Cisco has its hands full in trying to keep the competitive edge of its line of Flip video recorders alive and well. The Flip SlideHD received lukewarm reception from critics who chided the pocket camcorder for its high price tag and bulky design. Also, the market is becoming more crowded with Panasonic, Sony and Kodak all targeting the Flip with an array of pocket touchscreen camcorders.
While it does not support a touch screen, the newest Flip UltraHD carries the household name in pocket video recorders. Digital Camera Review received an 8GB UltraHD and took an in depth look at the device. The 8GB UltraHD records 720p at 60 fps, features digital image stabilization, measures 4.16x2.11x0.88 inches and sells for $200. It is also the only Flip to sport the new FlipPort accessory dock.
BUILD AND DESIGN
The first thing I noticed was that the Flip is extremely light. Being the candy bar style block, I was expecting to pick up something heavier. What I found was pleasantly surprising seeing as though it not only weighed as much as a small cell phone (4.5 oz), it also comfortably fit into a pocket like one too.
The back of the device sports a 4-way controller as well as a record, playback and delete button. It can honestly be figured out in less than two minutes. With the Flip, simplicity is the goal. With the new UltraHD, they've once again achieved it.
Above the controls sits the video screen, which is flush against the body. On one side of the Flip, is the pop-up USB dongle, and a power button and wrist-strap notch reside on the other side.
The front of the Flip sports a slightly raised lens, on-board mic and a recording light.
The bottom houses the new FlipPort connector. FlipPort is broken up into two parts -- one is a standard HDMI connector, the other designed for Flip-specific accessories such as a microphone. Unfortunately, all the accessories for the Flip are sold separately. Also on the bottom is a tripod notch and lock switch that secures the removable lithium ion battery cover.
Missing from the setup is a standard definition AV output that was common in the last generation of pocket camcorders (the UltaHD only shoots in HD). If you want to watch videos on the big screen, you are limited to an HD television (if you own one, which Cisco seems to assume) through the HDMI port and an HDMI cable, which is also not included.
Like most Flips, the UltraHD comes in limited colors (only white and black for the 8GB unit) but can be livened up with hundreds of design choices. In addition, artistic users can upload their own designs.
Ergonomics and Control
The UltraHD has some basic controls, buttons and ports in place, yet remains a smooth device that is comfortable to hold. It’s an example of Flip simplicity, a feature I’d argue defines the pocket camcorder product class. The white Flip that I received for review remained clean when I used it in the office, but that sheen might disappear with outdoor use. If you are concerned about cleanliness, dirty fingers will be an issue.
One of the most distinct features of the Flip is its USB dongle that swivels out from the side. I considered this a nice design feature until I had to use it. I ran into two issues: the Flip’s USB is relatively thick, making it impossible to squeeze in a crowded port with other items; and the Flip camcorder hangs from the port at an awkward and potentially damaging angle. The built-in USB is convenient in concept but the lack of a USB extension cable, which is also not included, is a drawback.
As mentioned, the screen sits flush with the Flip and the lens is only slightly raised. Really, they are entirely exposed, just as they are with other pocket camcorders. I recognize the need to keep things compact and pocket-friendly, but the lack of any kind of protection against scratches, for the lens especially, was of concern.
That said, and despite all my nitpicking, I came away impressed with the overall simplicity of the ergonomics. Squeezing down all the necessary controls of a video recorder into such a format is no easy task and sacrifices must be made.
Menus and Modes
The UltraHD has one shooting mode, 720p at 60 frames per second. That’s HD and the Flip has no standard definition option, which is probably why Cisco neglected to include a standard AV outlet. There is no stills option, a feature that just about every other pocket camcorder offers. The UltraHD’s settings include the basics: language, time and date, turning on/off the tones, and turning on/off the record light.
