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Flip Video Ultra review: Flip Video Ultra

Flip Video Ultra

David Carnoy Executive Editor / Reviews
Executive Editor David Carnoy has been a leading member of CNET's Reviews team since 2000. He covers the gamut of gadgets and is a notable reviewer of mobile accessories and portable audio products, including headphones and speakers. He's also an e-reader and e-publishing expert as well as the author of the novels Knife Music, The Big Exit and Lucidity. All the titles are available as Kindle, iBooks, Nook e-books and audiobooks.
Expertise Mobile accessories and portable audio, including headphones, earbuds and speakers Credentials
  • Maggie Award for Best Regularly Featured Web Column/Consumer
David Carnoy
6 min read

At the time of this writing, the best selling camcorder at Amazon.com isn't a model from Sony, Canon, or Panasonic. It happens to be the Flip Video Ultra, the third iteration of Pure Digital Technologies' simple plug-and-play video camera that features a hideaway USB connector and built-in software that makes viewing and sharing your videos incredibly easy. That may be a little surprising to some, but the fact is that cheap sells--the Ultra starts at $149. And when you combine cheap with easy, you can see why the Flip and its RCA relative, the RCA Small Wonder EZ201, are finding success in the marketplace.


Flip Video Ultra

The Good

With its Flip Ultra series, Pure Digital has upgraded the design, video quality, viewing LCD, and software of its lightweight video camera that makes it very easy to capture and share low-resolution video via e-mail and the Web; we also appreciated that there's now one-touch video uploading to YouTube and AOL Video and that the Ultra is compatible with Macs.

The Bad

No SD/MMC card expansion slot; don't expect video quality to match that of a MiniDV camcorder's. The Muvee editing features only work with PCs, not Macs.

The Bottom Line

With improved video quality, a slightly trimmer design, and upgraded software package, the Flip Video Ultra is becoming a force to be reckoned with in the emerging low-end digital camcorder category.

The first thing you should know about the Flip Ultra is that it doesn't use tapes but records the video you shoot to the device's internal flash memory. For the Ultra, Pure Digital has doubled the amount of internal memory available from the previous Flip--there are 1GB and 2GB versions. What's noteworthy is that the company hasn't increased the amount of video recording time, which means the video you're shooting (the 1GB version gives you 30 minutes of video recording while the 2GB model gives you 60 minutes) is less compressed and has a higher bit rate that results in better-looking video. Unlike the Small Wonder EZ201, you can't toggle down the video setting to "LP" or "good" quality and double your capacity in the process. But that's not a big deal--we'd prefer to shoot at the best possible setting anyway because the video isn't stellar to begin with.

While there wasn't really a design change between the first and second versions of the Flip Video, Pure Digital has made some significant alterations to differentiate the Ultra from the standard Flip, which remains on sale. The Ultra is about the same thickness as the standard Flip but it's a bit narrower, which makes it a little easier to hold in your hand. It also comes in multiple color themes: white, black, pink, and orange. The battery compartment has been shifted in the new design (the unit is powered by two AA batteries) and a metal threaded mount for tripods has been added. But otherwise the camera has a lot in common with its predecessor and the two weigh in right around 5 ounces.

Like the previous model, there's a 1.5-inch LCD screen on back of the camera, which allows for instant review, so you can delete any undesirable clips right away. Pure Digital has upgraded the LCD with one that offers greater resolution (read: sharper) and is "transflective," which enables you to still see what's on the screen in bright daylight. The unit also has a video output, so you can view clips on any TV with a composite-video input. Like its predecessors, the Ultra ships with a felt protective carrying case--and you'll need to use it because the camera's finish easily scratches if you leave it unprotected next to a set of keys in your pocket.

Currently, there are several inexpensive cameras on the market whose sole purpose is to capture MPEG-4 video, which is more compressed--and, thus, lower in quality--than the MPEG-2 video recorded by MiniDV camcorders. As noted, Pure Digital continues to incrementally improve the video quality with each new model. For the Ultra, the company's moved to what it calls the "Pure Digital Video engine 2.0." In our review of the original Flip, we noted that raw footage seemed slightly sharper and the colors more vibrant--and we'd say the same is true for this model. We were also impressed by its low-light performance. We shot one subject in a poorly lit cubicle at work, yet she appeared well-lit in the video.

One of our biggest gripes with earlier models was that there was an audible clicking sound whenever you press the button to zoom in or out (it's a 2x digital zoom). That's fixed in this model. Still, it's worth noting that you're better off "manually" zooming by simply moving closer--or farther away--from your subject.

One area that Pure Digital has sought to improve is the camera's built-in software. Not much was done for the previous Flip, but this time around Pure Digital's made a couple of key additions. First, it's even easier to get your videos uploaded to YouTube and now AOL Video. Previously, it was a two-step process to upload to YouTube; now it's down to one.

Just as importantly, the company's incorporated some automatic editing software from a company called Muvee, though the Muvee features only work with PCs, not Macs. Before, you had the ability do some limited manual editing and stringing together of clips. But the Muvee software takes the movie-making 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. It's important to note, however, that owners of earlier Flip Video cameras will be able to download and use the upgraded software package starting in early October.

As we said, one of the key selling points of the Flip Ultra 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 PC (Windows 2000/XP or later)--a link to the camera's integrated software quickly pops up. On a Mac (OS X or later), the camera appears as another drive on your desktop, and you must install the software the first time you use it. After that, it operates the same as it would on a Windows PC. 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 12-13MB 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 or AOL Video, 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 unlike with YouTube or AOL Video, you'll have to manually upload the processed file from a folder on your desktop.

Truly a technophobe? You do have the option of bringing the camera to any CVS, Rite-Aid, Duane Reade, Longs Drugs, or Ritz/Wolf Camera store and having the folks there make a DVD of your footage for around $13. RCA offers its owner DVD-burning accessory for its Small Wonder EZ201, but Pure Digital currently doesn't.

In the final analysis, the Ultra is a nice step forward for the Flip Video series. We'd still like to see a flip-out LCD and, more importantly, some sort of expansion slot for more memory (RCA's Small Wonder EZ201 offers these features). While Pure Digital maintains that its user surveys show that Flip owners aren't demanding an expansion slot, the fact is that people do take video cameras on extended vacations and don't necessarily have a computer with them to offload their photos. If you shoot videos over a week--or even a few days--60 minutes gets used up quicker than you'd think. But even with those small knocks against the Flip Ultra, its newly upgraded software and superior video quality make the Ultra the current leader in the budget digital camcorder space.

Editor's note: For a full comparison of the standard Flip vs. the Flip Ultra, check out this chart.


Flip Video Ultra

Score Breakdown

Design 9Features 7Performance 6Image quality 0