Cool Tech Gifts: High-Def Pocket Camcorder

It's difficult to get enthusiastic about spending money on gifts this holiday season. But let's look at the bright side: There will be lots of compelling year-end sales, starting with last week's Black Friday and this week's Cyber Monday. And you've got plenty of cool--and affordable--tech toys to choose from.

Over the next three weeks, I'll recommend mobile products that cost $300 or less, and that I feel are good choices for gifts. This week: Pure Digital's Flip MinoHD, a pocket camcorder that shoots high-def video.

The Back Story

Many cell phones capture okay video clips. Most point-and-shoot digital cameras do a decent job of recording video. But Pure Digital Technologies, maker of the best-selling Flip pocket camcorders, has come out with a new camcorder that does what most cell phones and point-and-shoot cameras can't: record high-definition videos.

Like earlier Flips, Pure Digital's new Flip MinoHD is a super-compact video camera even a baby could operate. But this Flip captures high-def widescreen video at 1280 by 720 resolution, compared to the 640 by 480 resolution and standard format of Pure Digital's Flip Mino.

A Camcorder to Suit Any Style

Like the Flip Mino, you can customize the look of a Flip MinoHD like crazy. Choose from prefab designs and styles; create your own pattern; or splash your own photo on the camcorder. This feature alone makes the Flip MinoHD a fun gift.

However, you can customize the MinoHD only at the Flip Web site, where it's sold at full price ($230). You can buy the MinoHD for about $207 at Amazon.com, but you can't customize it there.

Good Video and Audio

In my informal tests, Flip MinoHD videos had nice detail and color in outdoor shots and were reasonably bright in indoor scenes. Low-light shooting had a lot of detail but a yellowish cast. The camcorder's 2X digital-only zoom makes zoomed images a bit blurry and shaky (unless you use a tripod). Audio quality was good, overall.

The Flip MinoHD comes with a revamped software package, FlipShare, which is stored on the camcorder and automatically installed on your Windows or Mac computer. FlipShare is a nice upgrade to earlier Flip camcorder software, offering basic but easy tools for trimming and organizing clips, arranging them into a movie, and uploading to YouTube.

On my YouTube channel, you can see a brief sample of video I shot on a Northern California beach with the Flip MinoHD. Just for kicks, compare it to video I shot a year ago on the same beach, using the earlier Flip Video Ultra camcorder. Granted, uploading to YouTube erases a lot of the quality differences you'd notice if you compared both videos on a TV. Still, you'll see at least one glaring difference between the two videos (hint: it has to do with that big ball of fire we orbit around).

The Flip MinoHD has 4GB of internal memory, which captures about 60 minutes of video. When the memory's full, you connect the camcorder to a computer via the camera's pop-out USB plug, transfer the videos, and delete them on the camcorder. The Flip MinoHD's internal battery is recharged via a USB connection to a computer or to a USB AC adapter. It would be ideal if the Flip MinoHD had a memory card slot and removable batteries, like Kodak's Zi6 ($170 and up online) high-def pocket camcorder. But for the majority of the Flip MinoHD's target users--casual videographers and YouTubers--these are probably not big concerns.

One big difference between the Kodak Zi6 and the Flip MinoHD: Images on the Flip camcorder's small LCD are easily viewable in bright sunlight, while images on the Kodak screen get washed out. In fact, during sunny afternoon shoots, I found it difficult to frame compositions on the Kodak screen. Also, the Flip MinoHD is noticeably smaller and lighter than the Kodak Zi6. (As of this writing, a high-def version of the Creative Labs Vado pocket camcorder was rumored to be on the way, too.)

No High-Def on TV

There's just one catch with the Flip MinoHD, and it might be a deal killer. Unfortunately, you can't connect the Flip MinoHD to your HDTV to view your videos in high-definition on the big screen.

To connect the Flip MinoHD to a TV, you must use Pure Digital's proprietary, composite AV cable included with the camcorder. Pure Digital says it uses a composite AV cable, which delivers standard-quality video images, to "ensure the broadest compatibility with TVs." So why is the cable proprietary? To save space, the Flip MinoHD has a smaller-than-usual TV output jack on its side, hence the need for a proprietary cable to plug into that small jack.

You can transfer your MinoHD videos onto a Blu-ray Disc, then play them in high-def through a Blu-Ray player connected to your HDTV as a workaround, according to a Pure Digital Technologies spokesperson.

Unlike the MinoHD, the Kodak Zi6 ships with a cable that enables you to play videos captured on the Kodak camcorder in high-def on a TV. So if that's critical, you should consider the Kodak Zi6.

Nonetheless, the videos I recorded on the MinoHD looked sharper than those I captured on the earlier Flip Mino. And you can view your Flip MinoHD videos in high-def on your computer.

Bottom line: The Flip MinoHD is sleeker and more fun to use than the bigger, heavier Kodak Zi6. It's one of the coolest camcorders available. And personalizing it with photos or artwork make the Flip MinoHD a top gift choice.

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Is there a particularly cool mobile computing product or service I've missed? Got a spare story idea in your back pocket? Tell me about it. However, I regret that I'm unable to respond to tech-support questions, due to the volume of e-mail I receive.

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