Walter S. Mossberg and Katherine Boehret

The Video Camera Revised

When someone whips out a video camera at a school play or family reunion, two thoughts probably run through your head. One: I really should get a video camera for moments just like this. Two: Who am I kidding? I have no clue how to use a video camera or what to do with the digital video files.

For all their popularity, video cameras are a pain to use, especially on the spur of the moment. Most require a supply of tapes, and the discipline to have expensive, charged batteries at the ready. For casual users, video cameras are also intimidating, filled with buttons and controls whose purpose isn’t always obvious.

Not only that, but it’s a challenge figuring out how to transfer your videos to a computer, for editing and sharing with others. And the price tags on most camcorders, ranging from hundreds to thousands of dollars, don’t help.

But what if somebody invented a dead-simple, point-and-shoot video camera — the video equivalent of a point-and-shoot digital still camera? What if it had only a few simple buttons; didn’t require tapes; used standard AA batteries; and cost under $150? And what if it had the built-in ability to easily transfer your videos to a computer, and an easy way to convert them into a DVD?

Well, a small company has invented just such a video camera, and we’ve been testing it. It’s a radical new design, unlike any other video camera we’ve tested, and has the potential to expand the video-camera market to people who, until now, have been reluctant to use one, or to use one very often. Not only that, but this simple, low-priced new design is due to spread by the end of this year, because it has been licensed to several big-name camera makers, who plan their own versions.

point and shoot
The Point & Shoot Video Camcorder by Pure Digital Technologies; $129.99

Over the past few weeks, we’ve enjoyed trying out the new $130 Pure Digital Point & Shoot Video Camcorder by Pure Digital Technologies Inc. This device, which came out Monday and is being sold at Target stores, aims to be stunningly simple to use and works with a built-in software program that makes it easy for you to email condensed footage or save videos to your computer.

Our verdict: The Point & Shoot lived up to its billing. It was a no-brainer to use and produce video clips that, while not as good as those from a high-end camcorder, were good enough to preserve family memories. This camera has some limitations, but they were more than canceled out by its simplicity and its readiness for spur-of-the-moment shooting. Both we, and our families, were very satisfied with the results.

The camera’s internal memory, which replaces old-fashioned tape, can hold 30 minutes of footage, whether continuous or broken up into smaller segments. And its software for viewing and sharing videos on a computer is embedded right in the camera, along with a USB connector. So no cables, or installation CDs, are needed.

You can also take the camcorder to stores like Rite Aid or CVS, where for about $10 they’ll copy the footage off of the camcorder and make a DVD, complete with menus, that’s playable on most DVD players and computers.

We put the Point & Shoot through its paces at two religious occasions — family celebrations of Easter and Passover — and at a near-religious occasion: the Boston Red Sox 2006 home opener at historic Fenway Park. We also used it to record highlights from a surprise 30th anniversary party.

The biggest competitor for the Point & Shoot may not be costly, complex camcorders, but cheaper digital still cameras that also can shoot video. But, on these cameras, the video files suck up a lot of storage space and battery capacity that might otherwise be devoted to photos. And though these files can be copied onto a computer rather easily, most people don’t know how to do anything more with the footage. Pure Digital’s software walks users through emailing and saving video, eliminating the guesswork.

The Point & Shoot Video Camcorder is white and measures the same size as a disposable drugstore camera, but is designed to be held vertically. Its back side includes Play, Delete, Power, and Record buttons, as well as a 1.4-inch color viewing screen and four directional buttons (arrows pointing up, down, left and right). In our tests, we used the small screen to play back footage instantly after recording, which was a real treat for everyone who watched the videos.

video camera

Up to 98 clips can be captured in the Point & Shoot’s 30-minute recording period. After turning the camera on with the Power button, we only had to press the red Record button to start taping. In the top left corner of the screen, numbers flashed showing how much time had elapsed. The up and down arrows work as zoom buttons for the camera’s slight 2x digital zoom, and pressing record again stopped filming, ending a segment.

Two AA batteries come included in the camcorder, and the company estimates these will last for about 140-160 minutes.

The Point & Shoot might produce shaky footage for users who have an unsteady hand, as it doesn’t have an optical viewfinder or eyepiece. Another downside that we noticed is the microphone. Though it’s positioned on the front side of the camcorder, it sometimes struggled to pick up softer sounds. But it did work.

The lens is very basic, and limited. For instance, at Fenway Park, from our position halfway up in the stands, videos of players on the field were fuzzy. But Pure Digital has licensed the guts of the camera to some prominent electronics brands, including RCA, which plan a range of models with better lenses, greater memory and other features.

After taking videos on various trips, we returned to the office and plugged our Point & Shoot Video Camcorders into Windows and Mac computers. A small, hidden USB plug pops out from the side of the camcorder, eliminating the need for cables. On our Dell Windows PC, Pure Digital’s software automatically appeared when we attached the camcorder.

The first screen that we saw was labeled Browse All Videos, and it showed four tiny snapshots of the beginning scenes of the first four videos on our camcorder. You can also sort videos by date before viewing them. Below each video, the date and duration of the clip were listed, as well as options for watching the clip in a small format right on that screen, or in a larger format on a different screen.

To the left, four options were listed: Save Videos, Email Videos, Delete Videos and Make Movie. The software was as straightforward as the camera itself; we only had to select a video and choose the correct command on the left before executing it. After we saved six clips of Katie’s family celebrating Easter together in Boston, they were automatically copied to a folder on our desktop labeled “Point & Shoot Videos,” and were organized within this folder according to the date they were saved. The Make Movie option instructed us to select clips, and then press Make Movie — combining those clips into one continuous video.

When we selected a video clip and chose Email Videos, the Pure Digital software program gave us two options: create a smaller video file and attach it to an email in our default program, or create a smaller video file to store in our Point & Shoot Videos folder for emailing later with any email program. Most people wouldn’t know the first thing about making a video file smaller, so this program truly is helpful.

This process is clumsier on a Mac, because you have to install the software first — it doesn’t run automatically from the camera. Also, saving the files on the Mac for use in other software required converting them to another format or running a special program. The company pledges to fix these Mac issues later in the year.

We also took one of our camcorders to a CVS drugstore near our office, and an hour and $13 later, we got it back with a DVD of its footage. Since Pure Digital also makes other products, including a one-time-use digital camera and a one-time-use camcorder, we had to make sure the CVS employee knew we wanted our camera back with the DVD.

The DVD played on a cheap DVD player attached to a TV at the office, as well as on both Windows and Mac computers, without a problem. The DVD comes with the Pure Digital software on it so if it’s given to someone else, he or she would be able to email or save the video files.

An included cable can connect your camcorder to any nearby television, playing back footage right away on a larger screen.

Surely, you could spend a lot more money for a camcorder with better features, such as improved zoom and focusing capabilities. But when it comes right down to it, the Pure Digital Point & Shoot Video Camcorder’s quality is remarkable for how small and simple the device is. If you’re looking for a basic video camcorder that you can throw in a purse or briefcase for any occasion, this device is perfect. The camcorder and its built-in software program make sense to normal users.

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