Handheld HD camera showdown – great video without great expense

You’ve seen them at school plays and tourist attractions: intent amateur videographers wielding typical camcorders with flip-out viewing screens.

However, if you’re a blogger, tweeter and or other mobile communicator, you need something small enough to throw into a pocket or a backpack – a palm-sized handheld video camera.

The Flip video camera is the best-known device in this league; since it first came to public attention in 2007, the Flip has spawned a tide of similar models, each attempting to leapfrog the other in features and ease of use.

The latest wave of recorders is now packing resolutions that cell phone videographers can only dream of: 1,280 by 720 pixel video at 30 frames per second (fps) — better known as HD video. We tracked down three models in this category, all of which are available for around $200 or less: The Flip UltraHD, the Kodak Zx1 and the Sony WebbieHD.

The Flip is the priciest at a list price of $200, with the others running about $30-$50 less. Two (the Kodak and Sony) come with virtually no onboard storage (the Flip comes with 8GB) and use external SD or Memory Stick Duo cards to store their video (the Flip doesn’t support external storage). They are all palm-sized, around 4.5 inches tall, less than 3 inches wide and just over an inch deep.

To evaluate them, I shot freeform video for a week, just to get used to them, then took the devices to an outdoor festival, the hazy summer light of an open field, and the torture test of video capability: an aquarium. Each of the cameras shot the same scenes to make comparison easier. (I’ve included edited versions of the test footage so you can perform your own eyeball tests.)

To test audio output, I also recorded music played on a graphically equalized stereo sound system and used the audio program Audacity to check the dynamic range and volume of each recorder at its default settings.

Although these devices record at HD resolution, they’re not going to be used to shoot any summer blockbusters. True, they manage 720p at 30 fps (actually, the Sony can handle 1080p, and the Kodak cranks up its 720p to 60 fps), but because of their inexpensive circuitry and lenses, what is theoretically high-definition video is not up to professional quality. That said, results from all three units did look great if the camera was held steady enough.

They all handled a fair range of audio pretty well too, keeping that high-pitched background hiss at acceptable levels, not topping out (the sound you get when you tap a microphone) from percussive sounds and capturing loud and quiet sounds pretty well. But any finger-fidgeting or fumbling with controls shows up on the soundtrack, and there’s no way around it: There’s no option for plugging in a quality external mic with any of these, so what you hear is what you get.

Flip UltraHD

Flip UltraHD has the simplicity thing nailed. It’s the chunkiest recorder in the pack, but doesn’t require you to carry cables around to plug it into your computer. Operating it is easy and, considering the whole thing works by point-and-shoot, its results are effortlessly good.

The package comes with very little except the unit itself, its rechargeable AA battery pack, a wrist strap and a carrying bag. And it doesn’t need much else — though an HDMI cable to fit its only external port would be nice.

The UltraHD carries its Mac- and PC-based software in its 8GB of onboard memory. The camera comes with a built-in flip-out USB interface for data transfer and recharging and can even double as a flash memory drive, though at 4.25 x 2.19 x 1.17 inches and weighing in at six ounces, it doesn’t always sit comfortably in a USB port.

If you need to recharge it, you just leave it plugged into a computer — or, if there’s not one available, you can swap in AA batteries.

Like all the devices, the Flip UltraHD is really only a high-definition video camera in name: It records 720p video at 30 fps, but its results are not up to professional quality. That said, the results from the UltraHD can look great if the camera is held still enough.

With its move to HD, Flip has abandoned the special-codec AVI format it used in earlier models: This one encodes the video as H.264 compressed MPEG-4 files, like the WebbieHD. (The Kodak model opted for the QuickTime video format instead.)

In general, the video quality of the Flip UltraHD was the best in the roundup. True, you get a two-hour limit because the Flip line does not provide add-on storage: What’s onboard is what you get, and that amounts to two hours of video. But across a range of different lighting levels, it provided what seemed the best combination of color fidelity and image clarity at different light levels.

The proviso is that we’re talking about a class of products that range from $150 to $200. At those prices, you can’t expect anything a studio would release on DVD. Any movement of the camera results in a moment of fuzziness that settles only when the camera becomes still again. This is true of freehand camera trembles and intentional panning alike.
The UltraHD zooms much more smoothly than the others, but in all cases the zoomed image is fuzzy because none of these products zooms by moving the lens: It’s all done by digitally messing with pixels.

The camera captured sound in our tests that straddled low and high levels well. It wasn’t as quiet as the Kodak Zx1 and didn’t top out as readily as the Sony recorder. The device captured audio across a good range of pitch and volume changes.

In general, I’d call the Flip UltraHD the best all-rounder in the group. True, it’s the only one in the pack that doesn’t double as a still camera, and it doesn’t capture 1080p video or 720p at 60fps, like the Sony and Kodak models.

But at basic HD resolution, it turns out decent quality video and sound with a minimum of fuss and a very shallow learning curve. And for my money, that’s the best kind of compromise.

Kodak Zx1

Kodak’s Zx1 is a good performer at a reasonable price ($149), and uses inexpensive SD media to store its video or 5MP still photographs (which this device can capture in addition to video).

It comes with only nominal internal storage capabilities, so you will have to purchase the SD card separately. However, it does have an HDMI port and even comes with an HDMI cable, so you can plug it directly into an HDTV for playback.

