Monday, February 16, 2009

Flip Mino HD

Flip Mino HD Review

I've been playing with my Flip Mino HD for nearly two months now, so I definitely feel comfortable finally reviewing it. It may be the world's slimmest, lightest (3.3 oz), and cheapest HD camcorder. Don't quote me on that, but I haven't seen one more compact or cheaper that shoots in true HD. The Mino HD has 4 GB non-expandable Flash memory, which can hold up to 60 minutes at 30 fps in 1280 by 720 resolution, otherwise known as 720p. So let's start with some pictures of it, to get you acquainted:

In that first shot, you can see the thin (cloth), but cute, carrying case that comes with it and has a drawstring. This helps reduces scratches from keeping it in your pocket, although doesn't totally eliminate them. Still, you won't likely notice them unless you're shining a light directly at it. Also in that first shot is the switch above my thumb that pops out the USB connector, which literally kind of flips out in a very smooth motion and plugs into any Mac or PC ready to go (the FlipShare software is stored directly on the device, so no install CD necessary). By the way, the software does very little other than download/e-mail videos and clip the starts and ends of them, but you can edit the videos quite well with iMovie (natively because the videos are .mp4) or in Windows Movie Maker (though you'll need to use Avidemux or similar software to convert the audio to mp3 and the video to .avi - I recommend using the Xvid4 encoding in two passes). The only features missing in the top photos are the power button (on the side opposite the USB connector switch), the tripod mount (on the bottom), and the port for the included component A/V cable (RGB) to watch the videos directly on your TV. This cable is a cool feature to have, by the way, but the cable isn't capable of true HD. However, what's really awesome is that if you have a PS3 or some way of plugging in a USB device to view content on your TV, you can watch the .mp3 files straight from the device. So from my PS3, the videos look pretty incredible on my LCD TV.

Anyway, getting back to the pictures: the controls are extremely simple. The big red button is the one-click record button (assuming it's on). The boot time is literally about 3 seconds, so I can have it out of my pocket and recording within about 10-15 seconds. The screen is admittedly small, but what I love is that it's actually embedded in the device, so touching the screen isn't actually touching the screen. The reason it isn't a little wider is that on either side of the screen are the speakers, and if the screen was oriented 90 degrees clockwise then you'd have to hold the device with both hands, which takes away from how easy it is to record with one hand. The screen really just acts as a digital viewfinder: shows you the borders of your shots. It doesn't give you any idea of detail. Anyway, there are no special menus or anything, the buttons on the device are exactly what you get. While recording, up and down will let you zoom in and out (digital, not optical, so it's just the software interpolating pixels), and that's all you can do. Some people might be disappointed by this, but if you want all the bells and whistles then you might as well shell out for a full-fledged HD camcorder. When browsing through your library, left and right goes through your videos, up and down is volume, delete is the upper right corner (it will confirm your deletes), and play/pause is the upper left corner. There are no other options: so you can't change the video quality or anything, which may have been a nice feature but I'm guessing that no one would want to shoot in anything lesser once they get a taste of 720p. Note that on the back side, the only tactile button is the big red one, the others are just touchscreen-like buttons. Surprisingly, I didn't mind this. They're quite responsive, except for the red one. Oddly, this button sometimes can be fickle and not register your pressing on it. This is one of the few low points of the device - it can get annoying, but doesn't always happen.

It feels really good in your hand. It's quite sturdy and feels really polished, which may partially because it's glossy. It won't attract any more finger smudges than your iPhone will though. I've dropped it on accident a couple of times (though the wrist strap, included in the box, helps prevent this) and it survived without issue, and I took it to Whistler with me where moisture didn't bother it. Despite all the snow I got on me, it was quite safe in that little black cloth case, so I guess it has some degree of water resistance. It's not heavy at all and fits really nicely in even my pants that have smaller pockets or in pockets I keep other junk in. It's probably about as thin as an iPhone, but not as long.

Ok, on to the video quality now. One of the reasons I wanted one of these is because I didn't like recording movies on my Canon Powershot SD450. It's a great point-and-shoot camera with enough options to keep me happy, but the movie mode produced movies that sucked up too much space on my memory card and didn't look very impressive, especially in low-light situations. It's comparable or better quality to other cell phones or digital cameras in the price range of the Mino HD. So I decided to shoot the exact same footage on both cameras last week and mash them together to see how the looked in a comparison of standard definition of high definition. Maybe this will convince you why having a digital camera just isn't enough (I recommend opening it in a new window so you can watch it in HD and then full screen it - Vimeo doesn't allow me to embed in HD):

Standard Definition vs. High Definition from Eptiger on Vimeo.

