When it comes to electronics, some people just want something that's smaller and simpler. From barebones MP3/MP4 players to netbooks to basic point-and-shoot digital cameras, more and more people seem to be demanding less from their gadgets.
One area in which this drive towards simplicity and compactness has really taken off is digital video. Gone are the days of bulky digital camcorders. You can now carry a powerful digital video camera in your pocket.
Welcome to the world of the flip cam, a gadget that's changing the way millions of people look at recording video.
Where did these things come from?
Strangely enough, the journey to the flip cam started with digital cameras of the still variety. A few years ago, a pair of entrepreneurs noticed that disposable film cameras (the kind you'd buy at your local drug store) were outselling the then-new digital cameras by a wide margin. Seeing an opportunity, they formed a company called Pure Digital Technologies to make and sell single-use digital cameras.
The idea was that people could take 20 shots with the cameras, then take them to a photo lab to get both prints and a CD. The cameras would be returned to Pure Digital, who'd refurbish the cameras and put them back on the street. The cameras used very inexpensive electronic components and lenses, and took adequate (though not great) photos. Guess what? Over 3 million were sold, but for a variety of reasons that business model collapsed.
Pure Digital learned from its mistakes, and decided to venture into the realm of small point-and-shoot digital camcorders. Applying the same principles that they used with their still cameras – lower-cost components, small form factor, decent video quality – Pure Digital released The Flip in 2007 and it was and continues to be a hit. Obviously, the term flip cam comes from the name of Pure Digital's flagship product. And flip cams are a hit. By July, 2008 Pure Digital alone had sold one million of their products.
Who uses flip cams?
They're being used by ordinary folks, journalists, PR people, bloggers and video podcasters, and activists. Flip cams have the right combination of price, features, and ease of use (more on these in a moment) to make them attractive to a wide audience. And Pure Digital isn't the only player on the board. Companies like Kodak, Creative, RCA, Insignia and a host of smaller electronics makers who you may or may not have heard of have jumped on the flip cam bandwagon.
What you're getting
A lot, packed into a small space. The average flip cam is about the size of a wallet, and only weighs a few ounces. It can literally fit in your pocket and doesn't take up much space in a bag.
Flip cams are also inexpensive. You can get one for anywhere from under $100 to about $199.
On top of that, a flip cam is easy to use. It doesn't have much in the way of controls – usually, just a power button, a button to start recording, and two or three other buttons that let you navigate through the videos stored on the camera and to delete those videos. I've seen people get up and running with a flip cam within two or three minutes; less if they've read the documentation.
Every flip cam has a built-in USB connector to hook it into your desktop computer or laptop computer. Some also include cables that let you connect the camera to a television. Many come with software that enables you to upload the videos that you shoot directly to sites like YouTube or MySpace.
The video quality is good, though not spectacular. With an ordinary flip cam, you can expect an image about 640 pixels by 480 pixels in size. High definition (HD) flip cams have started to hit the market. The HD recorders offer video resolution up to 1280 pixels by 720 pixels.
In natural light, the quality of the video can be quite good. Indoors, the quality of the video that you shoot will depend on how much light is available. A video shot indoors can range from dark to grainy to adequate.
The videos themselves are in the common AVI or MPEG formats. The format used by them depends on the camera. No matter what, you can watch the videos on any computer regardless of the operating system.
Flip cams can store between an hour to eight hours worth of video. The amount of memory on board one varies from 256 MB to 8 GB. You can expand the capacity of some cameras using a secure digital memory card.
What you're not getting
A lot of frills. When I say that flip cams are barebones, that's not an understatement. They don't have many of the features that you'd find in a low-end digital camcorder.
Many flip cams don't have a zoom function. While that might seem like it should be a standard feature, remember that most flip cams have a limited range of view. You'll generally be using them close up.
Flip cams also lack features like the ability to adjust the color of what you're recording, and to automatically steady the camera. The latter is a common complaint – you'll see many videos shot with a flip cam that are a bit shaky.
Finally, the small view screen on most flip cams – measuring anywhere from 1.4 inches to two inches across – isn't really useful for watching video playback.
To buy or not to buy?
A flip cam is a great choice if you don't need the frills of a more expensive camcorder, don't care about pristine quality video, or are on a tight budget. It's also a good buy if you're one of the growing number of people who post to YouTube or other video sharing sites. Or, if just want to wet your feet in world of digital video before deciding on a more expensive camcorder then give a flip cam a look.
On the other hand, if frills and features are important to you, and you need a bit more flexibility when it comes to your digital video then you'll be disappointed with a flip cam.
To be honest, I find my flip cam quite liberating. It's incredibly portable and it allows me to quickly shoot video no matter where I am.
What have your experiences with flip cams been like? Why not share those experiences by leaving a comment.