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Flir One review: A better thermal camera for your buck

The Flir One works well, but you really need to have a specific use for thermal imaging to justify its price.

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Megan Wollerton
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Megan Wollerton

Senior Writer/Editor

Megan Wollerton has covered technology for CNET since 2013. Before that, she wrote for NBC's Dvice.com (now SyFy). Megan has a master's degree from the University of Louisville and a bachelor's degree from Connecticut College, both in international relations. She is a board member of the Louisville chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. When Megan isn't writing, she's planning far-flung adventures.

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5 min read

In the land of thermal imaging (where professional-grade models dominate the market and typically cost tens of thousands of dollars), Flir One puts us one product closer to trend status for affordable heat signature cams -- it costs $250 in the US, £200 in the UK and is available for preorder in Australia now. As far as mobile accessories go, though, this teeny device is pretty pricey. It's also on the specialty side of the spectrum, since temperature mapping in the residential realm has only a handful of practical applications.

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7.7

Flir One

The Good

The Flir One's MSX tech mashes a regular and a thermal image together so you can see more than you would with a standalone raw thermal image.

The Bad

While $250 is inexpensive when you consider the larger commercial thermal camera market, it still isn't a cheap mobile accessory. There aren't a ton of practical uses for theFlir One.

The Bottom Line

Get the Flir One for its superior thermal imaging tech and overall ease of use, but be sure to consider specific, ongoing applications for this $250 accessory before you buy.

But Flir One's MSX technology, which meshes a regular image with a thermal image offers sharper optics than the identically priced Seek Thermal Camera that our very own Sarah Mitroff reviewed earlier this year. It's also easy to use and comes in both iOS and Android versions, depending on where your device loyalties lie (I reviewed the iOS version using an iPhone 6 Plus and an iPad Mini). For these reasons, I'd definitely recommend Flir One as a simple, rechargeable thermal imaging device that beats Seek in terms of image quality.

The Flir One brings the heat (pictures)

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Thermal imaging basics

Our vision has inherent limitations. When you consider the electromagnetic (EM) spectrum -- that's all of the EM energy emitted by radio waves, microwaves, infrared light, visible light, ultraviolet light, x-rays and gamma rays -- human eyesight is restricted to visible light. In order to extend that range, we have developed tools like night-vision googles, x-ray machines and thermal-imaging tech, like Flir One.

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Which hand was just holding ice? Screenshot by Megan Wollerton/CNET

Thermal-imaging cameras can "see" heat signatures. That isn't to say that they can only see things at high temperatures, but that they can display relative heat signatures between, say, a cup of ice and a space heater. Since thermal cameras are not concerned with visible light, they can detect the same signatures regardless of the lighting conditions. But they are different than night vision cameras, which do require some degree of visible light (however small) to create an image.

Although that gives thermal-imaging tech an advantage over night vision tech, there are some potential drawbacks to devices like Flir One and its direct competitor, the $250 Seek Thermal Camera , that detect heat signatures alone.

Seeing beyond has some limitations

Since thermal cameras can only pick up on heat signatures, they can't see through things like windows. Instead, they treat everything like an opaque wall, which seriously limits the value of thermal cameras as security devices (if you plan to use one to peer out a window from inside your home, because rather than seeing through the window to a potential intruder, you'll see a reflection of your own heat signature -- not especially useful).

But that's where Flir One's tech gets pretty interesting. The Seek Thermal Camera can only display the raw thermal image, whereas Flir uses something called "MSX" technology. Basically, the Flir One comes with two cameras -- one regular, visible light camera and one thermal sensor camera. So, every time you take a photo or create a video, it displays an overlay of the visible light image with the thermal signature. That still doesn't mean that the thermal tech can see through stuff, but it does enhance the quality of what you're seeing.

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You can see my heat signature reflected by the window. Screenshot by Megan Wollerton/CNET

Take the image above. It's kind of a jumble, I know, but bear with me. I'm taking a screenshot of a internal office window, which has a conference room behind it and our technical editor, Steve Conaway, is standing inside the conference room. Because of Flir One's MSX tech and regular visible light camera, we can see an outline of the stuff that's inside the conference room, including Steve, a table and a bunch of chairs, but the heat signatures in this image are all things that are reflected by the window, including me, a computer screen and windows on an external wall behind where I was standing.

Compare that to the image below taken with the Seek Thermal Camera and you can clearly see that Flir One has the lock on performance.

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Seek's thermal imaging isn't as refined as Flir One's. Sarah Mitroff/CNET

What else can Flir One do?

In addition to Flir One's MSX technology and its basic photo and video capabilities, you can also create panoramic shots and timelapses; it also has a timer function that you can use to delay the shot for 3 or 10 seconds. You can switch the colors of the heat signature display from the default to a variety of other psychedelic colors, too, or even set it so that it zeroes in on either the coldest or the hottest things in the room -- that could prove very useful if you're searching for heat or A/C leakage in your home.

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It's no surprise that the windows and door are hotter than the rest of the room (using the "hottest" feature). Screenshot by Megan Wollerton/CNET

You can also adjust the "emissivity" in the settings from matte to semi-matte, semi-glossy or glossy. Matte is the default setting and glossy is discouraged, though, since certain reflective surfaces, like metal door handles, can produce inaccurate temperature readings.

The most interesting feature estimates the surface temperature of whatever 's within the camera's field of view (based on the relative energy it's emitting). Check out the side-by-side shot of a space heater below to see the temperature display feature in action.

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Checking out the optional temperature display. Screenshots by Megan Wollerton/CNET

Putting Flir One into focus

The Flir One is a small mobile accessory that's available for both Android and iOS users (both cost $250). I tested the iOS version using an iPhone 6 Plus and an iPad Mini -- but it should work with any lighting-connector-enabled iOS device (as well as Micro-USB-enabled devices for the Android version).

Flir One's matte black design is pretty basic, but that isn't a bad thing in this case. I would rather my mobile accessories be as simple and unassuming as possible. Adding unnecessary bulk to something designed for mobility isn't a plus.

Setup and overall usability was also pretty straightforward. Simply download the app, charge the Flir One for at least an hour (kind of annoying if you wanted to use it right away, but not too inconvenient), press the power button on the side of the camera and voila -- you're ready to use your Flir One.

Navigating inside the app is also easy, but if you accidentally touch the screen while the camera is in action, the image will turn upside down. That's kind of an odd feature, but you can fix it quickly by tapping the screen again.

A Flir One IFTTT channel is supposedly on the way, as well as an integration with the free Manything iOS app I reviewed last year (which happens to have its own IFTTT channel as well), but that's it as far as major third-party smart-home integrations.

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Andrew Gebhart, Ry Crist and Steve Conaway posing for Flir One, just because. Screenshot by Megan Wollerton/CNET

Conclusion

The $250/£200 Flir One (for iOS) works well for the price, given that most thermal imaging cameras cost thousands. And compared to its identically priced competition, Flir One dominates in terms of image quality -- the MSX tech that combines a regular image with a thermal one makes all the difference between ill-defined heat signature blobs and shapes that are much more discernible. If you have a specific need for a thermal camera accessory, Flir One is a solid bet.

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7.7

Flir One

Score Breakdown

Setup 7Features 8Interface 7Performance 8