When networking specialist Cisco acquired Flip maker Pure Digital in 2009, rumors swirled that the next-generation Flip would be a connected device that could possibly enable wireless and effortless video sharing, given Flip's proclivity for simplicity.
It turns out the rumors were wrong. With its latest offering, the Flip SlideHD, Cisco instead focuses on playback with the addition of a slide-out-and-up 3-inch touchscreen that gives the gadget the appearance of a portable media player. Other than that tweak and an increased capacity to 16GB, Cisco hasn't changed much from the UltraHD and MinoHD. Like those Flips, the SlideHD has one shooting mode at 720p/30fps, a fixed-focus lens, and is extremely easy to operate.
But with pocket camcorders now offering 1080p resolution, optical zoom and other additional "advanced" features at prices well below the SlideHD's MSRP of $280, is the Flip formula still enough? Or does the Flip's easy HD trump all? Read the review to find out.
BUILD AND DESIGN
The SlideHD sports the familiar Flip candy bar design, although it's a bit thicker than the MinoHD or UltraHD due to the new touchscreen display. The 3-inch LCD slides out 45 degrees from the back of the device, revealing a sensor strip for navigating video clips and speakers It's a nifty feature, and certainly impressed DigitalCameraReview.com's Allison Johnson who called SlideHD a "spiffy looking camcorder."
The available Flip patterns are also cool. While our review unit is just white and silver, Cisco has long partnered with Caf Press to offer a plethora of available colors and prints, including NBA team logos, celebrity-inspired designs and more than 50 Hello Kitty patterns. Budding artists can even create their own Flip print, either through an app in The Flip Store or by uploading a JPEG or PNG file.
Despite the added thickness, the SlideHD is still literally pocket-sized. It's also quite sturdy and feels solid in my hand. While it's less solid than the Mino or Ultra due to the SlideHD's moving/sliding parts, it is still well constructed.
Ergonomics and Control
Scan the Flip and you'll find a fixed-focus lens, microphone and recording light on the front and a touchscreen on the back. One side houses the power button while the USB dongle release switch resides on the other. The USB dongle is on the top of the Flip, and the mini-HDMI out (cable not included), tripod slot, headphone jack and wrist-strap notch are on the bottom. With most of the camera controlled through the touchscreen, it's about as minimalist as a functional camcorder gets.
One issue with the Flip design is that the lens is flush against the device, so it's easy to accidently touch it and leave a greasy fingerprint. This happened to me constantly with the SlideHD. Even while recording, my finger made its way over the lens multiple times. Otherwise, shooting with it feels comfortable and natural.
You can upload videos from the SlideHD to a PC through the USB, and since Cisco didn't pack an AC adapter, it's the only way to charge the device out of the box. It's unfortunate too, since the USB dongle is very rigid with no vertical flexibility. Plug it into a USB slot from a raised surface, and the SlideHD hangs and droops while straining your PC's USB port. Also, the SlideHD takes up a lot of real estate when connected and can block other USB inputs with its bulk.
Menus and Modes
The Flip SlideHD has one shooting mode, 720p at 30 frames per second. There is no option for stills, a feature that just about every other pocket camcorder offers. The SlideHD touchscreen divides into thirds when the display is closed and flushes against the back of the Flip, with the top-third containing the viewfinder/monitor and the bottom two-thirds containing the record "button," zoom/volume control, play icon, delete icon and arrows to navigate clips.
Open the SlideHD and it reverts exclusively to playback mode. Here, users can navigate and play clips as described above, access the SlideHD settings (limited to the time and date, turning off/on the record light, and turning off/on the button tones), play imported videos through Flip Channels (more on that later) and access shortcuts to tagged stills (either imported and taken as screenshots from clips) and movies.
The Flip SlideHD controls all picture settings, including white balance and exposure controls.
The 3-inch transflective touchscreen has a resolution of 400 x 240 pixels, which provides enough detail for a decent playback experience. Like other touchscreens I've encountered, it's difficult to see in bright sunlight, so you'll want to show off videos in a shaded area.
The SlideHD touchscreen is also reasonably responsive. The big red record icon reacted with every touch, as did the digital zoom and volume control. Though, it lost some responsiveness when I navigated and played clips by swiping and tapping the screen. You can also navigate clips by sliding a finger over the sensor strip, which I found to be the more effective method.
