Last year, Pure Digital Technologies put out a simple plug-and-play video camera called the Point & Shoot Video Camcorder, which featured a hideaway USB connector and built-in software that made viewing and sharing your videos incredibly easy. At the same time, RCA licensed the technology from Pure Digital and released its own version of the camera, marketing it under the name RCA Small Wonder EZ101 for the same price ($130). Both versions had similar flaws, and while they didn't score terribly well in our tests, they did show promise.
For 2007, both companies are shipping new models. Pure Digital is serving up the Flip and RCA has the Small Wonder EZ201. The two share much in common, but RCA has gone out its way to differentiate its Small Wonder, giving it a white casing, more flexible and sharper LCD monitor, and an expansion slot of SD/MMC cards that allows you to shoot and store much more video if you buy an optional memory card. Pure Digital's Flip (about $150 for the 60-minute version), on other hand, is much more of a rehash of last year's model, with the new brand name and some cosmetic tweaks being the main differences.
The camera comes in a couple of colors and two storage capacities (512MB or 1GB) that allow you to store 30 or 60 minutes of VGA-quality video on the internal memory (sorry, there's no expansion slot). 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, because we'd prefer to shoot at the best possible setting anyway since the video isn't stellar to begin with.
While Pure Digital has made some tweaks to the camera's cosmetics, the Flip looks the same from the outside as the original Point & Shoot Video Camcorder. The lightweight, 5-ounce camera has a 1.4-inch LCD screen on back for instant review, so you can delete any undesirable clips right away, and it has a video output, so you can view clips on any TV with a composite-video input. The unit runs on two AA batteries and comes with a protective felt 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. It's hard to tell but it does appear that the video quality has improved slightly with this new model. The raw footage seemed sharper and the colors more vibrant. White balance is still off, but you can't expect wonders from a camera that's just a couple steps up from a camera phone and is essentially on a par with what you'd record on a basic digital camera's Movie mode. On a more critical note, our biggest gripe is a holdover from last year: there's still an audible clicking sound whenever you press the button to zoom in or out (it's a 2X digital zoom), which is somewhat irritating. You're better off "manually" zooming by simply moving closer--or farther away--from your subject.
The camera's built-in software was one of its strengths last year but Pure Digital has done little to improve it aside from swapping its allegiance from Google Video to YouTube. To get started, you flip out the USB connector, and plug it into the USB port on your Windows PC (Windows 2000/XP or later)--a viewer automatically pops up. On a Mac (OS X or later), the camera appears as another drive on your desktop, and you must install the software the first time you use it. After that, it operates the same as it would on a Windows PC. You can play back one clip, string several together to make a "movie," delete a clip, trim start and end points (new this year), pull a single frame (still photo) out of the video, and share your clips with selected viewers via e-mail or the Web. When sharing via e-mail, instead of attaching a large file (even short 20-second clips can result in a 6MB or 7MB file), recipients are sent a link to your compressed video courtesy of Grouper (yes, it looks worse than your raw video footage).
Aside from the fact that it can take several minutes for your video file to upload to Grouper, sharing a file using the service is very simple. Click on the "Share Video" button in the software interface and you're taken to a screen that asks you to select a video clip and choose to share it via e-mail, share a greeting (send a private video card), or share it online. We then selected "share a greeting." As soon as we hit the button and gave our e-mail address, we were automatically signed up for a Grouper account and our video was shared (via Grouper) automatically with the e-mail addresses we typed in to a greeting card. Though hardly a deal-breaker, it'd be nice if Pure Digital could improve the card choices--they are pretty cheesy.
You don't exactly publish directly to YouTube, but Pure Digital makes it a fairly simple process; the software simply drops a file onto your desktop that you can then upload to YouTube once you log in to your account. If all that still seems too complicated--or you're truly technophobic--you do have the option of bringing the camera to any CVS, Rite-Aid, or Ritz/Wolf Camera store that processes the single-use version. The folks there will make a DVD of your footage for around $13.
Summing up, this reviewer has been a little harder on this camera than on its predecessor, mainly because the competition is fiercer this round with RCA upping the ante with its Small Wonder EZ201. The Pure Digital does have a few advantages over that model, including the ability to bring the Flip into stores to burn your videos to DVD, as well more internal memory (1GB vs. 512MB). The Pure Digital Flip is also Mac compatible. However, RCA's Small Wonder has a slightly sharper and more flexible flip-out LCD, an expansion slot for SD/MMC cards, and it doesn't record a clicking sound when you hit the zoom button. So, if you're a Windows user, while the Flip's fine, the RCA's just the better choice for the money.