At the time of this writing, the best selling camcorder at Amazon.com isn't a model from Sony, Canon, or Panasonic. It happens to be the Flip Video Ultra, the third iteration of Pure Digital Technologies' simple plug-and-play video camera that features a hideaway USB connector and built-in software that makes viewing and sharing your videos incredibly easy. That may be a little surprising to some, but the fact is that cheap sells--the Ultra starts at $149. And when you combine cheap with easy, you can see why the Flip and its RCA relative, the RCA Small Wonder EZ201, are finding success in the marketplace.
The first thing you should know about the Flip Ultra is that it doesn't use tapes but records the video you shoot to the device's internal flash memory. For the Ultra, Pure Digital has doubled the amount of internal memory available from the previous Flip--there are 1GB and 2GB versions. What's noteworthy is that the company hasn't increased the amount of video recording time, which means the video you're shooting (the 1GB version gives you 30 minutes of video recording while the 2GB model gives you 60 minutes) is less compressed and has a higher bit rate that results in better-looking video. Unlike the Small Wonder EZ201, you can't toggle down the video setting to "LP" or "good" quality and double your capacity in the process. But that's not a big deal--we'd prefer to shoot at the best possible setting anyway because the video isn't stellar to begin with.
While there wasn't really a design change between the first and second versions of the Flip Video, Pure Digital has made some significant alterations to differentiate the Ultra from the standard Flip, which remains on sale. The Ultra is about the same thickness as the standard Flip but it's a bit narrower, which makes it a little easier to hold in your hand. It also comes in multiple color themes: white, black, pink, and orange. The battery compartment has been shifted in the new design (the unit is powered by two AA batteries) and a metal threaded mount for tripods has been added. But otherwise the camera has a lot in common with its predecessor and the two weigh in right around 5 ounces.
Like the previous model, there's a 1.5-inch LCD screen on back of the camera, which allows for instant review, so you can delete any undesirable clips right away. Pure Digital has upgraded the LCD with one that offers greater resolution (read: sharper) and is "transflective," which enables you to still see what's on the screen in bright daylight. The unit also has a video output, so you can view clips on any TV with a composite-video input. Like its predecessors, the Ultra ships with a felt protective carrying case--and you'll need to use it because the camera's finish easily scratches if you leave it unprotected next to a set of keys in your pocket.
Currently, there are several inexpensive cameras on the market whose sole purpose is to capture MPEG-4 video, which is more compressed--and, thus, lower in quality--than the MPEG-2 video recorded by MiniDV camcorders. As noted, Pure Digital continues to incrementally improve the video quality with each new model. For the Ultra, the company's moved to what it calls the "Pure Digital Video engine 2.0." In our review of the original Flip, we noted that raw footage seemed slightly sharper and the colors more vibrant--and we'd say the same is true for this model. We were also impressed by its low-light performance. We shot one subject in a poorly lit cubicle at work, yet she appeared well-lit in the video.
One of our biggest gripes with earlier models was that there was an audible clicking sound whenever you press the button to zoom in or out (it's a 2x digital zoom). That's fixed in this model. Still, it's worth noting that you're better off "manually" zooming by simply moving closer--or farther away--from your subject.
One area that Pure Digital has sought to improve is the camera's built-in software. Not much was done for the previous Flip, but this time around Pure Digital's made a couple of key additions. First, it's even easier to get your videos uploaded to YouTube and now AOL Video. Previously, it was a two-step process to upload to YouTube; now it's down to one.
Just as importantly, the company's incorporated some automatic editing software from a company called Muvee, though the Muvee features only work with PCs, not Macs. Before, you had the ability do some limited manual editing and stringing together of clips. But the Muvee software takes the movie-making process to a new level. You simply select the clips you like, click a button, and a few minutes later, the software spits out a movie "mix," complete with transitions and special effects and even some background music (you can also choose to add your own background music).