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Review: 3 personal HD video cameras offer high def at low cost

By Matt Lake
July 16, 2009 06:00 AM ET

Flip UltraHD

Flip UltraHD has the simplicity thing nailed. It's the chunkiest recorder in the pack, but doesn't require you to carry cables around to plug it into your computer. Operating it is easy and, considering the whole thing works by point-and-shoot, its results are effortlessly good.

The package comes with very little except the unit itself, its rechargeable AA battery pack, a wrist strap and a carrying bag. And it doesn't need much else -- though an HDMI cable to fit its only external port would be nice.

The UltraHD carries its Mac- and PC-based software in its 8GB of onboard memory. The camera comes with a built-in flip-out USB interface for data transfer and recharging and can even double as a flash memory drive, though at 4.25 x 2.19 x 1.17 inches and weighing in at six ounces, it doesn't always sit comfortably in a USB port.

Flip UltraHD
Flip UltraHD

If you need to recharge it, you just leave it plugged into a computer -- or, if there's not one available, you can swap in AA batteries.

Like all the devices, the Flip UltraHD is really only a high-definition video camera in name: It records 720p video at 30 fps, but its results are not up to professional quality. That said, the results from the UltraHD can look great if the camera is held still enough. With its move to HD, Flip has abandoned the special-codec AVI format it used in earlier models: This one encodes the video as H.264 compressed MPEG-4 files, like the WebbieHD. (The Kodak model opted for the QuickTime video format instead.)

In general, the video quality of the Flip UltraHD was the best in the roundup. True, you get a two-hour limit because the Flip line does not provide add-on storage: What's onboard is what you get, and that amounts to two hours of video. But across a range of different lighting levels, it provided what seemed the best combination of color fidelity and image clarity at different light levels.

At a Glance

Flip UltraHD
Pure Digital Technologies
List Price: $200
Street Price: $179-$199
Pros: Excellent design, doubles as an 8GB flash drive, charges in USB port, simple controls, takes AA batteries in an emergency
Cons: Fixed capacity of two hours of video, no swappable storage media, no still photography, can sit awkwardly in some USB ports

The proviso is that we're talking about a class of products that range from $150 to $200. At those prices, you can't expect anything a studio would release on DVD. Any movement of the camera results in a moment of fuzziness that settles only when the camera becomes still again. This is true of freehand camera trembles and intentional panning alike.

The UltraHD zooms much more smoothly than the others, but in all cases the zoomed image is fuzzy because none of these products zooms by moving the lens: It's all done by digitally messing with pixels.

The camera captured sound in our tests that straddled low and high levels well. It wasn't as quiet as the Kodak Zx1 and didn't top out as readily as the Sony recorder. The device captured audio across a good range of pitch and volume changes.

In general, I'd call the Flip UltraHD the best all-rounder in the group. True, it's the only one in the pack that doesn't double as a still camera, and it doesn't capture 1080p video or 720p at 60fps, like the Sony and Kodak models. But at basic HD resolution, it turns out decent quality video and sound with a minimum of fuss and a very shallow learning curve. And for my money, that's the best kind of compromise.

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Flip UltraHD

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