"There's a tiny door in that empty office. It's a portal, Maxine. It takes you inside John Malkovich. You see the world through John Malkovich's eyes, then, after about fifteen minutes, you're spit out into a ditch on the side of the New Jersey Turnpike." Such is the world envisioned in Spike Jonze's cult movie Being John Malkovich.
Samsung's Miniket VP-X110L sports camcorder makes this Malkovichian leap possible for any individual -- just strap the Miniket's lens mounting to your head, attach the camera and hit record. Your world is then immortalised in glorious Technicolor from a first-person perspective. Everything you say, and everything you do, is stored to flash memory. Whoever you show the footage to will get close to understanding what it's like to be inside your head. A scary thought, perhaps?
The Miniket's less existentially challenging use is as an extreme-sports camcorder. If you're a snowboarder, skydiver or a mountain biker looking for an interesting way of capturing your brave leaps off dangerous precipices, this is a mainstream consumer version of those tiny cameras professionals use to make their videos. Having said that, it's still very expensive for a small camcorder -- we found it for around £470 online.
While the Miniket may fall substantially short of the video quality you'd expect from the average MiniDV camcorder, does the unique perspective it offers over the action make this a must-have camcorder for the adrenaline junkie?
The most striking thing about the Miniket is its size (59x93x29mm). It's so small we could palm the main body of the camcorder like a blackjack hustler concealing cards. We thought the JVC GZ-MC500 was tiny, but the Miniket redefines petite. Like the MC500, the Miniket makes a convincing argument for carrying around a camcorder with you all the time -- there's none of the bulk and inconvenience of a MiniDV model.
The Miniket's chassis is coated in a soft rubber material that reminds us of the substance Alienware uses to coat the grips on the Alienware Area-51 m5700 laptop. This is both oddly pleasurable to cradle, and fairly grippy -- making it unlikely that the Miniket will slip out of your hands during a moderate wipe-out. It also gives the camcorder a waterproof look, but don't let this deceive you. The Minket may look like it's dressed to go scuba diving, but it's unlikely to survive much more than a few splashes.
The LCD display is of a fold-out and swivel type, and -- for its size -- is surprisingly legible. Buttons on the Miniket are minimal, with a simple on/off slider, a zoom rocker switch, a Menu button and a record button.
The battery pack attaches to the right hand side of the camcorder and uses a thin proprietary battery to power the unit. This is finished in the same appealing, rubberised finish as the rest of the chassis. Releasing the battery is simple, but not so easy that you'll do it by accident out in a snowy wilderness.
The most interesting part of the Miniket's design is the detachable external camera lens. When attached and selected, this lens takes over from the camcorder's built-in optics and lets you record from a first-person perspective. Samsung bundles a head-mount for this lens in the box -- this looks like a tennis sweatband. Once you've put the strap on, you attach the camera, move it into place on the side of your head, and then plug it into the main unit to check you're getting the perspective you're after.
The strap is as comfortable as these things get. You'll be aware that you've got it on for the first few minutes, but after a while you won't notice it's there. Other people will, though -- which is worth remembering if you intend to use public transport.
The Miniket shoots video using a single CCD chip. This means that a single light sensor is responsible for capturing and interpreting the entire spectrum of light received. While this can't hope to match the clarity and sharpness of a 3CCD system -- where red, green and blue light is dealt with separately -- it would be impossible to fit an affordable 3CCD system into a chassis of this size -- or at this price.
Given that you're likely to be shooting action sequences, and that these are likely to be uploaded to the Internet, the Miniket's image quality may be less important to you than it would be with a full-sized model. The true test of this camcorder is in the baggy pockets of snowboarders, not under the scrutinising eyes of pixel scientists. We'll take a more detailed look at the image quality later in this review, but it's worth bearing in mind that image quality alone does not a sports camcorder make.
Nonetheless, the Miniket has a standard 800,000-pixel sensor and a minimum illumination rating of 3 lux -- which can cope with moderate low-light. The 51mm (2-inch) LCD is big enough to check that your scenes are roughly in focus, but you essentially have to rely on the accuracy of the fairly good built-in autofocus system.
Video is stored on an internal 1GB flash chip, but this can be supplemented with Memory Stick PRO cards inserted in a slot at the back of the Miniket. Alongside routine video recording functions, the Miniket can take photographs in JPEG format at 800x600 pixels.
The external head-mountable lens uses a proprietary AV cable that connects to the main camera body. Samsung have bundled two straps with the Miniket -- one large, one smaller, to cater for various head sizes. The smaller head size can also be used to mount the camcorder on a leg or arm. Yes, for the record, our head size was the large one.
Using the Samsung in the field is a familiar experience. Though the menu systems differ from model to model, the setup here is similar to what we've seen from other Samsung camcorders. Anyone who's used a video camera before, whether tape or hard-disk based, will feel right at home with the logical arrangement of menus and record button.
As with other solid-state camcorders, the Miniket generates thumbnails of the first frame of each scene you record. This makes it easy to navigate clips using this first frame as a reference point. The clips are displayed in a grid that becomes scrollable as the clips stack up.
The external lens attachment is not automatically activated when you plug it into the main body of the camcorder. This can cause some confusion at first -- it would make more sense if the Miniket automatically switched to the external lens. Instead, there's a menu option that enables the head-mounted unit and lets you record footage from a first-person perspective.
The Samsung fared well during skateboard trials, but we did experience a small problem with the device when we took it ice skating -- it stopped functioning. We initially thought this was down to the cold, but it later turned out that the battery needed charging. So much for our belief that the extreme cold of a London winter could defeat the Miniket. In a later experiment we left it in the fridge for an hour. This seemed to have no effect on the performance of the camera, though sometimes extreme temperatures affect battery life, so your experiences may vary. We'd feel fairly confident taking this camcorder snowboarding.
Though the Miniket is fairly rugged, it is far from indestructible. During the review we noticed some small stress lines in the external lens housing. Whether this was a sign of breakages to come, we can't be sure, but you'd be advised to treat the Miniket with some degree of respect. A tough order when you're hurtling down a vertical slope, bleeding from the eyeballs.
Samsung has bundled Mac and Windows software with the Miniket. This can be used to edit and convert your movie into formats including DivX -- a refreshingly open format for a mainstream manufacturer. As is so often the case with bundled editing software, this is functional but far from impressive. There are a range of ways to convert the Miniket's footage into a format you can edit in Final Cut Pro or Premier, and serious filmmakers will want to explore these.
The Miniket's strength does not lie in the quality of the footage it generates. Though image quality is acceptable, it doesn't come close to what we've seen from an entry-level miniDV camcorder. However, there is a good reason why this pixel gazing isn't the final word on the Miniket. The main appeal of this camcorder is its portability and the unique type of footage it can capture. Given that you can hardly strap a traditional camcorder to your head, image-quality comparisons become slightly moot.
We would have given the Miniket a much better rating if the image quality was improved, but even with its noticeable compression artefacts and average low-light abilities, it still makes a tempting proposition. If you're uploading footage in fairly low resolution to the Internet, the Miniket's short-comings may not affect you.
Because most footage shot on the Miniket will be rapid action, capturing the basic essence of the experience may be more important than capturing every detail in lucid brilliance. Though cinematographers will want to look elsewhere for their head-mounted camcorders, sports enthusiasts who'd like to give their friends a taste of the action will find the Miniket to be not only the sole mainstream consumer head-mounted camera currently available, but an obscenely fun one at that. Breaking an arm or cracking a rib becomes infinitely more rewarding when you've got a movie of the disaster to forward around the office afterwards.
Edited by Mary Lojkine
Additional editing by Nick Hide