Walt Mossberg

Testing the New Disposable Video Camera

Americans love cheap, disposable things, and that’s especially true for cameras. This year, nearly 220 million one-time-use film cameras are expected to be sold in the U.S. — about the same as last year, despite the overall decline in cameras that use film. That’s roughly two single-use cameras per household. Their appeal is that you can pick them up on the spur of the moment when you want to snap pictures, without having to carry around your own, more expensive camera.

But what about shooting videos? Camcorders are even more expensive and bulkier to lug around than still cameras. And the videos they take are difficult to import into computers for emailing, editing or recording to DVDs. You can make short videos with smaller, cheaper digital still cameras, but they are often limited to a few minutes in length, either because of functional limitations or lack of room on memory cards.

What if you could just pick up a cheap, disposable video camera when the movie-making urge hit you? And what if your local drugstore could quickly turn the videos you took with this camera into a DVD that could play back on any set-top DVD player and be popped into a computer so you could save or email your videos?

Single use Camcorder
The $29.99 CVS One-Time-Use Video Camcorder from Pure Digital Technologies records 20 minutes of video and is processed onto a DVD for $12.99.

Well, starting today, you’ll be able to do that. A small San Francisco company, Pure Digital Technologies, has invented just such a pocket-size, one-time-use camcorder, complete with an LCD screen. And a huge drugstore chain, CVS, based in Woonsocket, R.I., will be selling them and processing the recorded videos into DVDs.

This week, my assistant Katie Boehret and I tested this $29.99 CVS One-Time-Use Video Camcorder. The camcorder, which resembles a larger, fatter iPod, is meant to be used only once before you return it to a CVS for DVD-conversion processing, which takes an hour and costs $12.99. It can capture 20 minutes of video, perfect for a birthday party, sports event or visit to a tourist attraction.

Because we tested the camera before its public release, we couldn’t try out the processing end of the deal. Our videos were processed directly by Pure Digital and shipped back to us overnight. So we focused on the camera itself — how easy it was to use and how good the videos were.

Our verdict: This first one-time-use camcorder is extremely convenient, rugged and easy to use. The DVDs it creates also worked well on DVD players and on Windows and Macintosh computers, and it was a cinch to share them via email.

But the quality of the videos the camera creates was nothing to write home about. Outdoor scenes were acceptable, but the indoor shots we took, in variable lighting, were sometimes grainy, especially when viewed on a TV screen. And the sound quality was often poor. We wouldn’t want to record any once-in-a-lifetime moments on this product.

The One-Time-Use Video Camcorder lacks a few things that even low-end camcorders usually have. It has no optical viewfinder, so this camcorder depends solely on its 1.4-inch color screen for capturing and reviewing footage. There’s no light to brighten dark, indoor shoots. And the only zoom you’ll find on this camera consists of your arm, moving the camera closer to the subject.

The 20-minute limit might also be a problem for some amateur videographers, though that’s often plenty of time to shoot all of the scenes of Old Faithful, a ball game, or a party that anyone will want to see.

But this camcorder is truly simple to use. It’s designed to be held vertically, and has just four simple buttons below its bright viewing screen: Record, Playback, Delete and On/Off. After turning the camera on, we simply pressed Record to start filming, then pressed it again to stop. An on-screen message told us how much time we had left and how many video clips we had already captured.

Katie and I had a lot of fun wandering our office and downtown Washington, D.C. — each of us armed with a camcorder. We got plenty of strange looks from passersby. Some were creeped out, but most were just shocked to learn that our small gadget was a camcorder, especially when we told them that it was disposable. We used our camcorders outdoors and indoors — in offices, hotel lobbies, parks, street corners, coffee shops, bars and restaurants.

The camcorder’s viewing screen is colorful and clear. Audio is captured through a microphone on the device’s front side and played back on a small speaker underneath the viewing screen on the back side. You can delete only your last recording, so if you make six videos, you won’t be able to go back to the fifth to delete it should you run out of room. This might be a pain if you record nonsense on your first few videos and then want to use the camcorder for something worthwhile later.

Once processed, these videos are returned to you on one DVD. This DVD can be inserted into your Mac or Windows computer or your television’s DVD player for viewing.

If you play the disc on a DVD player (a TV-set player or a computer with a built-in DVD player), the videos play in a high-resolution format called MPEG 2. A main menu displays thumbnail images of each video clip, and we easily selected the videos that we wanted to watch and played them.

Overall, the image quality looked pretty grainy, especially compared with a regular DVD. Some images, especially those shot indoors, were too dark and shadowy. And the sound quality of our subjects’ voices was often rather poor, though our own voices were easily heard because we were speaking so close to the camera.

If you slip the disc into a Windows computer, a collection of the videos appears on screen, much like on a regular DVD player; you can also opt to view the footage by date. With a Mac, you must first install the program from the disc before viewing videos. Otherwise, the software is identical on both types of computers.

You can watch these video clips in small or large format. Three options are offered to the left of the images screen: “Email Videos,” “Save Videos” and “Make Movie.” When we emailed videos to each other and friends, we could choose to email one video, one video in a greeting card format or multiple videos. This process was stunningly simple, and it took only a few minutes to send each email, depending on the size of the video.

The recipients of these emails don’t get the whole, space-hogging video. Instead, they get a link to a copy of your video that has been uploaded to a Pure Digital server on the Internet. They can play the video or download it.

We also selected “Save Videos,” a category that offers to save the clips for emailing (in WMV format) or for viewing and editing (in a lower-quality format called MPEG 1). Even if these techie format names mean nothing to you, navigating is still easy because of brief explanations throughout the program.

The “Make Movie” section was slightly deceiving — it just allowed us to string multiple videos together to play in sequence. You can’t save this collection as a single file, just view it. And the DVD has no editing software. You’ll have to obtain your own.

Still, for people who can’t afford a real camcorder or don’t want the hassle of carrying one around, the CVS One-Time-Use Video Camcorder makes sense. It’s well designed and does the job. Just don’t count on great results indoors.

With reporting by Katherine Boehret

Write to Walter S. Mossberg at mossberg@wsj.com

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