New Cisco Flip takes steps to improve video quality and expansion. (September 19th, 2010)
Cisco's Flip cameras were once safely in charge, but the competition is now so intense that it's impossible to ignore: it faces not only pocket camcorders from virtually everyone but a whole slew of smartphones that can record in 720p; even the new iPod touch can capture HD. With that in mind, our review of the new Flip Ultra HD 2hr will see if improvements to image quality and more are enough to fight off newer challengers.
Product Manufacturer: Cisco
Price: $200 (2hr, 8GB)
- 60FPS video with image stabilization.
- FlipPort for extending the feature set.
- Still very simple to use; same for FlipShare.
- Good audio quality.
- Neutral color balance.
- Replaceable battery.
- No 1080p or optical zoom.
- Value is hurting compared to multi-role devices.
- Visible compression and blur artifacts in video.
- FlipPort is proprietary.
Design and the new FlipPort
You'd be forgiven for thinking the Ultra HD has gone unchanged on the outside. In many ways, it has; it's largely the same design that has been serving the Flip line almost since it began. That's not entirely a bad thing; we like the soft-touch black finish on our model, and it feels inexpensive but well-made. The main change has been a welcome if slight shrinking of the 2hr model; it's a bit smaller and a bit thinner, though at almost 0.9 inches thick you won't be confusing it with an iPod touch.
It's still as easy to navigate as ever, which has always been the Flip philosophy. A four-point center button field gives control over recording, volume and digital zoom; another button jumps to the playback menu, and another can delete photos. We like it. It's a breath of fresh air compared to some cameras, and in the category we didn't mind losing control over white balance or other more in-depth features.
The LCD is perhaps the only cosmetically disappointing element. As it still has the two-inch 320x240 screen from before, you won't really get a sense of the final image quality of the 720p image at first glance. We're not going to press Cisco too much on this front, however. After the unwieldy resistive touchscreen of the Flip Slide HD, we'd be content with buttons and a smaller display, especially for a lower price.
As an Ultra model, the new camera has a replaceable battery pack and comes with a rechargeable Meaningful changes are mostly found with a glance at the bottom. While mini HDMI is still there for HDTV viewing, a secondary connector dubbed the FlipPort rides side-by-side. The connector opens the door to accessories that weren't an option before: Blue Microphones will have a version of its Mikey to boost the audio recording quality, Seagate is making a direct offloading drive to get videos off without a computer and Cisco will have its own TV dock. Some of these will be a boon for those who like the purity of the Flip but want to add slightly more serious functionality of their own choosing.
As much as it opens the possibilities, we're disappointed that Cisco decided to make yet another proprietary connector instead of relying on an established standard like mini USB or micro USB. A healthy slate of accessories is available from the start, but it means that accessory makers will have to build separate just-for-Flip devices. Buyers, in turn, also can't bring over an existing microphone or an off-the-shelf external hard drive. We don't think the core audience will worry about it, but we could see a few enthusiasts being burned if they want to extend the features or sell of the camera and suddenly have to throw away accessories, too.
Image and audio quality
Most of the real changes to the Ultra HD formula are underneath. While not true of the 1hr model, the 2hr model has a new sensor that can record at 60 frames per second versus the more common 30. Buying into the higher end also gets you gyroscopic image stabilization that should smooth out the unintentional jitters common to handheld shooting.
In practice, there's certainly a noticeable difference. The higher frame rate makes images just that much more fluid. More detail is kept in moving scenes, and the anti-shake correction makes for movies that both look more professional and are just easier on the eyes. Given that the camera's focus is on-the-spot recording, whether it's a sudden street discovery or a concert, we imagine that more than a few will be happy.
Before we become overenthusiastic, though, it must be said that the actual output is still a mixed bag. We were largely pleased with the color balance, which was neither oversaturated nor dull, and we liked the relative speed of transitioning to a different white balance (such as panning from street level to the sky). Still, it's fairly clear that Cisco is using either a budget sensor, budget processing or both. 9Mbps H.264 video may sound ample for 720p, but we still noticed a significant amount of the blocking artifacts that are the telltale signs of overly heavy compression. There was also still some definite detail loss from motion that we didn't like, and it didn't handle bright sunlight as gracefully as we'd prefer when pointing at anything other than the sky itself. That some smartphones and the iPod don't have these issues are proof enough that Cisco is skimping when it shouldn't.
