The original Flip started a minor revolution in digital camcorders. It was inexpensive, a snap to use, highly pocketable and made transferring content to a computer or the Web sinfully simple. It was the video world's answer to point-and-shoot cameras.
Competitors such as Kodak have since rushed to deliver competing -- and in some cases arguably superior -- products, but the Flip remains the device synonymous with cheap, accessible, ultra-compact camcorders.
Flip's latest offering is the second generation version of the popular Flip MinoHD (it released south of the border last winter, but didn't arrive in Canada until this month). The first thing I did after popping it out of its attractive black box was compare it to my old MinoHD.
Aside from a difference in carapace material -- the old model sports a custom plastic skin with squarish corners whereas the new one is sheathed in a brushed metal casing with lightly curved edges that's pleasantly cool to the touch -- the two devices appeared to be nearly identical at first blush. They're the same size and weight, have identical controls, and their screens, lenses, and USB ports were in the same places.
But there are some subtle, meaningful distinctions.
For starters, the second generation MinoHD's two-inch screen is more than twice the size and resolution of its predecessor, much brighter, and easier to see in direct sunlight. It makes not just recording video more enjoyable, but also reviewing it. Indeed, the original MinoHD's screen feels like a technological throwback by comparison.
The build quality feels much better as well; in part because of the slick alloy shell, but also thanks to an improved solid metal USB jack that pops out from the top of the camcorder with an audible click. The original MinoHD's jack has a plastic base and occasionally gets stuck on the spring-loaded cover that folds down over it.
Another improvement comes in the replacement of the old MinoHD's 3.5 millimetre A/V port with a mini-HDMI output. That means users can now watch the video they record on their televisions in HD without first transferring it to their computers. Sadly, Flip hasn't seen fit to include an HDMI cable in the box.
There are no noticeable upgrades to image quality. Like its predecessor, the second generation MinoHD record at 30 frames per second in 720p. I tried recording several scenes using both old and new MinoHDs and the results were more or less identical. However, I did note that the new model features a slower, less jarring digital zoom. Some may lament the Flip's lack of 1080p capability, but if you've seen 1080p video captured by other budget compact camcorders you'll understand that you aren't missing much. 720p is the sweet spot for this category, both in terms of image quality and in maximizing storage.
The second generation MinoHD's enhancements are appreciated, but they're not exactly groundbreaking. Clearly, Flip doesn't want to mess too much with its proven ultra-compact camcorder formula. Whereas competitors have differentiated their offerings by adding features such as optical image stabilization, still imaging capability, multiple recording modes, and expandable storage options, Flip seems to be steadfast in its belief that less is more. With built-in storage (now expanded from 4 to 8GB, doubling the maximum recording time to 120 minutes) and no menus to surf through, the second generation MinoHD is almost criminally easy to use; the sort of gadget a three-year-old can exploit without help. Just turn it on, press the big red button, and point the lens at your subject.
But while Flip's determination to not fix what isn't broken is in many ways commendable, it's disappointing to see that this philosophy hasn't led to a more competitive price. The second generation MinoHD remains much costlier than rival devices. At $239.99, it's $80 more than its main challenger, Kodak's newly released PlaySport. Granted, the PlaySport requires a memory card whereas the MinoHD has built-in storage, but an 8GB card is a mere $20. What's more, most people likely already have one. Flip offers a lower tier second generation MinoHD with half the memory for $209.99, but even that is nearly 25 per cent more than Kodak's camcorder.
I'm a fan of Flip. My wife and I rarely go anywhere with our daughter without tossing our MinoHD in a pocket or purse. And I like the second generation model even more than the original. But Flip needs to be wary of its opposition-and I'm not just talking about other mini-camcorders. Some new smartphones are capable of capturing passable quality HD video, making a dedicated device like the MinoHD all but redundant. As high-def video become more ubiquitous and its price inches ever lower, Flip may find that the tables have turned, that its once cheap camcorders have become one of the more expensive ways to capture budget-quality HD video.