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Every six months or so, Flip Video--slated to be absorbed by Cisco by the end of this year--puts out a new model or two of its popular YouTube friendly point-and-shoot mini camcorders. Late last year it was the MinoHD. Now, for spring 2009, it brings us two updated versions of the Ultra: the higher-end model, the UltraHD, shoots 720p (1,280x720) high-definition video, while the less expensive second generation Ultra shoots 640x480 VGA-quality video.
On the outside at least, not much has changed from Flip's first-generation Ultra. But there are a couple of notable differences. For starters, the transflective LCD on the back is bigger, measuring 2 inches, compared with 1.5 inches. The buttons are also bigger and Flip has made a small change to the power on/off button, making it a standard push button rather than a slider.
The UltraHD, which lists for $50 more than the Ultra, comes with a set of NiMH rechargeable batteries that you can charge in the unit by simply connecting the camcorder (via Flip's trademark flip-out USB connector) to the USB port on your computer. However, this model only comes with a set of AA alkalines--no rechargeable solution is provided, which is too bad. Using AA batteries is convenient because you can always carry an extra set around with you as backup, and they're easy to find in stores wherever you might be. But there's one small drawback: AA rechargeable batteries are bulkier and heavier than the slim lithium ion rechargeable batteries that are built into some mini camcorders, including Flip's Mino line. So by default you're getting a bigger, heavier camcorder (the new Ultra weighs in at 5.7 ounces versus 3.3 ounces for the Mino and 5 ounces for the original Ultra). That said, the Ultra is still pocket-friendly--it's just not as pocket-friendly as the others.
The Ultra opts for a simple video out port that displays low-resolution video on your TV. Your basic composite AV cable (the red, white, and yellow plugs) ships with the device, so you don't have to buy any optional accessories. Plus, Flip throws in a thin, soft cover to protect the Ultra's plastic finish (it comes in black, white, yellow, and pink)--just don't count on it protecting the camcorder from high drops.
The Ultra shoots 640x480 resolution video at 30fps, compresses it using H.264, and encodes it as MPEG-4. The unit doesn't have a memory card slot, which is too bad, but its 4GB of internal memory, up 2GB over its predecessor, allows you to record 2 hours of video. That should be ample recording capacity for most folks, but if you're on a vacation and shoot a lot of video, it would help to have a laptop along for the ride to offload your video as you run out of memory.
As with all Flip Video camcorders, shooting and transferring videos to your computer or uploading them to YouTube and other video-file-sharing sites is a breeze. Flip has generally nailed the whole simplicity thing. You hit the red button to record and the play button to play back videos. There's 2x digital zoom onboard (don't use it), but nothing in the way of manual or advanced settings, not even a still-capture mode. However, you can pull stills from your video using the software package that's preloaded on the unit.
For the type of audience these budget camcorders are targeted at, having few choices and menus to toggle through is a good thing. It's also good that Flip's software comes in both Windows and Mac versions--both systems are supported. That software offers basic editing features, but you can always import your video into another video-editing package, including Apple's iMovie.
As for video quality, the Ultra produces decent video for a low-resolution model. At small sizes (read: not blown up full screen on your computer display), the video looks pretty sharp, colors are well saturated, low-light performance is decent, and sound is loud enough. For best results, you do have to keep the device very steady while shooting.
There isn't a big difference between the video quality on this model and the original Ultra, but it is slightly better. We should note that this model has the same optics and image sensor as the Mino, but Flip has managed to refine the video processing via software to improve the image quality.
Be forewarned that while we're praising the video quality, it's still not great--and blown up to larger sizes it looks fairly soft and pretty noisy. But for shooting Web-based video, it's relatively decent. (For a comparison of the various Flip models, the company provides a comparison chart.)
The big question for a lot of people is whether to step up to the more expensive UltraHD or save some dough and go with this model. If you can afford it, you should probably opt for the UltraHD--or MinoHD, if you want a smaller camcorder. The higher resolution gives you more flexibility to scale the video to larger sizes. Ultimately, what will make this camcorder compelling is its price. If the street price hits around $120 or less, it starts make sense as a purchase.