Even a 6-year-old can be Spielberg with Flip Slide HD

When networking gear maker Cisco Systems bought the Flip line of pocket-size camcorders last year for $590 million, people thought Cisco had lost its sense of good business. The nation was mired in a recession and Flip’s competition was mounting. But Cisco made a bet on what made Flip the leader in a category it created in May 2006, when the then-named Pure Digital Point & Shoot camcorder was introduced: its simplicity.

The flip side of Flip Slide HD.

The Kodak PlaySport

Pure Digital Technologies subsequently gave all of its camcorders the Flip brand name—a USB port “flips” up from the camcorder to download videos straight to your computer. Competitors have since been trying to create some Flip magic of their own. No luck so far.

Meanwhile, Flip products continue to improve. The Flip Slide HD—the most full-featured product yet—was introduced in April. It is iPod-easy to use, as we’ve come to expect, so it is an ideal companion for vacations, family events or capturing video around the neighborhood. At $279, the Flip Slide HD is the priciest model to date, but several other Flip products are priced below $200.

The reason for the high price on this model is storage. It can hold four hours of video—twice as much internal storage than other Flip models. It shoots high-def video (720 progressive scan resolution), but not as high-def as competitors’ models, such as the 1080 progressive scan Kodak PlaySport, which I’ll get to in a bit.

How easy is the Flip Slide HD to use? Well, I let my 6-year-old loose with the video camera at a family wedding. He came back with roughly 30 little videos, each one providing a slice of the wedding the professional videographer likely didn’t consider. He shot videos from a balcony, while sitting on the floor, from a table-high view of the bride and groom cutting the cake, and a lot of other angles adults wouldn’t attempt. Yes, his finger occasionally obscured the camera and the video was shaky at times, but here’s the upshot: He never once needed my help. I gave him one demonstration on how to use the Flip Slide HD, and that was all he needed.

I can’t say that for any other video product I’ve used.

The competition in the portable video market is intense, with several options for pocket-size camcorders out there. Kodak, RCA, Cannon, Sony and others have created new (or newer and less costly) camcorders to compete with Flip. Meanwhile, point-and-shoot digital camera makers are also in the market, since almost all new digital cameras shoot video. Then there are mobile phones, the majority of which are able to shoot video. Indeed, the video I shot with the new HTC Incredible ($199 after contract at Verizon) is about as good as I’ve seen from a phone, and rivals the video quality of the Flip Slide.

So why buy a separate pocket-size camcorder? You may not need to but you will enjoy one if you have a young family or grandchildren; you love capturing family events on video—holiday dinners, weekend vacations, etc; or you prefer a specific gadget for a specific task.

That last item may sound wasteful, but if you use your smartphone to shoot a lot of video, you will fill up the storage quickly as well as drain the battery.

Flip provides customers with another benefit: software. FlipShare software is included with the camcorder and downloads automatically onto your computer the first time you attach the video camera to your computer via USB. The software stores your videos, but even better, it allows you to easily send videos as e-mail attachments, or post to YouTube or Facebook. Like the camera, the software is simple to use and understand. Indeed, it is one of the few third-party software products that I actually prefer to Apple’s media software that came with my MacBook laptop.

Besides storage, the Flip Slide adds other new features. The video screen can be viewed in landscape (or widescreen) mode by sliding the player open (the screen pops up as if it were sitting on a stand). Then, with a finger swipe on the touch-controlled slide bar, users can scroll though videos (forward and backward) or open a video by tapping on the slide bar. This configuration is a good way to show onlookers the videos you’ve just shot, even if the screen is only 3 inches wide (which, for the record, is the biggest Flip screen to date).

A better way would be to attach the Flip to an HDTV, but this where Cisco made a frustrating gaffe for a $279 item: It didn’t include a cable to attach to a TV. The Flip Slide has a port for a mini-HDMI cable, but you need to buy it separately (Flip sells them for $25). Also, you can’t use standard RCA cables with this new Flip, which is another frustration if you want to plug your player into grandma’s older TV.

Kodak, on the other hand, includes both of those cables in its new video product, the PlaySport. And while this player is not as iPod-simple to use as the Flip Slide, it isn’t difficult, either. Another bonus: It’s waterproof, so you can take this camera into the pool with the kids, use it on a rainy day during a vacation or use it on the ski slopes without worry if you take a tumble.

Kodak says the video player is waterproof up to 10 feet, but the pool I used it in wasn’t that deep. However, I did give it a thorough soaking over the Memorial Day weekend, and it survived just fine.

I took videos from the pool as the kids jumped and thrashed in the water, I experimented with underwater shots, captured scenes from splash battles and got to act like a child myself—all under the guise of “research.” In the end, I was left with some memorable videos, which I uploaded to YouTube to share with the family.

The PlaySport allows you to take shots you can’t get with other video cameras, such as racing down a giant slide at a water park. And while the price is right (and it comes with HDMI and RCA cables, too), the PlaySport doesn’t include internal memory, so you need to buy an SD card to store the video. Still, with an SD card, you can be expansive with how much video you shoot, while not being limited by internal storage.

Still, Kodak’s approach makes me appreciate the Flip even more. I’ve been using a 1 GB memory card in the PlaySport, which provides only 11 minutes of video shooting at 1080 progressive scan quality. (I’d have twice that shooting in VGA quality.)

And yes, quality: Shooting in HD provides sharper videos, something you’ll appreciate as you show your creations on bigger computer screens or HDTVs.(You’ll want a bigger storage card when you go on vacation.)

As for video quality, the PlaySport is roughly the same as the Flip, despite having better resolution. Outside, both cameras performed very well, with the Kodak videos slightly sharper. Indoors, when I used both to shoot a basketball game in an old gym, the Flip performed better in the challenging light. The Kodak was admirable, however.

As for video software, the Kodak camera worked well with my standard-issue Apple software (iMovie). For Microsoft users, Kodak offers a free download of video editing software, courtesy of Arcsoft. The software includes sharing tools, just like the software that accompanies the Flip.

Still, I prefer the Flip products. I found them easiest to use overall—and I think ease of use is important when considering a consumer technology. But the PlaySport’s unique ability to work in the pool or in challenging weather environments will appeal to active families, and it offers a better resolution and a much better price—even if you need to spend more on SD cards.

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