is, however, where the similarity to the original Ultra ends.
What you get with the new Flip UltraHD is a pocket-sized little camcorder that measures about 4.25 x 2.2 x 1.2 inches and weighs six ounces. It's matte-black or white, both with an elegant dark chrome trim, and it now has a significantly larger 2.0-inch display with much higher resolution. There's a replaceable battery pack that lasts about 2-1/2 hours on a charge. You still get the springloaded "flip" USB port that pops open when you slide down a lever on the unit's left side. Controls are the same as on the original Ultra: a large red record button in the center of a multi-function disc (zoom, back and forth), a play button and a trash button.
Apart from the larger screen, the big news is that the UltraHD records in 1280 x 720 pixel high definition. That makes for 720p video, not quite the 1080p that almost all new HDTVs now support, but high-def nonetheless. Internal flash memory has been boosted to 8GB, and thanks to the super-efficient H.264 onboard compression, that's enough for two full hours of high-def recording. And--hurrah!--the UltraHD has a HDMI Type C mini-connector jack so you can connect the UltraHD to a HDTV via a Type A-to-Type C connector HDMI cable. Though you really need it, the cable, unfortunately is not included. You can buy one from Pure Digital for US$24.99. And it all costs just US$199, less than the 4GB MinoHD that runs still lists for US$229.
How does the UltraHD work?
How well does it work? Very well. And it's super-simple to use. Push the on/off button and the Flip UltraHD springs to life, shows a big green "Ready" on the display, and tells you how much recording time is left. Nothing else. Push the red center button of the navigation disc and you're recording. Up and down arrows then operate a smooth 2X digital zoom. You can get as close as perhaps 2-1/2 feet. Push the red button again to stop recording. Video takes about 65MB per minute.
To watch what you just recorded or see what videos you already have on the device, hit "Play." There is no list or menu. It simply says "Video x of y." Use the left and right arrows to flip through them. Hit "Play" again to watch a movie and the up and down arrows for volume of the built-in speaker.
Both video and audio quality are excellent. There is simply no comparison between the murky, sluggish, pixelated video of days gone by, and the crisp high definition video generated by a high definition camcorder like the UltraHD. Sound, likewise, is superb. Standards and expectations are getting ever higher, of course, but what you get from this simple device is much better than anything you could get from large, bulky, expensive professional equipment just a few short years ago.
As always, there are some caveats. While conventional camcorders often offer phenomenal optical zooms, the Flip doesn't have one. All you get is 2X digital. And the HD version of both the Mino and the Ultra won't let you get closer than five feet. That's not good enough and means that a lot of video will be unsharp because you go closer.
Making and sharing movies
One of the new things Pure Digital introduced since the first Flip Video is the on-board FlipShare software. Plug the UltraHD into the USB port of a PC or Mac and the software installs automatically. On a PC, that'll then require a restart. From then on, it's all automatic.
While the original Flip Video used the Grouper video sharing site (grouper.com), that seems to have gone away and you now use MySpace, YouTube or whatever else you like. The interface lets you select videos, then prompts for your handle and password and uploads the clip.
You can also email videos or create greeting cards. FlipShare, interestingly, is doing the emailing itself, without using your standard mail program. Mailing even just a one-minute clip takes quite a bit of time. Once it's done, you get a notification in your own email. Like in the original Flip Video, when you send video clips or cards, recipients don't actually get the clip emailed to them. Instead, they receive a link, now to http://sharing.theflip.com/, to view the clip or card in a browser.
Some people might freak a bit over this method because it isn't immediately obvious who gets to see those mailed vidclips and cards or what eventually happens with them. What this means is that the emailing and sending of greeting cards is a bit of a mixed blessing.
FlipShare also lets you create movies. You drag clips in the sequence you want (FlipShare does a quick fade-out/fade-in), add a title and credits, add some music (pick from six included tunes or use your own mp3), and then have FlipShare make the movie. It's all basic and there are almost no editing facilities of any kind--if you want to create a cinematographic masterpiece, import the clips into iVideo or some other video editing program.
Getting on the big screen
Watching movies on the UltraHD's display itself is okay thanks to the new and larger screen. Watching them on a computer's much larger display is better. but to get the real impact of glorious high definition, you need to run the video on a big-screen HD TV! This is where the UltraHD's HDMI interface comes in. HDMI has largely replaced the bulky multi-lead component cables and it makes for the best video quality. I really wish Pure Digital had included the cable as a growing number of households now have HDTV with HDMI inputs, and HDMI really shows off the UltraHD. All you do is plug it into the TV, select the proper HDMI channel, and then view your videos on the big screen.
Movies are stored as standard .AVI files. When you connect the Flip Video to your Mac or PC, you can peruse its memory as it is mounted like a disk. This means you can pull video clips off manually and use them in whatever way you want.
Who should get a Flip Video?
What Jonathan Kaplan, Chairman and CEO of Pure Digital Technologies, said when they introduced the original Flip Video still holds true: "With Flip Video, Pure Digital has created a brand new category of camcorder that puts the power to instantly capture, edit, and share video in the pocket of everyday consumers." Integrating super-simple hardware with super-simple software turned out to be a great recipe, and now with the UltraHD with its high definition recording and larger screen, everything is even better, by a lot.
You simply take movies, connect the little camcorder to the computer, edit a bit, and share. Or view the video on a high definition TV. Simple as can be. Go check out the Flip Video website.
What will be next for Pure Digital? In March of 2009, networking giant Cisco bought private San Francisco based Pure Digital for almost US$600 million, so funding should not be an issue. The trick will be to preserve the simplicity and unpretentious operation of the Flip while continuing to hit exactly what consumers want.
Not so much:
- Very good 1280 x 720 (720p) high definition H.264 video
- HDMI connection to HDTV
- Excellent stereo sound
- Allows two hours of high-def video on 8GB internal storage
- Larger, much improved, outdoor-viewable 2-inch LCD
- Ultra-simple operation, usually 1-click
- Hardware/software/uploading all integrated
- Runs about 2.5 hours on internal powerpack
- Fairly large and heavy compared to Flip Mino
- Should include HDMI cable and USB extender
- Can't get closer than 5 feet for sharp picture
- Long battery recharge time on USB
- Emailing of clips and greeting cards can take a long time