Every six months or so, Flip Video -- slated to be absorbed by Cisco by the end of this year -- puts out a new model or two of its popular YouTube-friendly point-and-shoot mini camcorders. Late last year, it was the MinoHD. Now, the company has brought us two updated versions of the Ultra: the higher-end model, the UltraHD, shoots 720p (1,280x720-pixel resolution) high-definition video, while the less expensive second-generation Ultra, available for around £120, shoots 640x480-pixel resolution VGA-quality video.
On the outside at least, not much has changed from Flip's first-generation Ultra. But there are a couple of notable differences. For starters, the transflective LCD on the back is bigger, measuring 51mm (2 inches), as opposed to 38mm (1.5 inches). The buttons are also bigger and Flip has made a small change to the power button, making it a standard push button rather than a slider.
The UltraHD, which costs about £40 more than the Ultra, comes with a set of NiMH rechargeable batteries that you can charge in the unit by simply connecting the camcorder (via Flip's trademark flip-out USB connector) to the USB port on your computer. This new Ultra, however, only comes with a set of AA alkalines -- no rechargeable solution is provided, which is a shame.
Using AA batteries is convenient because you can always carry an extra set around with you as backup, and they're easy to find in shops wherever you might be. But there's one small drawback: AA rechargeable batteries are bulkier and heavier than the slim lithium-ion rechargeable batteries that are built into some mini camcorders, including Flip's Mino line. By default, therefore, you're getting a bigger, heavier camcorder (the new Ultra weighs in at 162g versus142g for the original Ultra and 94g for the Mino). That said, the Ultra is still pocket-friendly -- it's just not as pocket-friendly as its stablemates.
The Ultra opts for a simple video out port that displays low-resolution video on your TV. A basic composite AV cable ships with the device, so you don't have to buy any optional accessories. Flip also throws in a thin, soft cover to protect the Ultra's plastic finish (it comes in black, white, yellow and pink) -- just don't count on it protecting the camcorder from high drops.
The Ultra shoots 640x480-pixel resolution video at 30 frames per second, compresses it using H.264, and encodes it as MPEG-4. The unit doesn't have a memory card slot, but its 4GB of internal memory -- up 2GB over its predecessor -- allows you to record 2 hours of video. That should be ample recording capacity for most people, but, if you're on a vacation and shoot loads of video, it would help to have a laptop along for the ride to offload your video as you run out of memory.
As with all Flip camcorders, shooting and transferring videos to your computer or uploading them to YouTube or other video-sharing sites is a breeze. You hit the red button to record and the play button to play back videos. There's a 2x digital zoom on-board (don't use it), but nothing in the way of manual or advanced settings -- not even a still-capture mode. You can, however pull stills from your video using the software package that's preloaded on the unit.
For the type of audience these budget camcorders are targeted at, having few choices and menus to toggle through is a good thing. It's also good that Flip's software comes in both Windows and Mac versions. That software offers basic editing features, but you can always import your video into another video-editing package, including Apple's iMovie.
As for video quality, the Ultra produces decent video for a low-resolution model. At small sizes (that is, not blown up full screen on your computer display), the video looks pretty sharp, colours are well saturated, low-light performance is decent, and sound is loud enough. For best results, you have to keep the device very steady while shooting.
There isn't a big difference between the video quality on this model and the original Ultra, but it is slightly better. We should note that this model has the same optics and image sensor as the Mino, but Flip has managed to refine the video processing via software to improve the image quality.
Be forewarned that, while we're praising the video quality, it's still not great, and, blown up to larger sizes, it looks fairly soft and noisy. But, for shooting Web-based video, it's relatively decent.
The big question for many people will be whether to step up to the more expensive Flip Video UltraHD or save some dough and go with the second-generation Ultra. If you can afford it, you should probably opt for the UltraHD -- or MinoHD, if you want a smaller camcorder -- because the higher resolution gives you more flexibility to scale the video to larger sizes.
Additional editing by Charles Kloet