About a month ago, I picked up a Flip video camera, as much to trial it to see if it’d have useful applications for my work as anything. Having played about with it for a while, here are a few thoughts on its performance if you’re thinking of buying one. I’ve tested it out mostly in two environments: dark, loud music venues, and out in Rwanda on a recent trip.
Great. It’s small enough to slip into your pocket and quick enough to boot up that you won’t miss things that happen quickly – compare this with mobile phone video, which often means you pressing seven or eight combinations of buttons before you even get into video mode. It runs off AA batteries rather than a bespoke battery that needs charging up, iPod style, which is hugely beneficial if you’re travelling, and also don’t want to be carrying around yet another charger with you. Similarly, the USB arm flips out of the side of the camera, so again there are no extra leads. One downside is that you can’t rotate the USB arm, so if your USB ports are vertical rather than horizontal, you have to do some awkward laptop elevation to get the videos off there. You can buy a USB extension cable to get round this, but everything else is designed so well that you’d think this would have been thought of.
It holds up to an hour of video as a pretty standard-sized AVI, which is plenty really. Battery life promised up to four hours, but in reality sits nearer the three-hour mark. Still plenty of time to watch back your footage and delete bits you don’t want.
Software for very basic editing is included on the Flip, so if all you really want to do is take short clips and whack them online, you can do it straight out of the box. The ‘movie mix’ feature, which blends together several clips into a short movie, is okay but not great. You can’t, for instance, replace the audio with your own soundtrack, and you have no choice about how the scenes are faded into one another. Still, what do you expect? You can always use Windows Movie Maker or something similar to get better results.
You’re not going to get anything broadcast/TV quality, let’s make that clear. But for online video, the quality is just fine, and much better than any mobile phone video currently out there. When you’re moving quickly, e.g. in a car, foreground stuff whizzes by extremely quickly and distorts a bit, giving the impression you’re watching speeded-up film. But middle-distance stuff looks perfect. The camera also copes surprisingly well with poor lighting conditions – it can get a half decent picture under most conditions.
The viewfinder/playback screen is really quite small. It’s fine for shooting but watching clips back can be a bit of a struggle. There’s an A/V out so you can play back on a TV or monitor, which given the resolution of the picture, also holds up surprisingly well.
With the tripod (an extra £10 or so), you can get a lovely steady shot, too, and it also functions as an extremely basic monopod to steady up your hand-held shooting. Really useful.
Minus points are the zoom. It’s a weak digital zoom that distorts the picture as soon as you start using it, so you might as well forget zooming in on anything.
A real strength compared to what else is on the market in the same price range, or compared to mobiles. I doesn’t like wind whipping across the mic (but what audio kit does?), but at loud volumes like gigs, it simply compresses the sound right down so you don’t get a huge mess of white noise, but can actually pick out what’s going on. And sound for natural background noise, conversation etc. is perfectly clear.
The biggest oversight is a lack of audio out/headphone socket, so you can’t listen back easily to the sound on what you’ve recorded. Sound only plays back through the on-board speaker, which is not powerful, so you need to be somewhere quiet to play back, and even then you don’t get a true representation of the sound.
Looks plasticky and cheap, but is quite robust. The only problem I’ve had was having it in my pocket all day in 30oC heat, it became a little temperamental and didn’t switch on immediately, until it’d cooled down and the moisture had evaporated. Best to keep it in a bag or loose coat pocket, then.
On the whole, though, this thing is £80, and for the price, both the picture and sound quality are actually excellent, and you can pull good quality stuff for the web together in no time at all, whether it’s quick grabs of bands performing or from the field footage of humanitarian emergencies.
See below for a couple of clips, one from a recent gig, and one from my recent travels (see my earlier post), so you can see for yourself how the Flip holds up in different situations.