Buying a mini camcorder to flip for

There are plenty of shoot-and-share pocket video cams to pick from, but here's what makes one worth buying and another worth skipping.

Kodak PlaySport Zx5 minicamcorder
Kodak PlaySport Zx5 mini camcorder is one of our top holiday picks for its features, performance, and value. CBS Interactive

For a category people keep declaring dead because of smartphones, there is no shortage of shoot-and-share mini camcorders in stores.

In fact, the death of category leader, Flip Video , seemed to leave a giant creator in the market that was quickly filled by everyone from Kodak and Sony to Panasonic and Samsung to JVC and Toshiba. But with all those big names involved and plenty of lesser-known manufacturers in the mix, too, it's not easy to weed out the ones worth picking up for those quick-clip moments.

To that end, here's a list of major things to consider when you're trying to decide which one to get or whether a mini camcorder is right for you at all.

All HD video is not created equal
All but the cheapest mini camcorders boast HD video quality. That simply means they can capture at a resolution up to 1,280x720 pixels or, if the model shoots full HD, 1,920x1,080 (usually at 30 frames per second). However, like high megapixels in still cameras, this really isn't a statement of how good the video will actually be. As we've said many times before, pocket video cameras can't compete with a full-fledged HD camcorder costing hundreds of dollars more. There are other factors that go into creating great video beyond high resolution. That's not to say the HD clips from some models can't be enjoyed on a large HDTV, but, for the most part, the video they produce is meant for sharing online and viewing on smaller computer screens. In fact, if the marketing materials for a particular mini camcorder focus almost exclusively on online sharing, take it as a sign.

Also, mini camcorders typically don't handle movement well--of the subject or the shooter. Panning the camcorders usually creates motion judder, while fast-moving subjects such as people playing soccer will have visible ghosting around them. The effects can be nauseating when viewed at large sizes. To help mitigate these things, some models include an option to record 720p HD video at 60fps, which when played back can appear much smoother than clips shot at 30fps. It's definitely a feature to have if you're shooting a lot of action.

One last thing about video quality: these devices typically don't do well in low-light conditions. Some models will simply have more visible noise in them, while others will have that plus poor color and complete softening of details, making subjects look like paintings.

Samsung's Intelli-studio editing and sharing software on the W200 is full-featured and, with practice, easy to use.

Software--to have or have not
One of the big selling points of the Flip Video camcorders was their very simple editing and sharing software embedded on the devices. You could connect to any computer, polish your clips a bit, and send them off to friends and family--all with little difficulty. Some of the other mini camcorder manufacturers did the same, though the included software varied in ease of use and features, while the cheapest models I've tested don't come with any software at all.

If you don't already have basic software and like the idea of having something decent for organization, editing, and sharing, Kodak and Samsung have the most useful software, followed closely by Panasonic and Sony (though Sony has little for editing). Most other brands I've tested just have generic, off-the-shelf stuff that you're better off not using.

Touch screens
Having a good touch interface can add to shooting video and photos as well as the playback experience when showing off your stuff on the device's screen. Having a bad touch interface, though, will make you want to scream and stomp the device out of existence. Thankfully, most touch-screen mini camcorders have a physical record button, so you don't have to worry about missing a moment because the screen didn't register your tap. Still, I strongly suggest you try one out before you buy it.

If you want both a touch screen and durability, the rugged Panasonic TA20 is worth its price.

Rugged is only so rugged
Along with touch-screen mini camcorders, manufacturers started adding rugged models to their lineups because it's a good way to stay relevant with more and more smartphones capable of capturing HD video. I certainly wouldn't hand my phone over to my kids (or anyone else for that matter) to shoot video, nor would I take it into a pool or snowboarding or, well, you get the idea.

The thing is that despite all the durability claims, these are still small, fairly inexpensive, mass-produced electronic devices. All of them are tested in specific ways to achieve their ruggedness ratings. For example, saying a mini camcorder is shockproof up to a 5-foot drop usually means a drop onto 1-inch-thick plywood--not concrete. And just because it's capable of surviving these things, doesn't mean it won't fail. Still, I'd rather have one that might survive a drop on the ground or in the water than one that definitely won't.

I liked the Kodak Playfull for its size and video, but the fixed-focus lens and nonreplaceable battery were turn-offs.

Nonreplaceable batteries, storage, and autofocus
There are a few other things you should consider before you settle on a particular model. For one, not all of them have a user-replaceable battery, which means if the battery dies while shooting, it'll need to be charged up again, which usually takes 2-3 hours by wall outlet. Also, most mini camcorders either have built-in storage or require an SD or microSD memory card, rarely both. Usually, the cheaper the video camera, the more likely it is you'll need to supply your own storage.

Lastly, one feature you may want to look for is autofocus and/or macro focus. Older mini camcorders could only focus on subjects that were typically at least 3 feet from the lens. Some newer models can focus within inches of subject (macro) and can track subjects to keep them in focus as they move around the frame.

If you want a camera, buy a camera
In general, mini camcorders do not make good still cameras. They'll take a photo, sure, but the results aren't usually great--especially in low light--and are on par with a basic camera phone. Plus, they tend to have long shutter lag and shot-to-shot times. They are, more or less, video cameras that happen to capture stills. If you want good photos and decent HD movie clips, go buy a regular ultracompact camera. Not only will the photo results be better, but you get a zoom lens, too. With rare exception, mini camcorders only have quality-destroying digital zoom.

The Flip Video question
Flip's final run of mini camcorders is still for sale, occasionally at ridiculously low prices. This begs the question, should you buy one? My opinion is that just because Cisco killed the brand doesn't mean the device is instantly junk. If you're just looking for a really good mini camcorder with excellent software and aren't overwhelmingly concerned with what support you might get from Cisco for it, I would grab one before they're gone . Specifically, I'd get the Flip UltraHD 2-hour (8GB) model. The 1-hour version had poorer video quality and the MinoHD doesn't have a user-replaceable battery, though its video is as good as the UltraHD 2-hour's.

 

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