[Updated on 2010-09-18]
The Pure Digital Flip camcorder arrived in 2006 created defined a new segment for camcorders: ultra-convenient, Low-cost, super-easy, reliable video capture. There are so many competitors in this space, choosing is getting difficult. So, based on my experiences here’s a guide on what to look for when thinking about buying on of these devices.
Resolution: 720 or 1080?
Anything less than capturing at 1280x720 is simply unacceptable. So, now we must consider if having 1920x1080 a deal-breaker or not. For my personal use, I’ve found 1280x720 is sufficient (for now). My reasoning is simple. In this class of devices you aren’t going to get good enough video quality where 1080 makes a huge difference. Also, we must keep in mind the increased requirements for storage and processing power needed to handle 1080 video.
I have to be honest that regardless of what any of the manufacturers say, low-light for these devices is never great. At best I can say they perform (as a class) acceptably – and I found a slight edge with the Vado HD over the Flip Ultra.
Below is example from the original Vado HD. The location is dark but the band (my favorite cover band in Seattle) is very well-lit.
Now look at the video below. Same band. Same camcorder (Vado HD). But this time it’s in a different location and I’m a little further away and the band is not as well lit.
Situations with such low light will always stress out any camcorder. Let’s try something indoors. The video below was taken with a Flip Ultra HD. Given the results above I expected better from the Flip but I believe the results are typical for these class of devices in this scenario.
Here’s another situation with real-world lighting conditions. I recorded this with my first generation Vado and was very pleased with the results.
The standard for these devices that you should use is the ability to record 2 Hours of decent quality HD video. I would not recommend any device that offered less than that. Roughly speaking this means you’ll have to have at least 8GB of built-in storage and a battery that will last long enough one one charge. At least with my experience with the Vado HD I can say that I have done this several times and gotten slightly more than 2 hours of HD on a full charge.
Being able to add cards to the device to expand its storage, is I feel a NICE-TO-HAVE feature, though for some it will be a MUST. Frankly I believe adding a feature like this works against the simplicity of these devices.
There are cases you might need to see the video on a TV and so having and HDMI output will be very useful. If it is a critical feature for you, there are two questions you’ll need to ask when evaluating these devices. First, does it support HDMI output? (Many do). Second, does the device come with the necessary HDMI cable in the box. If not, you’ll need to factor that cost.
Field of View
This varies per camcorder but it’s a characteristic you’ll want to be very aware of. Comparing the Vado HD and the FlipUltra will clarify the issue. Imagine holding the camcorder out at arms length but pointing it backwards so that it is recording your face. How much of your face will you see compared to the background.
The pictures below are exaggerated for effect.
With the vado you’ll see something like this.
With the FlipUltra you’ll see a shot that’s closer on your face
You may or may not find this to be an issue. In either case, remember try out the camcorder at a retailer before you buy and think about how you will be using the camcorder.
To see how these two camcorders compare watch this video don by Chris Grace in Vimeo. In this case Chris is disucssing the Flip MinoHD and not the FlipUltra but both camcorders have the same issue about field of view.
Viewing and Editing with your preferred Software
The scenario here is simple. You expect that once you’ve recorded and put the video on your computer you’ll be able to immediately watch and edit the video using the software you already are used to. Depending on the model and your operation system and software you may get different results.
My experience: with my Vado HD (I have both the first generation and 2nd generation Vado models). I am able to immediately view the videos using Windows 7 Media Player. However, I had great difficult playing the video on a Mac. Editing with Sony Vegas didn’t work at all, though I could use Windows Movie Maker. I believe the 3rd generation Vado model has corrected this issue.
Before you make a purchase, make every effort to ensure you can easily view and edit with your preferred tools.
Ability to focus close
The lenses on these devices are not as good as you would find on a equivalently priced Point-And-Shoot digital camera. One specific thing you’ll notice is that these camcorders generally cannot focus on something relatively close to their lenses. And by “close” I don’t mean trying to do macro photography of insects. I mean taking a photo of something about 18 inches away. The picture will tend to get blurry in a way that you may find irritating.
This is another case where I recommend you try out the camcorder before you buy.
Image Stabilization: the new MUST HAVE feature
Few of these camcorders have incorporated Image Stabilization – despite the fact that almost all current point-and-shoot cameras now have this feature. I have to recommend that you don’t purchase one without Image Stabilization – the improvements that Image Stabilization bring are just too good to settle for less. It’s especially important with these devices because there are small and are often used in situations where you will not easily be able to stabilize yourself.
Optical Zoom: Don’t bother
I don’t know of any of these devices that have optical zoom. If you need this, you should look into getting a Point-and-Shoot digital camera that records HD video (there are many of them now).
Like their performance in low-light, these class of devices never record sound that well. At best, one might consider them OK given the price point.
Stereo vs Mono Sound Recording
If you are sensitive to the sound and want, for example, do to an interview or record a band playing, you should consider ensure you are getting a camcorder that supports recording stereo sound. Be aware that Stereo sound is a relatively uncommon feature in this class of devices but.
External microphone recording
Another option for better sound is to use an external microphone. Again very few of these devices support this capability.
Typically these devices record at 30fps, but you’ll find models that support 60fps. 60fps is useful if you ever want to create a smooth slow-motion video. If you don’t specifically intend to do this with your videos, I don’t recommend using 60fps support as a criteria in choosing one of these camcorders.
Parting thoughts and general advice
Think. If you want to have a great experience with these devices my first piece of advice is to really think about how you will use one. Do you want to record interviews, are you going to just capture memories from parties, record memories of your family? Once you know where and when you’ll be doing these activities, you should have some understanding of how these class of devices fit in – and this is for the spontaneous capture of well-lit events where you are close (within 5 to 30 feet of the action).
Play. Go find some retailer where you can try these devices out.
Watch what others have done. On youtube and vimeo you’ll find that a lot of people have uploaded test footage from these camcorders. You should get a good sense of what you can expect.
Find Light. These cameras aren’t magic – they need a lot of light for the best results.