Review: Flip Ultra version 3 - does bigger mean better?

Stephen Bell puts the third generation version to the test

In September 2009, attending a Cisco conference in Brisbane, I was provided with the first model of the Flip Mino video camera to be released under the Cisco brand. In that time, high-definition video capability on the iPhone and rivals has ramped up to pose a significant threat to dedicated miniature camcorders.

How has Cisco responded?

Over the Christmas break I tested the third-generation Flip Ultra. Compared with the first model it doubles the memory size (to almost 8GB) and provides a larger screen for a higher price and a slightly larger physical format. Frame rate has been increased from 30 to 50 fps and an HDMI interface provided for output to a high-definition TV-style display; the original model’s output was standard-definition composite video.

The device has a more upmarket look, replacing the glossy plastic of the original model with a matt black and brushed steel finish. As well as being wider, to accommodate the 50 mm (two-inch) screen, the case is noticeably thicker and felt slightly more awkward in my hand.

Thanks to integrated image stabilisation and the increased weight, it should be more stable against camera shake, but I noticed little if any difference between the two models; both are good. Focus and light-metering accommodate the on-screen image to sudden changes.

The Ultra’s controls have a more positive feel; the original model went for a minimal style; most controls were mere touchable symbols on the black plastic surface, with viciously bright back-lighting. They have been replaced by a four-way, joy-pad-style control around the central ‘record’ button, with separate slightly-raised buttons for playback and erase. The usual request for a confirm response, requiring a two-button action, makes it almost impossible to erase a file by accident.

The left and right controls double as fast-forward/rewind when held down and ‘go to next/previous file’ when clicked. The fast motion, however, has only one speed – about 7.5 times normal – which tries patience when winding through an hour-long file.

Unfortunately, one of the more sensitive buttons is the on-off switch at top right. I have switched the device off accidentally while it was recording, simply by gripping it to change its point of view.

One of the new Flip’s best design features is the complete removal of the power supply from user attention; the original has a no-tamper battery which charges through the ingenious flip-out male USB connector (no more search for cords) when this is plugged into a PC. For some reason (presumably customer demand) the Ultra model makes the battery pack accessible and replaceable by three ordinary AAA cells. The only time I can see this being useful is when the built-in battery goes flat and you have no PC handy for a recharge.

The USB connector flip-out has been redesigned in a simpler format.

The FlipShare editing application, provided on the camera for loading to your PC, lets you trim rubbish from beginning and end of a clip (though not from the middle), join clips and add title, credits and music. However, it comes up unasked every time you plug in the device, beginning with a branding badge which can obscure other important matter on the screen for up to 10 seconds — which is a nuisance.

I appreciate high-definition is one of the camera’s selling points, but it makes for humungous files (about 40 MB or more per minute). It would be good to have standard def as an option. Recommended retail price is $349.95.

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