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Hands-on with the Seek Thermal imaging camera

At $199, it's one of the most affordable thermal cameras you can buy. And a pretty sweet one at that.

Ahh! Devil dog! Nope, just a thermal photo snapped with the Seek Thermal. Photo by Rick Broida/CNET

Thermal imaging is just plain cool. Forget all the practical stuff, though there's plenty of that. When you see what amounts to a live heat-map of everything around you, it's nothing short of awesome.

That's what you get from the Seek Thermal. Unveiled in September, this small heat-sensing camera plugs into your smartphone or tablet. And once you get past how ridiculously cool it is, then you can start getting your money's worth.

Photo by Rick Broida/CNET

Speaking of which, at $199, the Thermal may seem a pricey accessory -- until you consider that a standalone thermal camera typically costs at least $1,000. And even the FLIR One, which debuted earlier this year, costs $349. (Incidentally, that product is a custom case for the iPhone 5/5S, leaving out the vast majority of smartphone users.)

I tested both the microSD and Lightning versions of the Seek, which are physically and functionally almost identical -- right down to their Android and iOS apps. However, the Lightning connector offers a major advantage: It lets you plug in the camera so it faces either direction. (Thermal selfies, anyone?) On a phone like the Moto X, which I used with the microSD camera, the Seek could plug in only one way. (Fortunately, that way was rear-facing, but depending on the orientation of your phone's port, you may end up stuck in "selfie" position unless you get an extender cable.)

However you connect it, the Thermal offers plug-and-play simplicity. Fire up the app and you immediately get real-time imaging, with four different modes and an option to slide the viewfinder (i.e., your screen) between normal and thermal. Then just snap a photo or record a video like you normally would.

Beyond the fun of taking a thermal image of, say, the dog, you can use a camera like this for all kinds of things: checking for pipe blockages, spotting drafty door and window seals, watching for approaching bears when you're out camping at night, and so on.

I will say that the camera produces fairly low-resolution images -- 206x156 pixels -- but you get more than enough thermal data to see what you need to see.

Bottom line: This is not only an affordable thermal imaging camera, it's a highly effective one. I can see this landing on many a handyman's holiday wish list.