Flip camcorder offers flippin' great way to shoot video

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      When a publicist told me that the Flip camcorder will do for video what the point-and-shoot camera did for still photography, I was skeptical. After all, public-relations reps always rave about the products they promote; they get paid to do that. I always dose with rock salt the excessive claims they make, and try to keep an open mind.

      But I’ll be damned if he wasn’t exactly right. The Flip, developed by the San Francisco–based company Pure Digital Technologies, will change how the average person shoots video.

      The model available in Canada since June is the Ultra, which costs just $159.99 and is only sold at Wal-Mart. It’s about the size and weight of an iPod Classic, and is equipped with two gigabytes of internal flash memory, which gives you 60 minutes of recording time.

      While it’s true that many cellphones and other mobile devices have video capabilities, and people are certainly using those gadgets to record footage, the Flip is so easy to use that it trumps them.

      And with the unit costing comparatively little, you can pull it out and use it without worrying whether it will get bumped out of your hand by a crowd of screaming young girls trying to get a hand on the Jonas Brothers, or dropped into the surf in the mad scramble to get footage of the pod of orcas that has surfaced next to your skiff.

      When my 15-month-old daughter began picking up clumps of wet sand and putting them on her head at the beach, I had the Flip out of my pocket, turned on, and recording within seconds. I didn’t have to waste time navigating through a menu or waiting for the chip inside the device to start recording. No more missing moments for me.

      The Flip Ultra runs on AA batteries (an updated model, the Flip Mino, uses an internal rechargeable battery, but it’s only available in the U.S.), and has eight buttons: one to turn the device on, one to start and stop recording, one to play and pause, one for fastforwarding, one for rewinding, one to trash files, and two for zooming in and out. It’s a one-hand camera, too; you can hold the unit and operate it using only your thumb to press the buttons on the back.

      After you’ve captured some video, you can review it immediately on the 1.5-inch display—a no-glare screen that’s viewable even in direct sunlight—which is used as the viewfinder during recording.

      You can also plug the Flip into a television set with the video-out jack, or hook it up to a computer, Windows or Mac, with the USB connector.

      Computers recognize the Flip as a simple flash drive. Locate the device in Explorer or the Finder, double-click on it, and the camcorder’s software launches. But the software doesn’t install on the computer; it simply runs onboard the Flip and uses the computer as a monitor.

      What this means is that you can plug the Flip into any computer without hesitation. Using the computer at a hostel but don’t want to leave files for others to see? No problem. Want to plug the Flip into your work computer but don’t have administrator access? You’re good to go.

      The Flip software allows you to do a number of things, including edit your videos. You can upload files directly from the Flip to any number of video-sharing sites, including YouTube; the device automatically compresses and encodes the video. Or, you can download videos to your computer’s hard drive.

      I was able to open the MPEG-4 AVI files in several professional and consumer video-editing programs on my Mac. As well, you can pull still images out of the video footage.

      When you’re done, you eject the Flip the same way you’d unplug a jump drive. Slip it into your pocket, and you’re ready to shoot some more footage.

      My only complaint is that the aspect ratio of the video recorded by the Flip is 4:3, and I’m used to wide-screen proportions. Wide-screen is typically used with high-definition video, and the Flip does not shoot in high definition. It records 640 pixels by 480 pixels in standard definition. But video-sharing sites aren’t able to stream high-def video anyway, and if you want that kind of resolution, you won’t want to use the Flip.

      I’ve had a great time test-driving the Flip over the past couple of months, what with summer vacations and festivals and day trips. Playing with the Flip and showing it off to my friends and family, I feel a bit like a shill, raving about how simple and useful it is. They all look at me with narrowed eyes. But then I give them the Flip and let them play with it for a bit. That’s all it takes to convince them.