Katherine Boehret

Flip Video Mino Takes Aim at the Cool Set

When Pure Digital Technologies Inc. introduced its Flip point-and-shoot camcorder a year ago, it dramatically simplified video recording. The Flip measured the size of a small digital still camera, cost less than $150 and its videos could be emailed in one quick process. Consumers gobbled up the tiny, nonintimidating device.

But to the style-conscious set, the Flip looked like a clunky Fisher-Price toy — especially when compared with a sleek, new iPod or more-sophisticated digital cameras — and was too thick to comfortably slip into a pocket. Last fall, Pure Digital introduced an enhanced version: the Flip Video Ultra, but its biggest aesthetic difference was new orange, pink and green colors.

Today, the company will begin sales of its $180 Flip Video Mino (pronounced “minnow”), the hippest offering yet from Pure Digital. This 60-minute Flip includes many firsts for the company: rechargeable batteries; touch-sensitive buttons rather than old-school, push-down buttons; and a thinner build that measures 40% smaller, overall. The Flip Mino is also the first one in the family to enable publishing to MySpace (NWS); prior software limited Web-site sharing to YouTube (GOOG) and AOL (TWX) Video.

I’ve been using a glossy, black Flip Mino (it also comes in white) for the past two weeks and it looks much cooler than older models. Its newly positioned USB adapter pops up from the top of the camera like something from a Swiss Army Knife. The Mino offers features such as the ability to lock the delete button, so no one accidentally deletes your videos, and mute all camera sounds, so as to record silently during quiet moments like wedding ceremonies or speeches.

I brought it along with me almost everywhere I went because of its small size and light weight, even fitting it into a thin clutch purse with a cellphone and BlackBerry (RIMM). I used the Mino in various situations ranging from bright, scenic outdoor settings to indoors while eating dinner in a candle-lit restaurant. Overall, I was pleased with the sound and picture quality of the Mino, and I found its built-in software, which automatically starts when the camera plugs into your Mac (AAPL) or Windows (MSFT) PC, to be a pleasure to use.

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Today, Pure Digital Technologies introduced its $180 Flip Video Mino, a thinner, more stylish version of its point-and-shoot camcorder.

It took just a few minutes to trim excess footage from my videos before saving them to my computer or sharing them with friends and family. Another way to share videos from the Flip Mino is via Pure Digital’s server, which sends emails with embedded video links, saving upload and download time on both ends. Though I didn’t publish any of my videos on a public Web site, AOL, MySpace and YouTube were just one step away.

The Flip Mino’s touch buttons, while stylish, were difficult to use at first. I missed the tactile feel of physical buttons as I tried to hold this small video camera and press the zoom buttons using just one hand. The new, touch-sensitive buttons weren’t as satisfying and stable to use, and I pressed them accidentally more than a few times. For instance, the Zoom Out button is directly below Record, making it easy to mistakenly touch it. After about a week of using the Mino, I grew more accustomed to using these new touch buttons, but it shouldn’t take so long to make the adjustment.

Just looking at the Flip Mino’s fresh new exterior makes it hard not to think about the things that this redesigned camcorder is still lacking, like a larger viewing screen (the Mino screen is 1.5 inches, no larger than that of the Flip Ultra), high definition video and wireless sharing capability. These features would likely raise the price and/or tax the battery, and many users of the Flip flock to it for its low price and simplicity. Still, Pure Digital says that it will offer HD video and a larger screen on a product within a year, and is looking into features that might include wireless transferring.

I grew fond of the Mino’s rechargeable battery. Whenever I plugged this gadget into my computer to transfer videos, my Mino charged up via USB without me having to think about it. A full charge lasts four hours and recharging a dead battery takes about three hours.

Pure Digital says that the sound quality and lighting are improved in this model. Like previous models, this Flip records in 640×480 pixels at 30 frames per second.

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The Mino didn’t have a problem with lighting in most situations; indeed it did a nice job of capturing images of my family sitting around a table in a restaurant with little more than candlelight to brighten the picture. It doesn’t use a flash or a built-in light, but instead uses automatic sensors to adjust to various levels of light.

This svelte camcorder seemed to handle noise more evenly than I remembered in prior Flip models. It didn’t make my voice sound unbearably louder than everyone else’s, even though I was closest to the camera’s microphone, yet it managed to detect voices across the room. I did have some trouble on a windy day: While recording a quick video of a golf course in San Diego, wind audibly muffled my voice during a few moments in the video.

Along with the delete-lock and sounds-off settings, this Mino has a few other tricks up its sleeve. Each of the touch-sensitive buttons is designed to glow only when usable, so as to better help people who might not know which buttons to press while using this camcorder. For example, only the zoom buttons glow while recording since the other buttons (volume, play/pause and delete) can’t function in this setting.

Shortcuts built into each button provide more functions: Holding the play/pause button down will set the playback mode to play all videos on the Mino; holding the seek ahead or seek back buttons while watching a video will fast-forward by seconds within that video; pressing the record button as the camera starts up opens up the settings menu.

In conjunction with the Flip Mino’s introduction Wednesday, prices of the former Flip Ultra model will drop to $150 for the 60-minute model. The Flip Ultra 30-minute model will be phased out, as will the Flip Classic, which will cost $130 for a 60-minute unit.

Though the Flip Mino’s touch-sensitive buttons look great, they aren’t as functional as they needed to be. But if you really want a sleek, hip-looking gadget, you’ll learn to adjust to these new buttons. No matter which Flip you choose, Pure Digital’s software changes the way people capture and share videos, and that’s a great thing.

Edited by Walter S. Mossberg


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