The camera is semi-ruggedized, with rubber port covers, which makes it suitable for use in dusty and moisture-prone areas such as trails, beaches or water parks — though it’s not fully waterproof. It uses rechargeable AA batteries (so you can swap in a couple of alkalines in a low-power emergency) and comes in a variety of colors, including pink, yellow and silver.

The Kodak Zx1 also takes a few steps beyond basic 720p video at 30 fps VGA: It can capture 720p resolution at up to 60 fps. You can play it back tidily on the 2-inch LCD on the back of the unit, even fast-forwarding and rewinding using four different speeds and allowing frame-by-frame rewinding.

When I ran the results on a computer and a TV screen, the video quality was pretty sharp, too, for a product in this price range, with clean images and bright color. Its results seemed sharper across most light levels than that of the Sony Webbie, and at roughly the same level as the Flip UltraHD.

However, the zoom tended to lurch rather than move smoothly, and at any level of magnification, the video quality degraded to unacceptably fuzzy levels for a product that’s supposed to be high definition. With any of the products in this class, if you want to zoom, just take a step forward instead.

The Zx1 is a little trickier to use than the others. It sports a set of backlit icons near the Record button for such operations as playback and clip deletion. The trouble is that they all are marked with small square-ish icons that make them hard to figure out by trial and error. I needed to click around or dig deeper into the menus than I would have liked to do simple things.

But the biggest issue I had with the Kodak Zx1’s design was its USB interface: It uses a nonstandard micro-USB cable, so you can’t share the one you use for your TomTom or Razr. Unless you carry an SD card reader with you, this is your only option for getting video files off the device.

Unlike the Flip and Sony models, which encode their video as H.264 compressed MPEG-4 files, the Kodak model opted for the QuickTime video format.

In general, audio on the Kodak Zx1 sounded best of the three in this roundup, but it recorded at quieter levels than the others.

This is a pro and a con: the dynamic range of audio captured was the best, and the background hiss levels were the lowest and least high-pitched of all the models I tested. But if you’re recording from a quieter source, you may need to use postproduction audio tools to make the audio levels high enough to hear.

In short, this is a high-quality product with a full package of tools, but with roughly comparable output, I found the Flip UltraHD a lot easier to learn and use.
Sony Webbie HD

Sony, somewhat confusingly, offers two cameras called Webbie HD — a model that looks like a typical camcorder (the MHS-CM1) and a pocket-sized version (the MHS-PM11). I looked at the latter. The Webbie HD has some very nice and unusual features. Its lens is hidden in a rotating drum at the top of the camera; you roll it out with a flick of your thumb to turn it on.

This not only protects the lens from thumbprints and dust, it also lets you vary the angle of shooting. You can flip it 180 degrees and lay the camera flat on a table for shooting stealth footage or flip it 270 degrees to face you and shoot your own videoblogs.

In addition, the Webbie HD is the lightest unit in this group because it sports a tiny rechargeable battery and a wall-plug recharger. Another nice design feature is that it has two record buttons: one for video and one for 5MP stills.

But despite its cool features and stabs at simplicity, the Webbie HD ended up being the most complicated of these three cameras to use.

Its menu and delete buttons were mounted on the right side of the camera, too far over for right handed people to reach with their thumbs or for lefties to get to with their pointer fingers.

Also on the downside, it contains almost no onboard memory and uses MemoryStick Duo media, which tends to be a bit pricier than the SD media that the Kodak Zx1 unit uses.

In addition to VGA and 720p video, the Webbie HD can also shoot 1080p at 30 fps and take still photos at 5 megapixels. There are also preset modes of shooting for landscape photography, low light, back light and high-action sports mode.

However, this model didn’t perform too well in low light, even with the low light mode turned on, and since the Webbie’s controls are rather fussy for this class of product (you have to figure out which of the several buttons on the back and side of the camera to press, then navigate through rather complicated menus), it would have been nice to have a preset that dynamically adjusts for different lighting levels a little better.

In general, when played back on a computer and on a television, the video seemed okay but a little blurry-looking, even compared to the other low-cost video cameras I looked at for this roundup. Video quality rapidly decreased when I zoomed in, because it’s digital rather than a true optical zoom, and the actual zooming was not as smooth as what I saw on the Flip UltraHD. Bottom line: Don’t use the zoom.

The Webbie HD’s captured soundtracks were bright and loud and able to represent a range of sounds fairly well. In a test of loud concert music, it handled the transition between soft and loud passages well enough, with only a hint of topping out on percussion. The background hiss was a little higher-pitched than the other cameras.

I wanted to like the Sony Webbie HD a lot more than I did. Frankly, it looked cooler than the others and was much more compact. But for each nice design feature there seemed to be another that made operating the hardware more difficult. I can think of a few areas where the flip-open lens would give the WebbieHD an advantage over the others (video blogging for narcissistic teens, for example). But for me, the just-okay video results just didn’t trump the problems I had with the design.

Conclusion

If you’re dealing with video, you want good quality video and audio — that’s why you’d consider paying a price premium to get HD resolution video. In general, all three of these products delivered decent video at the right resolution, but certainly not at Blu-ray quality.

The most pleasing audio came from the Kodak Zx1, but the sound tended to be a little muted. The best-looking video capture across a range of uses came from Kodak and the Flip UltraHD. And zoomed images looked universally subpar on all three.

With this class of product, simplicity is the watchword. The Flip UltraHD has this cornered. From its simple controls to its no-fuss built-in USB plug for charging and data transfer, it’s hard to beat.

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