The library of clips is accessed using the left/right buttons on the 4-way controller and the volume is adjusted using its up/down buttons. In the center of the 4-way is a large red record button, while the play and delete buttons sit on the left and right of the controller, respectively. Recording is very responsive and starts immediately after pressing the button.
The 2.0-inch LCD display has a 320x240 resolution. There are no brightness controls, so glare from the sun can be an issue. When filming, black widescreen bars on the top and bottom of the display appear, which shrinks the view by about 15%. A recording timer and surprisingly accurate battery meter are also on display when filming.
It is not difficult to get started with the Flip. Holding up to its stupid-simple reputation, I was able to easily record and playback footage with confidence immediately upon removing the Flip UltraHD from the box. I didn’t need to consult the manual and I felt like I knew what each button would do before I pressed it -- and believe it or not, I’ve never used a Flip before. For simplicity’s sake, I give it two thumbs up.
The UltraHD powers up in mere seconds and goes directly to the recording screen. It sports a 2x digital zoom that is not very useful and the autofocus kicks in at about four inches.
Cisco claims the UltraHD can last about 90 minutes between charges. I stretched it out to 94 minutes shooting moderate action. That’s par for the course with pocket camcorders. For comparison, the Flip SlideHD checked out after an hour and 40 minutes of filming.
If you are running short on storage space after shooting some footage, deleting old clips can be done in a snap with the easy-to-use four-way controller.
The UltraHD has no picture controls, everything is set to auto, including white balance and exposure controls. At 60 frames per second, the footage looks remarkably smoothly. The Flip’s 720 resolution is still below the 1080 offered by nearly every other HD camcorder.
In continuous bright light, the picture looked great with its full, crisp colors. No complaints about the auto white balance here. Unfortunately, the 720 resolution compromises an otherwise decent picture. Take a look at the skunk’s leg. It’s almost impossible to distinguish from the body thanks to the lower resolution. At 1080, the leg would be easy to identify.
In low light the picture predictably loses its quality, but not nearly as much as it does on other pocket camcorders. Despite image grain and some digital artifacts around the edges of moving bits, the Flip performed nobly with decent color accuracy. Color me impressed!
The on-board mic produces passable sound, meeting the low standard set by previous Flips and other pocket camcorders. There is an external microphone available for the FlipPort connector, so those who want better sound quality now have an option.
Operation and Extras
The UltraHD arrives equipped with a soft carrying bag, attachable wrist strap, and user’s manual. The bag is good for transporting your Flip and offers adequate lens protection. I would have liked to see some kind of lens cover included. Additionally, no cables are shipped with the device, most notably absent is an AC adapter. It’s also worth noting that Kodak and Toshiba include HDMI cables with their pocket camcorders.
The swivel USB port acts as the de-facto means of charging the Flip. Here’s where the missing AC adapter becomes an issue because it would be so much easier to simply plug the Flip into a wall outlet.
The user will also have to come to terms with the absence of a USB extender -- an accessory that would make charging a far easier task, especially when surrounding USB ports are occupied.
I was satisfied with the overall performance of the device’s FlipShare software. It installs from the Flip in just a couple of minutes and is both intuitive and useful. With FlipShare, users can play back and organize footage, grab stills, splice video and post videos online and to social networks. The folder structure is a bit convoluted, but overall, it’s a decent piece of software and hands-down better than some of the crapware that ships with other devices.
For those with their own preferred video program, be warned that FlipShare asks to install each time the Flip is plugged into the USB port, even if all you want to do is charge the camcorder.
The Flip shoots MP4 video files, which are easy to drag and drop from the device onto a computer. The file type is common and should play nice with most computers.
The Flip has its stumbling points. For me, the battery could last longer, the charging situation could be better resolved, and the lens could be better protected. With that said, the Flip is what it is… a stupid-simple video recorder that shoots decent video and gets the job done.
While it may be difficult to avoid the accessories trap with the UltraHD, the picture quality and ease of use make it easy to recommend for those in the market for a pocket HD camcorder.