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A Sweet And Simple Camcorder


TECH & YOU PODCAST

In the era of the do-everything handheld gadget, Flip Video from Pure Digital Technologies seems almost old-fashioned. It doesn't make phone calls, send instant messages, browse the Web, or keep your calendar. What it does is give you a way to shoot and upload videos—and even edit them a bit—with a simplicity that only a single-minded product can achieve.

The Flip is a little camcorder about the size of a typical point-and-shoot still camera. It uses flash memory instead of tape, and it costs about $100 for a 512-megabyte version that holds 30 minutes of video or $130 for a 60-minute version. Its user interface could hardly be simpler. There's a four-way control—up and down for the barely useful 2:1 digital zoom, left and right to navigate through the videos you have recorded—with a record button in the middle. There are just three other buttons: play, delete, and power.

A latch on the left side of the case releases a pop-out USB connector, which you use to plug the Flip directly into a Windows PC or Mac. At this point, you will discover the really beautiful part. All the software you need is right there on the camera, and if you're on a Windows PC, you actually run the program off the Flip without having to install anything. The Mac setup, atypically, is slightly more complicated but by no means hard.

THE FLIP DOESN'T DELIVER the versatility you would expect from a $1,000 digital video camera. The lack of a real zoom lens limit your shots; the camera doesn't work that well in low-light conditions; and the somewhat dim 1.5-in. LCD display that is the only viewfinder can be difficult to see outdoors on a sunny day. On the other hand, the 640-by-480-pixel images are surprisingly good for such a low-priced camera and far better than the video taken by mobile-phone handsets. The built-in mike is more than adequate.

The Flip's software may take simplicity a bit too far. Each shot you take is saved as a separate clip, which you can view on a computer screen or a television using an included cable. By dragging clips to a storyboard, you can assemble a movie. But the only editing you can do is to trim the ends of the clips, and on the Mac version you can't even do that. When your movie is complete, you can add background music, your own or the insipid stuff the program will choose for you. Then click a button, and you've created a film that can be burned onto a DVD with standard software or viewed on any player that can handle Windows Media Video. You can also e-mail clips—probably not a great idea, given their size—or easily post them to video-sharing sites YouTube or Grouper.com.

If this seems like too much effort, you can take the Flip to any of a number of retailers, including CVS (CVS), Ritz Camera Center, or Longs Drug Stores (LDG), and have the contents burned onto a DVD for about $13. On the other hand, if you want to do more with your clips, you can import them into many standard video-editing programs. I used Flip video in Microsoft's (MSFT) Windows Movie Maker, which imported them without fuss. It offers more capability than the built-in software, especially the ability to add titles and transitions between scenes. I also imported my video into Apple's (AAPL) versatile iMovie. Unfortunately, using it with Flip on a late-model Mac requires installing some third-party software—a minor nuisance that Pure Digital intends to fix.

The Flip is swimming against the tide of multipurpose devices. These digital equivalents of the Swiss Army knife certainly have their place. I love the fact that whenever I have my mobile phone with me, which is nearly always, I have a camera available. But incorporating many functions into one product forces design compromises. A handset has to be a phone first, and that makes it a clumsy camera. This is why there will always be a place for focused products, even low-end ones like the Flip. It doesn't try to do terribly much, but it does its one thing uncommonly well.

For past columns and online-only reviews, go to Technology & You at businessweek.com/go/techmaven/

By Stephen H. Wildstrom


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