Audio quality is still fairly good, especially considering the size. It's a true stereo microphone, so sound both comes in fairly clear and avoids the tendency for mono microphones to be overwhelmed. We did still encounter wind noise and would appreciate some form of noise cancellation; it's hard to complain given the price or the size.
Since the video remains encoded in H.264 (sometimes known as AVCHD), the Ultra HD is very easy to work with on modern computers. Most common video editors recognize the format, and Mac users will be pleased to know that iMovie can work with files right away. Sharing is simple, too; most big video sites, such as YouTube and Vimeo, will take the footage without having to recompress it. Depending on the site, though, you may lose the 60FPS speed, so check to see if the site throttles video back in any way if the extra performance is important.
Cisco still has the in-house editing app, FlipShare, stored on the camera itself in Mac and Windows flavors. The operating word once again is simplicity. The only focuses are on getting video off ot the camera, stitching together basic movies, and then sharing the results. At the least, ease of use is still its strong point. Everything is displayed in self-evident buttons that take much of the guesswork away.
Videographers serious about there work will understandably be disappointed. As shown in the clip we recorded above, a full-fledged movie is mostly limited to trimming clips, putting them in order and picking both an opening title and credits. There's no transitions or even choices for things like fonts; about the only extras are the choice of music and whether the music will "duck" to allow the movie's main audio to take over. It's true that FlipShare is all about speed, but it wouldn't hurt if there were more stylized titles and some transition choices.
Not much has changed with the launch of the new Flip line. The software now has a new option to share directly with Twitter, uploads video at higher quality, and downscales 60FPS video to 30 to support those with slower PCs, but it's otherwise what we've seen for years. Consider the app a bonus for newcomers who just want video finished quickly. Most who want more already have or know how to use better tools.
With the new performance upgrades, the Ultra HD does have some advantages over its peers and some non-dedicated devices. It's hard to find a rival that shoots 720p video at 60FPS, and even today some pocket camcorders don't have hardware software stabilization. Very few if any smartphones and media players can do it, and even some point-and-shoot cameras can't record video this smoothly. An iPod touch owner may have a twinge of regret if that concert video is shaky.
And while we're often fans of powerful hardware, we still can't help but appreciate the directness of the Flip's approach, partly because it can actually help the results. Rather than focus on tuning colors, you're focused on composing the shot and getting the moment. Many parents would also argue that it's far wiser to give their children a simple pocket camcorder than an iPod, a full camcorder or even a cheap point-and-shoot camera.
But as much as we enjoyed using the Ultra HD, we can't help but feel that it may be a case of too little, too late. You may have noticed how often the iPod touch and smartphones came up in the conversation; that's because the new Flip still isn't quite strong enough to rule out multi-purpose devices. An Ultra HD might be better at the job than what Apple makes or what some smartphones can offer, but asking someone to spend $200 for 720p video is a lot when a music player, smartphone or still photo camera already records movies in a similar resolution is a bit much. Cisco needs to beware the danger of "good enough;" a dedicated device needs to be so unquestionably superior that you don't need much effort to justify its reason for being.
Moreover, if you're a power user, some other pocket camcorders and even some multi-purpose devices may do a better job. Samsung, Sanyo and a few others make pocket models with optical zoom; these and others often shoot in 1080p, too. An iPod touch might have a basic one-megapixel camera, but it can still take photos, produce polished movies if you buy iMovie, and upload them directly to YouTube without a computer -- and of course, it's also a media player, an Internet device and a game console at the same time.
As such, while we're content with the improvements to the Flip line, it can't help but feel like the end of an era. Cisco needs to ramp up the camera quality to where it's unambiguously better, add direct Internet access, or otherwise shake up the formula so thoroughly that it's the obvious choice. Less is more when it comes to design, but not when it's the difference between carrying two devices or one.