REVIEW: Flip Ultra

My wife was sent a Flip Ultra video camera from Pure Digital Technologies for her to review on her bargain finding web site. Since she doesn’t deal with technology stuff as much as we do, she handed it off to me.

First impressions were positive. It’s a simple little device, easily fits in a shirt or jeans pocket. The model we have has a one gigabyte flash drive in it which will provide 30 minutes of video and costs about $100. There’s a 60 minute version for $150, as well.

The build quality is pretty good with a decent heft to it and the number of buttons and switches is kept to a minimum power, record, play, delete, and a four-way rocker switch for zoom and playback selection. There’s also a standard tripod thread on the bottom.

It runs on two AA batteries and, after filling it twice, it’s still running on my first set of alkalines. Go figure, with no moving parts it’s pretty efficient.

There’s a built in microphone and speaker and two ways to get video out – a jack on the side that’ll feed a TV or VCR with audio and video signals (cable included) and a built-in USB jack.

Wait, a what?

Yep – there’s a switchblade-like USB plug on the side of this thing. Open it and plug it right into your computer, no extra cables to haul around. The camera writes .avi files and it has built-in editing software for Macs and PCs. Meaning you can connect to just about any computer, edit and upload to the web. (You will need to install a specific codec to get the audio to work, but it’s in the camera as well and only takes a minute.)

Video is of limited quality which you’d expect for a $100 camera. But, to be honest, it’s better than most of what you find on YouTube and beats most cell phones hands down. If you’re in close, the audio isn’t bad, either. Though move back a few feet and it has trouble hearing what you want. The only thing that would make this better is a mic jack – a simple stick mic would make all the difference.

How’s it to use? Brilliantly simple. With it’s limited number of buttons, it’s a true point-and-shoot camera. There’s a 2-1 digital zoom, but after looking at the results I’m tempted to say just leave it at the wide (i.e., full resolution) setting. The zoomed images get really chunky.

The lens is also so wide, due to the small video chip, that hand-holding it doesn’t make you ill on playback. With almost no magnification of movement, motion isn’t as bad as most other video cameras.

So who should buy this? Is this what every newspaper reporter should be handed?
Well, no. The video and audio quality aren’t there for professional pieces.

That said, it may be the way to introduce video into journalism classes. At $100 a pop, it’s just a little more than the audio kits we’ve been buying here at Grady College. It’ll let students experiment, it’ll let them learn concepts of storytelling and it won’t be a huge financial burden. Additionally, given the compact size, it’s easy enough to order them to carry it everywhere.

Families would be the next in line to pick one of these up. As long as you can get close to your subjects (remember, zoom=bad) you can get some good stuff with it. Haul it to the beach or the park, haul it everywhere you go. You never know when those moments will happen.

I took it over to Stone Mountain this weekend to play. I did not use the built-in editing software, so this was done in about 20 minutes in iMovie. Check out the video (and, yeah, I know – jump cuts galore).

Mark E. Johnson

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