I mean it when I say that the Flip is easy to operate. Turn it on and hit the record button to start shooting HD video. Once pressed, there is not much to do other than stand back and watch the action through the top-third of the touchscreen.
However, that same touchscreen presents the biggest issue with recording. Its top third does not provide enough space to accurately monitor what you're shooting. It's cramped, it's tough to tell if subjects are in focus, and the actual recording angle significantly exceeds the display size. This means you can't fully see what's being recorded. It's a major annoyance. It would have been nice if there were a "full screen" option for the viewfinder instead of dedicating a full two-thirds to a static record button.
Auto white balance, while not perfect, does a fair job of keeping colors accurate, even under different lighting conditions. The same goes for auto focus and exposure. The SlideHD did blow out a few highlights, including some yellow daisies I shot in test footage, but otherwise adjusted quickly and accurately.
Because its lens can't move and there's no macro mode, the SlideHD needs at least 3 to 4 feet of space between the camcorder and the subject to retain focus. Outside that range, the SlideHD focused quickly for me. Inside 4 feet, the footage was blurry.
The SlideHD doesn't include image stabilization and only has a 2x digital zoom, which is slow and nearly useless since it degrades clip quality.
The SlideHD has 16GB of internal memory, which is good for about 4 hours of footage. It doesn't accept external storage cards, so you'll have to unload files onto a PC or Mac once you reach capacity. I used the SlideHD for 1 hour and 40 minutes of continuous shooting, which is 20 minutes short of its advertised 2 hour-battery life. But it means you'll have plenty of time to unload clips between charges. You can also delete videos through the playback mode to clear up space in a pinch.
In terms of video quality, the SlideHD is almost indiscernible from both the MinoHD and UltraHD. All three shoot h.264/MP4 video at 720p/30fps with impressively solid results. The colors are vibrant but balanced with minimal saturation, and details are sharp for 720p resolution. Here's how the SlideHD performed under continuous fluorescent lighting, which is about the equivalent of daylight:
And in low lighting, which is about the equivalent of a bar or bowling alley:
It's unsurprising that the SlideHD struggled in low lighting; you can barely even see the skunk's red tongue. But it's common since most pocket HD camcorders have the same trouble with details and color.
The SlideHD doesn't have a dedicated audio jack, but it records stereo sound. I still stand by my earlier assertion that camcorders should have external mic options. The lack of an external audio input is a knock against the device, despite the fact its audio quality meets the low standard set by other devices in its class and Flip owners probably wouldn't use it anyway.
Operation and Extras
Shipping with the SlideHD is a wrist strap, microfiber cloth, and a short instruction manual. That's it. No AC power adapter, no HDMI cable and no lens cover. Other camcorders that exclude the HDMI cables at least ship with component connections, but the SlideHD doesn't even have an AV port. So barring an additional purchase of a mini-HDMI cable, which of course Cisco sells on the Flip's website, playback is limited to the SlideHD screen or a PC.
PC playback is not so bad though. Plug the SlideHD into a PC or Mac for the first time and it will install FlipShare, the company's proprietary software. Here you can upload videos, grab stills from the clips, trim footage, add titles, set up DVDs and create a Flip Channel that allows friends with FlipShare and the FlipShare iPhone app access your videos. You can also access friends' Flip Channels and download their videos directly to your device. For friends without FlipShare, you can also quickly email clips, send them in a greeting card wrapper, and post them to YouTube, Facebook and MySpace. Finally, you can reformat old Flip movies to a smaller file size and put them back on your SlideHD, which can hold 12 hours of reformatted footage.
Users can also simply drag and drop videos onto a computer, but I suspect FlipShare will be a popular option. It's an impressive and intuitive application, hands down the best piece of proprietary camcorder software I've ever seen.
There's no doubt the SlideHD is a cool gadget with a fun and innovative design, and FlipShare is a great piece of software that complements the device nicely. In terms of video quality and operation, the SlideHD is not much different from the UltraHD and MinoHD, which might please Flip fans, but leaves me wanting more, especially considering its $280 launch price.
The SlideHD simply does not offer enough to recommend when compared to older and less expensive Flips, as well as competing pocket camcorders that shoot at higher resolutions, have more features, and come packaged with extra cables and goodies.