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Flip Mino HD

November 23rd, 2008
The bestselling pocket camera goes HD with improved software.

Conventional wisdom would have had Pure Digital's Flip camcorders wash out because of their limited features, but it's precisely this which has led them to seemingly overthrow the budget camcorder market. Their dead-simple controls and narrow focus have made them ideal for a generation growing up on YouTube and video blogging. The Flip Mino HD promises to do the same for high-definition video and with even simpler editing. But does it live up to this promise?

design and controls

Those who have seen the standard-definition Flip Mino won't see much changed in the HD version; it's fundamentally the same camera on the outside.

This isn't necessarily a weakness. As with the earlier design upgrade, the new model is very pocketable and manages to be lightweight without feeling cheap or flimsy. It also has a number of thoughtful touches that you might not expect on a video camera built to a price: both the power button and USB connector toggle are designed such that you won't trigger either by accident but also aren't difficult to use. A port to screw in a monopod or tripod is at the bottom and likely to be appreciated for those worried about stable shots, though curiously Pure hasn't included HD video output. A mini HDMI-to-HDMI adapter would have been valuable versus the low-resolution RCA carried over from the earlier cameras.

You can also personalize the Flip Mino HD with an outer skin either pre-designed by Pure or sourced from one of your own images. It's a small component, but it does help the appeal of a device which is likely to be owned both by a younger crowd and which actually has a design flat enough for large images. The test unit is a simple black model, which is attractive in an understated way but which might also pick up some dust if left out in the open for awhile.

The improvement the new Mino could stand center around the lens. It could use a lens cover, either automatic or manual. While there's a helpful carrying pouch to prevent damage, there will invariably be owners who forgo the pouch or who otherwise accidentally scratch or smudge the lens surface. And as always, a true optical zoom lens would be appreciated, though this might compromise the relatively thin shape; it's hard to say whether this might over-complicate the camera.

There's no expansion on this Flip, which uses 4GB of built-in flash memory. That's regrettable, but with about an hour of HD recording isn't that out of line with higher-end camcorders. An SDHC card slot would nonetheless have been nice for the truly ambitious trying to capture a wedding or a similarly long event.

Using the camera proper is likewise surprisingly pleasant for something with so few controls. Again like the original Mino, the camera controls are all touch-sensitive and helpfully light up to show you which actions are available in context. There isn't much you can do: you can only choose to record, adjust the digital zoom, and (when outside recording) browse stored videos to either play or delete them.

While unfortunate for those who would hope to launch into serious video editing with a budget camera, the truth is that there's still a refreshing simplicity to it. The only artistic concerns are framing shots and knowing when to record. It's easy enough that a child or a complete novice could produce video, and that speaks volumes for Pure's knowledge of its audience.

image and sound quality

Naturally, the single largest addition to the Flip line is the boost to 720p (1280x720) HD video, and the difference is quite apparent just on a cursory glance of the video: the image is noticeably larger and sharper. In an era when it's virtually assumed that more and more camcorder owners will also own an HDTV or a widescreen computer, it would be hard to go back to the older Mino knowing its shots would appear comparatively blurry and use only part of the screen to show the final image.

Actual output quality is mixed but definitely in line with or better than one would expect from a camera at this price. The sensor preserves a surprising amount of detail when the camera is near-still or moving at a fairly slow pace, though it adds a decidedly visible amount of blur under many other circumstances; this isn't a camera for action shots. Colors are also somewhat subdued -- likely due to a lower contrast -- but certainly acceptable.

Low light performance isn't quite as spectacular as Pure might claim. It's true that the camera has a better sensor than earlier Flips and will capture video in moderately dark rooms, but our experience showed more blurring than usual in these conditions. It's also not as graceful adapting to rapid changes in lighting as could be hoped: it took a second or two for the camera to switch from a dark room to a view of the daylight outside, resulting in temporarily blown-out white light until it settled back down. All video cameras are affected by these factors to some degree; it's just that the Flip is more sensitive to this than a traditional camera.

And as before, the lens does play into the final output. The relatively small lens size produces a sometimes noticeable amount of chromatic aberration, or the "purple fringing" that occurs when objects are set against a bright background like the daytime sky. Likewise, without real optical zoom, there's no way to center in on a subject while adding detail. Digital zoom only crops and scales the shot, so users in most cases are better off just leaving the camera at default zoom levels unless absolutely necessary.

Audio is similarly basic; it's just a single-channel microphone. However, Pure has now added omni-directional sensitivity, and in a crowded shopping center it was clear the camera was picking up sound from the wider scene rather than just a particular field.

