Review: Flip Mino

Bummer. The iPhone 2.0 software failed to bring video recording to the iPhone. Given that, how are you supposed to document a moving, memorable moment with a device small enough to fit in your shirt pocket? Pure Digital provides an answer with its latest half-pint-sized camcorder, the $180 Flip Mino, a Flash-based camcorder that records up to one hour of 640-by-480 video in 3ivx format.

Like the Flip Ultra before it, the Mino is a compact and easy-to-use unit--though the Mino is slightly smaller than the Ultra. Unlike the Ultra, the Mino has a rechargeable, non-replaceable battery. (The Ultra uses two AA batteries.) On the front of the camera, you find the 2x digital-zoom lens and microphone. The left side sports the On/Off switch and the right side features a TV output port (a TV Composite cable is included) and the switch you flick to flip up the USB connector at the top of the camera. On the bottom, you'll find a mount for attaching an optional tripod--something you may want to use, as the Mino offers no image stabilization (meaning you'll see a lot of camera shake in your videos when you hold it in your hand).

The back of the unit holds a bright 1.5-inch LCD screen, a red Record button, indented Play/Pause and Trash buttons, and four touch-sensitive buttons arrayed around the Record button. The right and left buttons are for choosing movies stored on the device for playback; the up and down buttons control the digital zoom during recording and adjust volume when you play a movie. Only those buttons that can actually do something at a given moment are lit; so, for example, the left and right buttons are dark during recording. I found these buttons more responsive than their counterparts on the Flip Ultra.

The camera carries no light for illuminating your subject, and you can't plug an external microphone into it. You also can't adjust white balance or manually focus. It's a true point-and-shoot camera, with no extras.

Operation and installation

Because the Flip Mino is a point-and-shoot camcorder, it couldn't be easier to operate. Press the On/Off button, wait for the camera to come to life, point it at whatever you want to capture, and press the Record button. If you like, you can engage the digital zoom by pressing the up button. When you've captured video to your heart's content, press Record again to stop the recording. You can immediately review your capture by pressing the camera's Play/Pause button. To view another movie on the camera, move to it by using the left and right buttons. To delete a movie, just make sure it's the one showing in the LCD and then press the Trash button.

Installing the software is likewise simple. Just flip out the USB jack and plug the camera into a powered USB port. The Mino appears on your Mac's Desktop as a removable USB drive. Open this drive and you find a number of items, the Flip Video for Mac application among them. Double-click this application and the software walks you through the process of installing the 3ivx Decoder that's necessary for your Mac to play the video captured by the Mino.

Once the 3ivx Decoder is installed, quit the Flip Video for Mac Application and then launch it again to run the software as it should be run--for viewing, lightly editing, and sharing videos on a Web site. You can also save a copy of any video to your Mac's hard drive.

The software and alternatives

The software that comes with the Flip cameras is nothing spectacular. The interface exposes its Windows roots in its slightly cartoonish appearance. It lets you do things such as rename your video, trim its beginning and end, combine multiple movies into a single movie, and share your movies via Web sites such as AOL Video, YouTube, and MySpaceTV. In short, it provides just enough functionality to get the movies out of the camera and make them presentable to the non-critical viewer. And, because it's housed on the Mino itself, it makes it dead-simple to edit your video on any nearby computer (or at least one you're authorized to install software on). But if you want features such as titles, effects, and transitions, you'll need to turn instead to an application such as Apple's iMovie or Final Cut Express.

Fortunately, the Mino makes this easy to do. When you connect a Mino to your Mac after updating that Mac with all the latest iLife updates, iPhoto automatically launches and offers to download the Mino's movies into its library. (This is not the case with the Flip Ultra.) And just as with photos from a digital camera, you can use iPhoto to delete movies from the Mino after you've imported them. From here, you can double-click a movie and it will launch in QuickTime Player. If you have a copy of QuickTime Pro ($30), you can use it to export your Mino movies to any QuickTime-compatible format. Or you can skip QuickTime altogether and import movies directly from the Mino into iMovie or Final Cut using these programs' Import command. To do so, just invoke the appropriate Import command, navigate to the 100VIDEO folder within the DCIM folder at the root level of the Mino, and import the movies you want.

The look and sound

None of the Flip video cameras give you anything near HD quality, so you should set your expectations to something acceptable for a cheap camera. The Mino produces decent 640-by-480 video that looks fine within the confines of a movie frame on your computer--that's fine, not great--when you've captured without the digital zoom. Employ that zoom and quality goes downhill in a hurry, particularly in low-light settings where the graininess becomes more evident. This issue is significantly amplified when you plug the Mino into a big-screen TV. Shoot in decent light and lay off the zoom, and what you see on a TV screen will be acceptable within the limitations of an inexpensive camcorder.

Speaking of light, the Flip Ultra handles low light better than the Mino. In indoor and foggy-outdoor shooting tests, the Ultra invariably produced brighter video than the Mino. Shadowed areas that had some detail when shot with the Ultra looked muddier with the Mino. Also, when shooting video inside, the Mino produces warmer tones than the Ultra-whites shot indoors tended toward yellow rather than the Ultra's colder blue tendencies.

The internal microphone isn't something with which you'll want to bootleg a concert or movie, but a subject making noise within about 10 feet of the camera should be perfectly understandable.

Macworld's buying advice

My greatest desire is that you've read this far rather than looked at the mouse rating and thought, "Huh, not such a terrific camcorder after all." Because although the video quality produced by the Flip Mino is anything but pristine, this affordable and useful camera--with its go-anywhere, shirt-pocket convenience and simple operation--could turn out to be one of your favorite gadgets. If you're mainly concerned with capturing those moments when you don't have time to find a "real" camcorder (and, for most of us, that's nearly all the time) and you're far less concerned with results that may look marginal-to-middling on your TV, the Mino could easily be for you.

[Senior Editor Christopher Breen regularly hosts Macworld Video.]

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