My overall goal was to get a number of different lighting settings and things to shoot that show you where the Mino HD excels and where it can fall short. A more fair comparison may have been comparing it with a real standard definition camcorder because the quality is just that good, but I feel like it's really competing with other point-and-shoot video recording devices. You can see how sharp it is right off the bat in my first example, where making out the "Edgewater" sign is hopeless in SD but you can make it out if you pause in HD. The sky may seem duller in the Mino HD's version, but it's much truer to how it looked outside and you can even see more detail in the clouds. The second example shows that it actual does a decent job of digital zoom. Remember, this is the software guessing at how to zoom in, but it does a lot better than the PowerShot did. Both do pretty well in the cityscape shoot, but you can see more snow on the mountains in HD than in SD, and the cars are much sharper. Plus, if you have a family member who thinks that you get less in widescreen than full screen, that example pretty easily nullifies the argument. The Christmas tree shot was trying to show a couple of things (besides that I'm too lazy to put up a Christmas tree): it handles edges really well and it's not afraid of a lot of light. You can even see the brick on my building outside the window from the Mino HD's perspective. The pasta doesn't look all that tasty, I'm afraid, but it really is quite good. Anyway, the colors did look better from the PowerShot because it made the light look less artificial, but the Mino handled smoothing better. I wish I had a better low light example, but the bedroom shot has virtually no light aside from the window with closed blinds, but you could barely tell there was a bed in the PowerShot's version and there was way more noise in the picture. Speaking of which, the Mino HD does a great job of filtering out ambient noise, like wind when you're outside (which is why I kept the original audio in all my examples). Anyway, I've been astounded overall that the Mino HD works at all in low light - this is very useful for concerts. The last example is from my favorite movie, and it also proves that the Mino HD is a lot better at handling a lot of light. Uma Thurman doesn't even seem to have a nose if you believe the PowerShot, but the picture clarity really shines on the Mino HD and the colors look much better and truer to the source material. The only downside was that some of the fast transitions that involved a lot of light did look a little washed out on the Mino HD, but I'm willing to accept that from a camcorder that fits in the palm of my hand.

I haven't yet mentioned my biggest gripe with the Mino though: it really requires a steady hand. This has become a constant concern for me now when using it (which may have shown in my examples in how much slower I moved the camera in the HD shots), but it's a consequence of the fact that it's shooting at 30 fps and the quality is so ridiculous that your eyes are much more likely to notice the slightest jitter. Here is an example of when it can become nauseating. Fortunately, you can get a tripod for about $15 with bendable feet (I've heard great things, and I'll be getting one very soon), so that can help if you need to take videos where you don't have to move around.

I think I've gone on long enough on this camcorder. The final verdict? I love it. It's a great device and it's pretty much exactly what I was expecting and wanted it to be. If you can get over the lack of manual controls and having to have a steady hand (maybe the next iteration will include stabilization software on the device), it's well worth the $200. It's no-fuss video shooting that may restore your faith in it's ability to automatically shoot scenes with the best settings, something that I never trust my PowerShot to do because it always wants to use flash. If you want to dabble in video podcasting or video editing, this is exactly what you want. If you get a bigger camcorder then it'll become a chore to carry it around for shoots (I know this from personal experience) and you're not as likely to play around with it. When you use the Mino HD, you can literally have it with you at all times and it looks like a cell phone so you take secretly film for your explosive documentary or at a concert where you want to record your favorite song. If you have baby, then you owe it yourself to get one of these because kids to fun/funny stuff in the blink of an eye so you want to be ready to snap those moments. Life's too short to leave great memories behind, and that's why I love this device. It's the epitome of an easy-to-use camcorder. Oh, and if you want to see more video I shot with it, check out this video from my ski trip.

Kindle 2

The Kindle 2 was finally announced last week! The list of improvements is short and sweet, and I kind of like that. They didn't add a bunch of random features, but they listened to user feedback and really responded without trying to make the current Kindle totally obsolete. Battery life is a lot better (lasting up to 2 weeks), page turning is more responsive, it's thinner, it includes 16 shades of gray (as opposed to 4) to handle images better, and, if you really like computer voices, it can read your books to you with text-to-speech technology. You can see videos of it in action at its product page. It's still another couple of weeks otu from being shipped, but all unfulfilled Kindle 1 orders have automatically been upgraded (or can be canceled if, for some reason, you don't want a better Kindle).

It kind of pisses me off when I see tech pundits criticize the Kindle as if no one likes it, but the people I know (not just Amazonians) who have a Kindle really love it. It's made for people who love reading, not for people who love gadgets. It's definitely not for everyone, but it's incredible how thin it is and how easy-to-read the screen is. It's expensive because of the e-ink - if it was just a laptop screen your eyes wouldn't be able to tolerate it for long and it would be terrible on battery life.

Windows 7 UAC

User Access Control (UAC) was quite the controversial feature in Windows Vista. On one hand, it really was a great tool in keeping your computer secure from viruses launching programs on your behalf, but people got tired of it quick. However, Windows 7 has received a surprising amount of backlash for dialing down its UAC defaults to a pretty insecure level. Aside from that, it automatically elevates Microsoft-signed application to administrative privileges rather than ever asking you to do so, which means that an exploit could easily turn off UAC completely to do its own damage (like allow itself to corrupt system files on startup). Fortunately, after much urging from some bright bloggers, Microsoft agreed to fix the issue, although current beta users are still vulnerable to the issue.

