Katherine Boehret

Recent Columns by Walt Mossberg

Flip Camcorder Goes High-Def

Over the past couple of years, Pure Digital Technologies has changed the way people think about video cameras by turning these heavy, expensive, intimidating devices into affordable, user-friendly gadgets that fit into a shirt pocket.

To keep the prices of its Flip camcorders affordable, Pure Digital always made some sacrifices in quality and style. And though the company improved on style in June by releasing the sleek $180 Flip Mino, it stuck with standard definition while other companies boasted high-definition capturing capabilities.

 Flip MinoHD
The $230 Flip MinoHD is the first camcorder from Pure Digital Technologies to use high definition.

Today, Pure Digital adds a high-def member to its family: the $230 Flip MinoHD. This handheld camcorder looks like the original Mino (more digital camera than video camera), but the MinoHD is capable of capturing high-definition footage in 1280×720 pixel resolution, or 720p. (The regular Mino records at 640×480 pixels.)

Both cameras can be personalized with colorful designs that people can either make themselves or select from TheFlip.com. It’s also possible to upload personal photos to decorate the camcorder. This personalization process is free on new Minos, but people who want to personalize Minos they already own are out of luck.

I brought my MinoHD along on a weekend trip to a lake in North Carolina and used it to capture beautiful images of leaves at their color-changing peak and games of charades among friends. Overall, I really liked the quality of the footage, which had rich hues and sharp details such as glistening ripples of waves on the lake’s surface. And the MinoHD’s improved sound even clearly picked up the voices of two guys paddling away from our dock in a canoe.

But if you’re the type of person who likes to play back videos after capturing them, you might be disappointed that the MinoHD’s 1.5-inch screen is no larger than the previous models. This means you won’t get a good look at the high-definition footage until you play clips back on a computer.

Another downside is that high-definition footage is much too large to easily send to others in its original format, so it must be compressed to 480×270-pixel resolution for sharing on Pure Digital’s software. Previous Flips also compressed videos for sharing (the Mino uses 360×270), but I particularly missed the ability to easily show others my videos in HD quality via the camera’s software. Pure Digital says it’ll enable HD sharing through a partner company by early next year.

The Flip MinoHD weighs 3.3 ounces and has four gigabytes of internal memory, or twice that of its predecessor, yet both hold 60 minutes of video because the HD format takes up twice as much space. In true Pure Digital style, the camera’s seven buttons are easy to use: Press the red record button to start and stop, and press plus or minus buttons to zoom in or out with a 2x digital zoom while recording. A play/pause button plays back videos and a delete button gets rid of unwanted footage to free up memory; alternatively, videos can be offloaded to a PC.

The MinoHD comes loaded with new software called FlipShare. I found this worked much better than Pure Digital’s previous sharing software, which was rather straightforward but had its share of quirks and rough edges. FlipShare worked on Macs and PCs running Windows Vista and XP. I should note that the software crashed and insisted on changing the color scheme on my Vista laptop the first two times I plugged in my MinoHD, but I had no problems after that.

FlipShare’s use of drag-and-drop video organizing resembles the way that Apple (AAPL) iTunes songs can be dragged into playlists. And just as iTunes searches for music when it’s installed, FlipShare scoured my computers for other Flip videos, neatly arranging those clips into folders. I easily named videos, and clips not saved to the computer were clearly marked as “Unsaved.” Eight large icons at the bottom of the FlipShare software illustrate what can be done with the videos: save to computer; play full screen; share via email, greeting card or Web site (YouTube, AOL Video or MySpace — no Facebook as of yet); or create a movie, snapshot or DVD.

FlipShare works with other Pure Digital camcorders, and users of the older software will get a prompt to upgrade to FlipShare next week. It’s also fully compatible with Apple’s video applications, including iMovie and iDVD. And when I plugged in my MinoHD, iTunes opened and asked if I wanted to import my MinoHD footage.

Pure Digital says the MinoHD’s internal battery lasts for two hours of overall use (recording, playback, standby, etc.) or for 90 minutes of straight recording. Compared with other Flip video cameras, this battery life is half that of the Mino and on par with the older Flip Ultra, which runs on two double-A batteries.

After using the fully charged device to record 60 minutes of footage over a weekend, I still had about one hour remaining. It charges by plugging its pop-out USB connector into any computer’s USB port, and will also work with some USB chargers, though not Apple’s. Pure Digital will sell a standalone charger for $20 that should be available by the end of the year.

If you’re in the market for a simple camcorder that records high-quality video, the Flip MinoHD is definitely worth $50 more than the regular Flip Mino. But don’t say I didn’t warn you so when you’re bummed out by the screen’s still-small size and its inability to share true HD footage via the FlipShare software.

Edited by Walter S. Mossberg

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