The Flip Video Mino is the fourth generation of Pure Digital's popular straight-to-Web mini camcorder, designed to make shooting and sharing low-resolution videos very easy. Thinner, smaller, and lighter than its older and less expensive sibling, the Flip Video Ultra, the Mino crams similar technology into a more compact, more attractive package that integrates a rechargeable lithium ion battery. (For a comparison of the various models, the company provides a comparison chart.)
Most of the 3.3-ounce Mino is about redesign. The USB connector now flips straight up, rather than to the side, for an overall more compact footprint that should fit better in a crowded USB environment. It has a slightly smaller transflective LCD display--1.46 inches compared with 1.5 inches--that enables you to still see what's on the screen in bright daylight. The back navigation controls are snazzier than before, with touch-sensitive buttons embedded into a shiny, flush surface. The port for the AV output has been shifted down slightly and is smaller (it's smaller than the standard 2.5mm jack--a cable is included). And finally, the threaded tripod mount has been moved from the left side of the bottom of the camera to the center.
Like the 60-minute version of the Ultra, the Mino comes equipped with 2GB of memory, capable of storing 60 minutes of its VGA-resolution video (the rechargeable battery gives you about 4 hours of shooting time). And finally, you can now pause and rewind/fast-forward your videos in camera (previous models didn't have this feature).
Overall, we like the new design and appreciate it mostly for being even more pocketfriendly. We also like the new touch-sensitive buttons, which are responsive--but not too responsive. Along with the aforementioned AV cable for viewing videos on your TV, you also get a chamois-style carrying pouch that doubles as a cloth to wipe down your Mino. While the white model doesn't show fingerprints and grime like the black version does, the white Mino does show dust and fibers, so the carry pouch comes in handy for cleaning duties for both models.
For the Ultra, the company moved to what it calls the "Pure Digital Video engine 2.0." The Mino has a new 2.5 engine, which features a next-generation video chip. The incremental gain may be slight, but it helps keep the Mino--in terms of video quality--ahead of competitors from RCA and Creative. The Mino exhibits slightly sharper images with more vibrant colors--and it performs very well in low-light environments. The camcorder also has an updated--more sensitive--microphone with improved signal processing.
All that said, it's important to note that the Mino, like the cadre of other straight-to-Web camcorders, produces video that's on a par with what you'll see from relatively inexpensive still digital cameras that have improved video-capture modes. And some of those models, like the comparably priced Casio Exilim EX-Z80, even come with similar software that allows you to easily upload your videos to YouTube and other video-sharing services.
Speaking of bundled software, we didn't notice any truly significant changes to the Flip Video software that ships with the Mino, other than to note that along with YouTube and AOL, MySpace is a new partner for the company. In addition, the Mino now supports direct operation on a Mac, without requiring software installation.
Previously, you had limited manual-editing and clip-compiling capabilities. Now the company adds software from Muvee that takes the moviemaking 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).
We'd seen demos of Muvee's full desktop application and have been impressed with its capabilities. It can take fairly boring video and make it seem pretty jazzy--or better yet, amusing. A handful of movie-mix styles are currently available, some more stylized than others. With its standalone PC software, Muvee offers you the option of buying additional "StyleLabs," but it's unclear at this point whether Pure Digital will include new ones with future software upgrades. Unfortunately, the Muvee software is still not available for Mac users. And the Xvid MPEG-4-encoded AVI clips still aren't directly importable into iMovie.
One of the key selling points of Flip Video cameras is how easy it is to get videos off the camera and distribute them. To get started, you flip out the USB connector and plug it into the USB port on your Windows (Windows 2000/XP or later) or Mac (OS X or later) machine and a link to the camcorder's integrated software quickly pops up. You can play back one clip, string several together to make the aforementioned movie mix, 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 12MB to 13MB file), recipients are sent a link to your compressed video. It looks worse than your raw video footage, but it doesn't look bad.
Aside from the fact that it can take several minutes for your video file to be processed, sharing a file 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.
To publish directly to YouTube, AOL, or MySpace, you'll need to create an account for each service and log in. But once you do, you can automatically upload your videos to the Web for private or public viewing with a click of a button. If you're allied to some other video-sharing site, a click of a button allows you to prepare the video for uploading, but you'll have to manually upload the processed file from a folder on your desktop.
Pure Digital has also announced a make-your-own-DVD service; you upload up to an hour's worth of video to a special Web site to have it burned to a DVD, which then gets distributed to your family and friends at $19.99 a pop. The company also claims you can "keep your videos archived forever," but remember that "forever" doesn't mean the same thing to companies as it does to people.
In the end, despite a couple of small gripes, we came away feeling good about the Mino. The more compact design makes the device even more pocket-friendly than the Ultra and the addition of the rechargeable battery will save you money in the long run (because you don't have to keep buying batteries). While 2GB of memory will be ample for most people, we would have appreciated an expansion slot for more memory and it's a bit irritating that the battery isn't removable and replaceable.
The big question, of course, is whether the Mino is worth $80 or $90 more than competing models from Creative and RCA, or $30 more than the company's own Flip Video Ultra, or if it has the same value as a similarly priced but more full-featured digital camera. They're all debatable--and ideally the Mino would cost less than $150--but when you're No. 1 in your category, you can frequently get away with charging a little more.