It also has to be reiterated that the Flip Mino HD costs $230. That's less than many basic standard-definition camcorders, and it's hard to fault the device's creator when it still produces entirely watchable HD at this price.

battery life

There isn't much to say about the runtime of the camera other than to say it's good enough for the intended purposes of recording video for the web or for small-scale personal use. Pure rates the battery at two hours of continuous use, which is half as much as the regular Flip Mino but still twice as long as the actual recording time. It only becomes a concern when the Flip is left idle a long time without a charge, and then only for those ambitious enough to record up to the limit. Until the Mino HD comes with 8GB of memory, or enough to use those two hours of runtime, the battery won't be a primary concern.

FlipShare and video editing

Aside from the move to HD, the other great leap with the update Flip Mino comes from the addition of FlipShare, a new video management suite that comes preloaded on the camera itself and will even run from the camera if you're not willing to copy it out. Testing was done with the Mac version, but the Windows version is very similar.

To call it simple would be an understatement, but largely in the good sense of the word. Virtually every feature is visible from large, conspicuous buttons and menu options. Control is also largely hands-off. While you can create your own folders and choose whether videos are deleted once safely transferred to the computer, there's little else to contend with. In this tester's experience, there's a sense of freedom to it; the camera always puts its videos in the most logical location (the Movies folder, for Macs) and doesn't fret over export options.

In keeping with the philosophy behind the camera, there's also not much else that can be done to edit the videos. Creating a multi-clip video chiefly involves putting individual recordings in order and adding basic opening and closing credits as well as a backing soundtrack. You'll need to turn to a dedicated video editing tool instead. Most of the focus is on sharing clips. Movies can be sent to AOL, MySpace, or YouTube out of the box; it's also possible to save a clip or edited movie to the computer in a DVD- or e-mail ready format, to make greeting cards or to grab still images.

Again, this is video in its simplest form, and it's unfortunate that there isn't at least a way of trimming the start and endpoints of clips to avoid awkward dead time during a clip. Thankfully, the Flip Mino HD encodes videos in standard H.264 and so can at least send its video to tools like Apple's iMovie or Adobe's Premiere Elements for more complex edits without having to transcode the footage.

The unambiguous nature of editing also has the benefit of getting video up quickly. It took longer to encode and upload a video to YouTube than it did to fill in the import, editing, and sharing settings. A multi-clip video went from the camera to the web in well under half an hour after the entire process is taken into account. For those who value getting content up quickly over a slick presentation, that's something of a minor breakthrough. An example of what can be done solely through the camera's included software is available below.

Song credit: Mr. Scruff - Travelogue

wrapping up

Pure didn't have to change much with the addition of the Flip Mino HD for it to be a success, and that's precisely the end product. Hardware-wise, it's the familiar pocket camera with 720p video and a few alterations made to improve the overall image quality. Many are just looking for output with a built-in degree of future proofing, and that's exactly what the camera itself provides.

The largest improvement is in the software, which is painless enough to make video exporting trivially easy. Many producers of far more complex cameras still don't know how to nail down the basic process of getting video from the camera to the computer in an easily understandable way, let alone online; Pure has sorted out the entire process. There's room for additions like trimming and more refined folder selection, but little to complain about regarding the components that are already there.

Without diluting what makes the camera so effective, the next steps are simply to improve the final output: increase the quality of the lens and sensor, add optical zoom, add a focus light. None of these may come any time soon given their cost and potential bulk, but these could transform the revamped Mino from good-for-the-price to good compared to more expensive cameras.

Still, the $230 price tag can't help but dominate the discussion. At this price, it's hard to resist for anyone who records video with the web or strictly practical uses in mind, and it's sufficiently trouble-free to create pressure on rivals like the Creative Vado or Kodak Zi6 that have more features but are also more complicated. Why worry about removable storage when you have enough, or spend several hundred dollars on a camcorder that may spend most of its life on a closet shelf? The Flip Mino HD certainly isn't the best camera, but for many it could well be the right one.

- HD a boon for HDTV enthusiasts or simply future proofing.

- Simple but excellent FlipShare software loaded on the camera.

- Very straightforward on-camera control.

- Good low-light sensitivity; detail kept in most individual video frames.

- 4GB of memory built-in enough to handle likely uses of HD without an add-in card.

- Well-built.

- No removable storage or battery.

- Images occasionally subject to purple fringing or poor light level transitions.

- Battery life is just 'good enough.' - Software lacks clip trimming or other editing besides clip selections and music.

- Needs optical zoom to truly rival larger, more expensive cameras.