The Cult Of Flip Camera

flip camera camcorder video recorder
People love those little Flip video cameras. These reasonably-priced all-digital video recorders are easy to use and don't burden their users with features and options they'll never use. With these devices, you pay for what you don't get. But is it worth it?

I've used several previous versions of Flip cameras, and most recently got a $200 Flip Ultra HD to test. Like previous models, the Ultra HD is simple enough for anyone to use. Turn it on, press a button, and you're recording. It's also easy to use your videos once you've recorded them, thanks to the Flip's trademark, flip-out USB connector that plugs the camera straight into your computer (and also recharges it at the same time) and the software installed in the camera that transfers to your computer when you plug it in, and which makes managing and uploading your videos easy.

On the other hand, with a Flip camera you get no zoom functionality, only tolerable low-light performance (on the model I just tested), and no capability to take still pictures. Which means that if you want to head out to an event and document it in both pictures and videos, you're going to have to take your regular camera too. And since your regular camera probably also takes videos, why take a Flip?

That's been my conundrum with the Flip all along. When I'm home and nearby my shelf of gadgets, I might grab the Flip if I want to shoot a video. And if my six-year-old niece wants to take some videos, I give her a Flip and tell her to shoot her little heart out until the batteries die. She takes some fun videos and I don't have to worry about her getting lost in the menus. Plus, the Flips are pretty durable.

But when I head out into the real world, I want to take less gear with me, not more. The latest point-and-shoot digital cameras also shoot high-definition video, and I got two of the newest models to see how they compare to a Flip.

First up, the Canon SD780IS. It's about $50 more than a Flip, but, as I said, it's also a still camera (a good one, but that's not the point of this review). Compared to the Flip as a video camera, it also does well, at least in a features shootout. Like the Flip, it records in HD. Unlike the Flip, it also records in standard def instead if you like, and it has a zoom lens, so you can frame your video more tightly if that's what you're looking for (however, you cannot zoom while shooting).

With the Canon, it's very easy to record a video, if not quite as easy as it is with the Flip: You move a little photo/video slider to the image of a movie camera, and press the shutter button to stop and start the recording.

You can also perform a very basic - and very common - video editing function in the camera itself: You can trim your video to remove extraneous content at the beginning or the end. I found this feature easy to use.

However, the Canon doesn't record as much HD video as the Flip. On an 8GB memory card, the Canon will record less that 45 minutes (it will record more than 90 if you switch the standard def). You can put in another memory card if you want to record more, though. The Flip's 8GB of memory is good for two hours of recording, but you can't swap cards for more.

The Flip Ultra HD also records stereo sound. The Canon is mono.

While the Canon is, in my mind, a better video recording device, it does not make for a better overall video producing experience. The Canon doesn't help you do anything with your videos once they're off the camera. Once you get them uploaded to your computer, there's no video editor nor anything to help you share your videos with others. The Flip, as I said earlier, optionally installs software on your computer when you plug the device in to transfer videos. This software is simple, like the Flip itself, but it does what most people will need: It transfers videos to your computer, lets you do rudimentary editing (adding titles and music, and combing clips into single movies), and it will upload your movies directly to YouTube or MySpace. The Flip doesn't come with software to trim your videos, however.

If you're looking for really flexible video recording, can live without the Flip's simplicity, and want it in a point-and-shoot camera, you would do well to check out the Casio EX-FC100, a video recording ninja that just happens to look like a digital camera. This $305 (street price) device will record HD like the Flip and Canon, and it will also record slow-motion video at up to 1,000 frames per second, if creating movies of water balloons bursting is your kind of thing. Other cool video features inlcude its capability to "pre-record" fives seconds of whatever is happening in front of the lens so that if you press the "record" button too late, to save your bacon if you start shooting an event just a little too late.

The Casio also has a YouTube uploader, which is how it got into this comparison, but it's not nearly as easy to use or as attractive as the Flip's software. And the Casio wins the award for most confusing control layout on any camera that I've worked with. This is not a device that reveals itself to the user graciously. You will be poring over the manual to decipher the various buttons scattered around the back of the device. There's no question that the Casio does things that other cameras don't. You'll just have to suffer a bit to take advantage of those features.

To summarize, if you're a brooding artist and you want to suffer for your art, the Flip is not for you. It's brain-dead easy to take videos and share them with your friends online. I love it and I can see why other people do as well. The Canon is also a very good video camera, but it doesn't give the user the full and simple camera-to-Web experience that the Flip does. But it's what to carry if you can only take one camera with you. The Casio is just in another league entirely, both in terms of its great flexibility and how much effort it takes to learn to use it.
By Rafe Needleman