Cisco's Flip Video Camera Family
In the adhesive bandage world, Band-Aid is king. In the DVR realm, TiVo is the household name whether your DVR is actually a TiVo or not. When it comes to pocket HD video cameras, Flip is more or less the de facto colloquialism we use to describe them. They were one of the first on the scene, and this year Cisco released some new models to round out their popular line of inexpensive, highly-portable high-def video cameras.
Many businesses have adopted the Flip video camera because they're cheap, dead-simple to use and handy for making social media videos. But are the Flip cameras from Cisco the best mix of value and performance for your business?
For certain, Flip Video cameras are something that could have easily been ripped from the Apple design playbook. They're simple to use. Almost anyone could pick one up and use it out of the box. Turn it on and shoot. Plug it in and the software guides you through getting your videos to the web. It's easy. Maybe it's too easy. The Flip line is also stylish and practically begging to be accessorized. You can order them screen printed with your own design and company logo.
What the Flip line of cameras packs in simplicity, style and size, it lacks in features. Retailing for $150-250 depending on the model, the Flip line feels very overpriced for what actually comes in the box. Stack up the Flip line next to its competitors, and you may begin to wonder why the Flip cameras aren't half the price.
One major strike against the Flip cameras are their lack of expandability. Like Apple, the designers of the Flip relied exclusively on internal memory for storing your video. Rival models from Kodak, Aiptek and others feature both on-board memory in addition to SD card slots, allowing the user to swap memory in and out. This gives you the option to buy a large memory card to soak up hours of HD video, or several smaller cards that can be easily interchanged. Every time you fill up the Flip, you need to tether it to a PC to offload your files. While it's designed to be simple -- look, Ma... no wires! -- it can be frustrating for those who use their Flip more heavily.
Let's talk resolution. I've said in past that 720p is a good all-purpose resolution for the vast majority of social media videos. If you buy a Flip, that's all you can do. The entire Flip line tops out at 720p, even though newer MinoHD models do 720p at 60 frames per second, which is great for fast motion shooting. Unfortunately, you can't select frame rates or resolutions with the Flip. Kodak's Zi8, for example, does 1080p, as well as 720p and standard definition. You have the option of higher quality, as well as low quality if that's what you need to use. Flip trades flexibility for simplicity.
Zoom is a sore spot with me on all these pocket HD cameras, coming from a professional video background. One thing consumers just don't seem to get about video or still cameras is the concept of zoom quality. It's actually pretty simple. There's two kinds of zoom -- optical and digital. Whenever possible, opt for optical. It uses physically moving glass to hone in on your subject, which preserves the best quality possible. Digital zoom approximates the framing of a zoom, cropping out image data and vastly reducing quality. Very few pocket HD cameras use optical zoom. The only one I know of is Aiptek's Action HD GVS model, which sports both a 5x optical zoom as well as supplemental digital zoom. Both the Flip and Kodak's Zi8 feature digital zoom only. The entire Flip line, however, tops out at 2x digital zoom, whereas the Kodak does 4x, and also features a switchable macro lens feature for accentuating close-up subjects.
Lastly, there's my biggest sticking point when it comes to these low-priced consumer cameras -- microphones. All of these cameras, regardless of manufacturer, feature built-in microphones. And all these on-board microphones suck. Simple as that. They're cheap, extremely poor and they stay in one place no matter how far away your subject stands. My biggest pet peeve is poor quality sound on any video, whether it's from a Flip or a professional production house. Flip-style cameras just seem to engender such poor audio because every single model in the family lacks an external audio jack. Other competitors have started offering microphone jacks, such as the Kodak Zi8 and the aforementioned Aiptek model. Some handle the external microphone better than others, by giving them selectable volume levels for example. But any microphone that's not tethered to the camera is a good microphone in my book. With the Flip and its lack of microphone port, you're susceptible to every breeze, hand-jostle and errant environmental noise leaking into your soundtrack.
Going back to price, the Flip line is pricey no matter which way you look at it. Comparing the least expensive Flip (the UltraHD) to a Kodak Zi8 at their similar $149 retail price alone, the Kodak runs circles around the Flip on features and flexibility. Considering that Kodak's Zi8 model has been out long enough that used and refurbished models can be found for nearly half the price, one could pick up a pair of Zi8's and produce a slick two-camera 1080p video for the same pricetag as an underwhelming 720p Flip UltraHD. Did we mention the Zi8 can also serve as a 5 megapixel digital still camera? Why take two cameras out into the field when one will do?
All in all, every user is different. For some, the Flip line's simplicity may be a selling factor, however the Kodak Zi8 is certainly no slouch in the user-friendly department either. But if you're in the market for a good tried-and-true, flexible and reliable addition to your social media arsenal, steer clear of the Flip line of cameras. My recommendation for sub-$200 pocket video cameras stands squarely in the Kodak Zi8 camp for its feature set and ever-plunging price point.
Mark also writes regular columns on social media, technology, television and the Web.
Mark is available for freelance jobs and consultation. E-mail Mark at mark[at]markzahn.com or leave a voicemail at (920) 403-0403.
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