While I'm on Windows 7: some in the hardware industry are saying that Windows 7 is slated to be released before this holiday season and may start a program in July to allow people who buy new Windows desktops/laptops to upgrade to Windows 7 for free once it comes out. This is very smart, and I don't that they've ever done this before (not to my knowledge, at least). This answers a question I posed last month as to how PCs with Vista were going to keep selling in the face of all this great press for Windows 7.

One last bit of Microsoft news, the boys at Boycott Novell have posted the transcript from a hearing that exposes a lot of Microsoft's dirty corporate secrets with regard to its often cutthroat business tactics. It's kind of a scary read, and I don't know what to say other than it's shocking. It shouldn't be too surprising though: Microsoft has been taking flak for anti-competitive practices for years. Most of the things are unethical rather than illegal, but still kind of sad to read.

Location Awareness

I sometimes wonder if Google and Facebook are in a race for who can try to reduce your privacy the most. You can now publicize your physical location in your Gmail signature as broadcast in your Google Latitude profile. I can't think of why you would ever want to do that. The one thing that I've always had a problem with in Google Labs stuff is that they're often solutions looking for a problem. I think that one of the cardinal rules of good software design is that you need to have a specific use case and audience for a feature or product before you develop it. Who was clamoring for this? Even if it's easy for you to do it, why even bother? That's still time wasted.

If you're really scared of big brother, then don't look directly at Epson's new tiny GPS receiver. At a size smaller than the end of a matchstick it puts us one step closer to having GPS received embedded in your ID card or, God forbid, subcutaneously.

YouTube Dabbles in Paid Downloads

YouTube is still actively looking for a hearty revenue stream, so they've decided to turn to paid downloads. Some of YouTube's partners now have the option to make their videos available to download for free or for a nominal price as .mp4 files. It's an interesting idea, but I don't know if YouTube has enough good premium content right now to make this work. I'm rooting for YouTube, but they need to get more partners on board. The fact that they've started actually allowing you to watch videos in HD has already impressed me, so I wonder how many partners with HD content they can get on board with this. That may give them a slight advantage over iTunes, especially if it's DRM-free (then again, what big players will sell their videos DRM-free?).

R.I.P. Palm OS

The Palm Operating System, made famous by the Palm Treo and Palm Centro, has been in existence since 1996 in the heyday of PDAs, but it is about to head to the beach for retirement. After 12 years of service, it is being replaced by Web OS and so none of Palm's future models will feature the OS. As the unfortunate owner of a Treo 650 I have very little good to say about Palm OS. It has been unstable, antiquated, and annoyingly doesn't juggle applications very well at all. You have toEv give credit to it for spurring innovation in smartphone operating systems though and the fact that it was one of the first big players in touchscreen cell phone technology.

More Economic News

Every week brings with it new grim economic news, and last week was no different, although it was less than usual. Japan's Pioneer is laying off 10,000 employees worldwide and really ramping down its plasma TV production. I guess between car entertainment and televisions, they sell a lot of luxury items that don't fare well in harsh economic times.

Likewise, satellite radio isn't faring well. Sirius XM needed a growth in subscribers last year to stay in business and they just didn't get it. They're preparing to file for bankruptcy due to their ridiculous amount of debt. The lackluster sales of new cars has really hit them hard, and I guess that would make the only true competitor to terrestrial radio then Internet radio such as Live 365, Pandora, and

To help cope with the downturn, Intel has decided to spend $7 billion on factory upgrades. Part of the funding for this comes from shutting down overseas plants and cutting some 8,000 jobs, but allows them to stay competitive in the market and deliver cheaper, better products thanks to recent advances in manufacturing equipment. I've talked about this before: the only way to truly brave a rough economy is to innovate, and when you're in hardware that may involve re-investing in your manufacturing.

Final Notes

Ok, this post has run way too long and it's past my bedtime. Time to wrap things up!

Business Week has a really good article on how Apple designs new products. It's really fascinating and may expel some negative myths you've heard in the past.

Information Week also exposes some myths in explaining a lot of stuff about Solid-State Drives (SSDs) and their drawbacks: they don't expand your battery life despite requiring less power and they're really expensive, but at least they don't have any pesky moving parts like traditional hard drives. However, some do provide a fast erase feature for high security uses.

Twitter is considering charging business accounts, but they face the risk of scaring them off. I hope they don't jump into the kind of mess Facebook is in now with advertising.

Does your laptop battery suck? Maybe you should change how you use it when it's not plugged in.

Last, but not least, the Oregon Trail may be coming to the iPhone! I usually don't write about such trivial iPhone app news, but I have fond memories of that game from elementary school so that's just really awesome that so many more people get to experience a truly classic game.

In another week or two, you can look forward to a full-on video review of the TiVo HD! I'm definitely looking forward to it and it should be a fun experiment to see how well a video format would work on this blog.

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