Earlier this year, Kodak released the Zi6, a mini camcorder supplying HD resolution. The whole HD spin upped the ante for Flip Video, the current market leader in the straight-to-Web mini camcorder category. While we like the Zi6, it has some small drawbacks that make it hard to fully endorse over the smaller Mino and less expensive Ultra. Still, there's been some pressure for Flip Video to put out an HD model. And now it has: the MinoHD.
The MinoHD looks identical to that of its standard-def sibling, the Mino, and we similarly appreciate it mostly for its pocket-friendly design. (For a comparison of the various models, the company provides a comparison chart.) Both models are supercompact and weigh 3.3 ounces. Unless you buy directly from the company, the HD version is only available in black; if you order it via Flip's Web site, though, you can get snazzier custom versions at no extra cost. The USB connector flips straight up, rather than to the side, for a smaller footprint that should fit better in a crowded USB environment. It has a smallish 1.46-inch transflective LCD display that enables you to still see what's on the screen even in bright daylight. The back navigation controls have responsive touch-sensitive buttons embedded into a shiny, flush surface; we like them, but on occasion you'll accidentally touch a button you wished you hadn't.
A tripod mount sits on the center of the bottom of the camera. The port for the AV output features the Mino's same lilliputian jack--it's smaller than the standard 2.5mm jack--and while Flip includes a cable for connecting to a TV, the AV jack outputs only standard-definition video. By comparison, the Zi6's output supports HD and it ships with a cable that allows you to connect to the component-video jacks on your TV. That said, the video you get out of the MiniHD's composite connection looks sharper than that of the standard-def Mino and Ultra. Along with the cable you get a chamois-style carrying pouch that doubles as a cloth to wipe down your MinoHD.
Like its siblings, the MinoHD is designed to be exceedingly simple to use, and it is. Unlike some of its competitors, it provides virtually no settings to fiddle with apart from setting the date and time. You shoot in one resolution and that's it. There's no choice to drop to a lower video resolution to store more video, but why would you want to? Really, the MinoHD is all about pushing the red button to start and stop recording and hit the playback button to see what you recorded. That's pretty much it.
The same nonremovable rechargeable lithium ion battery as the Mino's powers the MinoHD. However, it only shoots up to 2 hours, compared with the standard Mino's 4 hours or so of juice. That's obviously a big difference. In addition, to accommodate the bigger high-resolution video files, the MinoHD comes equipped with double the memory: 4GB, capable of storing 60 minutes of 1,280x720 resolution (720p) video. The MinoHD has been upgraded to Flip Video's Pure Digital Video engine 3.0 processor from Version 2.5 and incorporates a slightly bigger 1/4.5-inch HD CMOS sensor. Additionally, it's rated for improved low-light sensitivity and uses a 9Mbps encoding rate (vs. 4Mbps for the Mino). And finally, the MinoHD uses the H.264 video compression scheme instead of Advanced Profile MPEG-4 AVI.
What does that all add up to? Well, in our review of the standard-def Mino, we concluded that the video was pretty sharp with fairly accurate, vibrant colors. But it didn't scale well; to keep it sharp you had to watch the video in a small box on your computer screen (the Mino's video looks OK on your TV via the video outputs, but it's still low-resolution video). With the MinoHD, you can play a clip full screen with no significant degradation. Again, you won't confuse the video for what you'd get from a real high-definition camcorder, but the video quality is pretty impressive for a camcorder this tiny.
Video shot in both bright and low light looked pretty good. We took some footage at an event inside the American Museum of Natural History (of Night at the Museum fame), and the camcorder was able to capture video in a very dimly lit room. It didn't look great, but the video wasn't nearly as noisy in low light as we seen from other camcorders of this ilk. The sound was also decent and improved over the Mino's, though we felt the mic could use a little more gain up.
However, there are some caveats. The MinoHD does much better when held steady (Amazon is currently bundling it with a mini tripod for a reason). The camcorder also has some focus issues, such as choosing the ground rather than the animal scampering across it, and you can't get too close to your subjects or they will be out of focus. And you'll also notice that videos don't always play with the smooth precision of a true high-def video; there's just a slight bit of jitter. (Flip Video reps says it helps to have a more powerful computer and not have a lot of applications open when you're playing back videos, but we noticed it on an 8-core Mac with nothing else running).
One of the Flip Video camcorders' key selling points is how easy it is to get videos off the camera and distribute them, and the tradition continues here. You simply flip out the USB connector and plug it into your Windows (Windows 2000/XP or later) or OS X (10.4 or later) machine and up pops FlipShare, the company's newly redesigned software. You can play back one clip, string several together to make a movie, 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 25MB file--recipients are sent a link to your compressed video. It looks worse than your raw video footage, but it doesn't look bad and Flip Video has made an effort to preserve some of the sharpness and HD qualities. Aside from the fact that it can take several minutes to process the video, sharing a file is very simple. Click on the "Share Video" button in the software interface and it takes you 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.
Overall, FlipShare's got a cleaner look and seems easier to use. But the video trimming feature is a little buried and it no longer has the Movie Mix feature, which we really liked. Previously, you could select the clips you liked, click a button, and a few minutes later, the software spat out a movie complete with transitions and special effects and even some background music (you could choose to add your own background music). However, by sacrificing Muvee, which powered the Movie Mix feature, the MinoHD gained Mac and iMovie compatibility. Now you can trim your clips, string them together, and add titles and music. But there's no press-a-button a get a movie.
Pure Digital also offers 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, the MinoHD marks another step forward for Flip Video and mini camcorders in general. The device isn't without its drawbacks: a relatively high price tag, no memory expansion slot, and a short-lived, nonremovable battery. The big question, of course, is whether the Mino is better than the Kodak Zi6. We think so: though some may like the larger Zi6, with its bigger LCD, the MiniHD's video quality is a little better and its smaller design will appeal to people looking for a camcorder that barely makes a bulge in your pocket.