June 30, 2008

Micro Camcorders That Are at Home on the Web

THE GIZMO: Net-friendly camcorders.

SMILE FOR THE MICRO: The camcorder has long been a family staple for shooting birthday parties, school plays and vacations. Only in the last few years, though, has this device achieved a "hip" factor among young users.

That cultural revolution was largely kick-started by a company called Pure Digital Technologies, which came up with an itty-bitty camcorder called the Flip that looked like an iPod, slipped easily into a pocket, had minimal buttons and recorded clips on solid-state memory instead of tape, for easy transfer to a computer and posting online to sites like YouTube and AOL Video.

The image quality with a Flip is a bit better and the recording time much longer (60 minutes max) than you get shooting videos on most mobile phones. But these micro-camcorders are just as inviting to take along for a ride, just as easy to, um, sneak past door friskers at concerts.

Pure Digital describes the devices as a "social accessory" for the computer-centric crowd "to communicate and express themselves."

The growing micro-camcorder category now also includes several RCA-branded "Small Wonder" models _ made by Pure Video _ with slightly different feature sets, and the significantly cheaper (under $100), lower-resolution Creative Vado.

Now Pure Digital is aiming to re-assert its leadership status with a fourth-generation model, the new Flip Video Mino, arguably the best of the bunch.

ONCE AROUND THE BLOCK: Available in white or black, the Mino uses a sealed, rechargeable battery instead of standard alkalines to achieve a thinner, lighter (just over 3 ounces) and cooler look.

About the size of a first-generation iPod Nano, the device also begs comparison with its snazzy controls _ mostly touch-sensitive, capacitive buttons that only appear (light up) when function demands.

It's a little harder on the model to delete an unwanted clip _ that's a good thing. Also, there are now controls to pause, fast-forward and rewind a clip during playback.

Inside, there's a new chipset for processing video, captured in standard TV resolution (640-by-480, 30 frames per second) with a modest digital zoom capability.

The happy surprise is how well this shooter works indoors as well as outside. Images stay visible and colors remain pretty true, even under low or artificial light conditions.

The acid test? Whites stay white, rather than turning yellow.

WATCHING THE ACTION: When the device is connected to a big-screen TV with the supplied a/v cable, Mino-made videos are going to look rather soft, especially around the edges.

And when there's panned action, you might see a little mosaic "tiling" or blurring. But on the camcorder's 1.46-inch color screen, a smaller TV or when viewed as a partial screen image on a computer, the picture looks plenty good.

Sound quality also has been improved.

The Mino has the smarts to adjust to both low and loud volumes, so the soundtrack won't fuzz out in a live concert setting.

As someone who watches "one camera" music clips on YouTube, I'm most grateful.

MORE TO SCORE: There's no need to install software in your computer when you're ready to start moving videos off the Mino.

The software is built into the camcorder and self-loads into a PC or Macintosh (rival micro-camcorders don't work with Apple products) after you plug the camcorder directly into a computer's USB port.

There's improved support for the latest Vista and Leopard operating systems, more flexibility in editing clips on a computer, and an easy way to order DVD versions of your home-cooked videos online ($20 for up to an hour of content).

Better yet, the Mino now offers one-touch uploading to My-Space sites as well as YouTube and AOL _ after you've opened an account.

THINGS I DON'T LIKE: Unlike some of the RCA "Small Wonder" models, there's no SD/MMC card expansion slot for increasing shooting time to match the Mino battery's four-hour run time.

Also, the only way to recharge the battery is through its flip-out USB plug.

And despite the device's light weight, I'm still not thrilled with hanging a camcorder off my computer's USB port.

Given the Mino's $179.99 list price, Pure Digital could have thrown in a USB extension cord.

A MORE SOPHISTICATED ALTERNATIVE: Like the idea of a Web-friendly camcorder but want one with higher picture quality, a super (35x optical zoom) lens, bigger (2.7-inch) LCD, digital image stabilization, programmable shooting modes and more?

Take a gander at JVC's new GZ-MS100 ($349 list). It resembles the brand's popular Everio G series camcorders but is smaller and lighter _ just 10 ounces including battery _ because it records to an SD memory card instead of a hard drive.

And it has custom features to capture and move content to YouTube, starting with a special "Upload" button that limits a recording to 10 minutes, the maximum length YouTube will accept in a file.

Once the supplied CyberLink software is installed on a Windows PC (sorry, no Mac capability), it takes just a few mouse clicks to transfer a video file from this JVC camera, compact it into a file that YouTube can accept and move it to the Web site.

The original video quality is still maintained on the SD card, so you can enjoy much higher resolution playback on a big-screen TV, or create DVDs by attaching the GZ-MS100 directly to a companion DVD burner (JVC's CU-VD3 Everio Share Station), which sells for about $200.


E-mail Jonathan Takiff at [email protected]


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