Narrative Clip review: Photographic memory, for better and worse

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MSRP: $399.99

The Good The Narrative Clip has a small, simple design and works automatically; the app works with iOS and Android.

The Bad Camera placement often yields poorly framed or otherwise useless photos; Narrative’s photo-uploading service costs extra; the Clip won’t sync directly with your phone; it only takes still images; Narrative phone app feels too pared-down to be helpful.

The Bottom Line The Narrative Clip camera attempts to be your always-on wearable way to record photographic memories, but it lacks the flexibility, affordability, and camera quality to meet its promise.

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5.0 Overall
  • Style 6
  • Features 4
  • Ease of use 6

"What's that on your hat?" someone next to me on the train asks. I tell him it's a fitness tracker. Somehow I don't have the heart to tell him the truth: it's a camera, snapping two pictures a minute, that I wear on me all the time. Google Glass? At least that looks invasive. This is Narrative Clip, the more stealth way to perpetually record your life.

Cameras that auto-record and sync the data back to servers or phones are starting to finally become real consumer products, and the Narrative Clip, which began life as a Kickstarter project called Memoto, is one of them. The little puck is little more than a 5-megapixel basic camera that takes two pictures a minute, automatically. Clip it anywhere. And...create a detailed photographic record of your every waking moment.

Sarah Tew/CNET

For better or worse, that's the pitch.

The $279 clip-on camera created by Narrative, a Swedish company that raised its initial funding via Kickstarter back in 2012, doesn't record video clips, or audio. It doesn't have a flash, either. And, considering you can see the lens, it's not really all that stealthy. But the Narrative Clip is part of a new little wave of "lifelogging cameras," devices that are meant as alternatives to collect time and location-stamped information than traditional full-control point-and-shoot alternatives.

But here's the problem: you may or may not be on board with the idea of "lifelogging," or wearable cameras, or photographic memory, but even if you are, the Narrative Clip has serious limitations. Its lack of video recording or more advanced controls, its reliance on a cloud-based storage and moment-analysis service that costs about $100 a year, and its inability to directly pair with your phone (yes, you read that right) make Narrative a novelty, at best.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Memory box
Back in 2003, Gordon Bell, a Microsoft researcher, was well underway with MyLifeBits, a project he started with Jim Gemmell to explore the recording and recall of "e-memories," bits of data collected and logged. The idea was one of the earliest attempts at lifelogging. And that year, a camera called the SenseCam, according to Bell's book Total Recall, was created to hang around one's neck and snap pictures automatically.

If you've read Dave Eggers' "The Circle," you're probably familiar with a similar idea. The Narrative Clip takes those sci-fi, utopian/dystopian fantasies and uses them to deliver a little minimalist clip-on, a rounded square bit of plastic with a tiny smartphone-style lens in one corner. It comes in three different colors -- orange, gray, or white -- and looks exactly like a slightly oversized square tie clip.

Sarah Tew/CNET

A simple metal clip on the back means you can slip it into a lapel or hat-band or your v-neck sweater. An inner accelerometer senses orientation and flips the image to stay upright. The Clip also has a GPS chip and a magnetometer.

It's easy to clip on, and even easier to forget you're wearing it. Keep that in mind in case you clip one on your jacket and absent-mindedly brush it off hours later.

Sample photo of one of my days with Narrative Clip. Scott Stein/CNET

Narrative Clip as camera
You aren't going to replace your regular camera with a Narrative Clip. You're not even going to replace your smartphone camera with one. A little lens offers 70 degree field of view and the Clip takes 5-megapixel photos.

The Narrative Clip is weather-resistant and made to be worn outdoors, but I wouldn't risk wearing one in a downpour. It's sturdy, and has survived a drop or two.

Narrative's reviewer's guide compares the quality to an iPhone 4; I'd say that's probably right, but still a little generous. There's no flash, and no ability to control focus. And, because of the Clip's design, you won't be able to frame or even see your shots until you get home and sync the Clip to your computer via Micro-USB (a port is hidden under a little rubber cover).

Sarah Tew/CNET

That's right; the Narrative Clip doesn't sync with your phone at all, and doesn't even have Bluetooth or Wi-Fi. It's an island unto itself, an unconnected "dumb" camera -- without a viewfinder. When you're not near a computer, the Clip just automatically takes photos, twice a minute, and keeps doing so unless you turn the camera lens-down on a table or place it in your pocket. There's no adjusting the settings, but you can take a manual photo by double-tapping. You won't know anything happened unless you check a row of LED lights on the side and see if they blinked. Tap-to-snap has its problems: namely, by tapping, your finger might block the lens, or you might jostle or shift the camera's lens or placement.

Those four LED lights indicate battery level -- a full charge, which takes a few hours, lasts about a day and a half based on my week of use (30 hours according to Narrative), and 8GB of storage should hold enough photos, even if taken once every 30 seconds. I didn't run out of space between computer syncs, but I could see that happening if I used it on a long vacation away from a computer.

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