On Road Trip, comparing simple video camera options

On his latest trek around the U.S., CNET News reporter Daniel Terdiman shot video using four different devices. He shares his observations and chooses a winner.

Daniel Terdiman Former Senior Writer / News
Daniel Terdiman is a senior writer at CNET News covering Twitter, Net culture, and everything in between.
Daniel Terdiman
3 min read

The four video cameras I used on Road Trip 2009 (from left): iPhone 3GS, Flip Mino, Flip UltraHD, and Nikon D5000. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

If you're going to go on the road for nearly six weeks, visiting some of the most interesting and most beautiful destinations in the United States, you'd better be able to shoot some video.

For me, heading out on Road Trip 2009, the question wasn't whether I'd be able to do so, but how I'd do it. In general, when I'm working on the kinds of stories I do during these projects, I'm loaded down with enough equipment as it is. So I don't want to, nor do I really have the ability to, carry a full-scale video camera.

The solution, then, particularly because my video needs were usually pretty low-key, was to go light, or at least, to carry light video equipment. Fortunately for me, that wasn't hard.

To start, the digital SLR I was using to take thousands and thousands of pictures, the Nikon D5000, also incorporates HD video, one of the first such cameras to do so. Then, for variety, I also brought along both a Flip UltraHD and a Flip Mino, and, to round out the collection, an iPhone 3GS.

I'm not going to pretend that I ever tried to do anything particularly sophisticated with these various video cameras--such as they are--but I did use them all. In general, I used the D5000 and the UltraHD, since they both shoot in HD, and both of them are easy to use.

One thing I did do was to take all four of the video devices to the top of Hell's Canyon, along the Idaho-Oregon border, and used each of them to shoot the same thing (with one exception: the battery on the iPhone 3GS died just as I was about to use it, requiring me to shoot a similar video later). And while I admit that using one little test like this (see video below) is not really the fairest way to evaluate the quality of four different devices, it was better than nothing.

My conclusion, based on that test? The Flip UltraHD carried the day, both for overall quality, and for ease of use. Up at the top of that mountain, it captured crisp, clean video--and audio--did so with the click of a single button. Generally, the Nikon shot really nice video, and I probably used it to shoot more clips than the UltraHD throughout Road Trip, but during this test, it came up short, having trouble with the focus.

Surprisingly, the Flip Mino held up very well against its HD cousin, and given that it, too, is easy to use and easy to upload video from, I'd say it is a winner, too. And the iPhone 3GS, while only nominally a video camera, actually did a pretty decent job. The audio wasn't nearly as good as on the other devices, but then again, I didn't expect it to be. The picture quality, though, was fine, especially since the video was shot in good lighting conditions.

Ultimately, I'd say that anyone carrying any of these devices who needed to shoot something quick would be satisfied. If I had to choose one, and one only, I think I would go with Flip's UltraHD, though Nikon--and other manufacturers who do the same thing, like Canon--certainly deserves a lot of credit for combining HD video with high-quality digital SLR technology.

Click here for the entire Road Trip 2009 package.