Lauren Goode

A Swiveling Dock for Shooting Hands-Free Smartphone Videos

Whether you’re a video blogger or just like to use your smartphone to make home movies and video chat, you’ve probably struggled with angling your phone or using your hands to demonstrate items while you’re chatting.

A new device called Swivl, made by a California-based company called Satarii, holds up your phone or digital camera and allows you to swivel it around with a small wireless remote. The product has been in the works for two years now, and will begin shipping this week. It is currently only available through the Swivl Web site.

In my five-day test of Swivl, I found it to be fun and easy to use, especially when I was using it with my iPhone, since Swivl has an app specifically for the iPhone and iPod touch. The Swivl base followed my movements around the room when I directed it with the remote, although its vertical movement wasn’t as smooth as its side-to-side movement. And I really liked that the Swivl remote doubles as a microphone.

While Swivl is a nifty tool for both serious video makers and average consumers who make home movies or just want a hands-free video chat experience, its price point is its biggest drawback: $179 is a lot to pay for a moving iPhone stand — especially one with limited functionality with non-Apple devices. If you just want something to mount your iPhone on while shooting video, there are cheaper options, such as the $30 Oona smartphone stand; the $20 Glif, which attaches to a tripod and allows for tilting the iPhone at different angles; and a bunch of tabletop- and mini-tripods priced at around $10.

But let’s say you believe Swivl’s 360-degree swiveling capability a must-have. Considering that Swivl does pack a bit more technology than a regular iPhone mount, it’s pretty compact. The Swivl’s black plastic base is about the size of a large bagel, and weighs in at just over three-quarters of a pound. It’s lighter than a device like the aluminum Owle, a sturdy mount that comes with a lens for enhancing iPhone videos. It’s light enough that when I was transporting the Swivl around town in a large shoulder bag, I forgot I was carrying it.

The Swivl base has two bright green buttons on it: The Record button, which also acts as the Power button, and the Action button, which directs the Swivl up and down. The base has a folding grip that props up your iPhone or camera. A wire with a connector wraps around the base of the Swivl for connecting your iPod touch or iPhone.

The Swivl remote is a flat, plastic, egg-shaped device that fit in the palm of my hand. It also has two buttons that mirror the functionality of the buttons on the base, and a clip for attaching to clothing.

The grip on the Swivl base has a serrated wheel for adjusting the width of the section that holds your device. I was able to fit my iPhone 4 to it without a problem; it also squeezed in an older HTC Droid phone model. Since Swivl also comes with an accessory that has a standard tripod screw, I was able prop up a Flip camera and a Samsung SH100 digital camera (those devices didn’t fit within the Swivl grip). Technically, it could also prop up a DSLR, but it’s not recommended by the manufacturer, and when I tried to attach a Canon 60D camera, it felt very unstable.

The Swivl remote uses two AAA batteries, and the Swivl base uses two AA batteries. The company estimated that Swivl’s battery should last four hours at a minimum. In my test, I used the remote to move the Swivl around intermittently for about six hours before the base died. It’s important to note that your iPhone or iPod touch won’t charge when connected to the Swivl base, even though it uses a standard Apple connector.

I tested the Swivl using an iPhone 4. Activating the Swivl was easy: I turned on the base, holding down the Power button, then turned on the remote. The light on each device briefly flashed red before turning green, signaling that the two components were now wirelessly connected.

Then I opened up Swivl’s free mobile application, which only works with the iPod touch, iPhone 4 and iPhone 4S. Satarii says it is planning to release an Android version around this time next year.

After I had the app ready to go, I connected my iPhone to the wire that comes with the Swivl base, and lastly, slid my iPhone into Swivl’s grip. I prefer to shoot videos with the phone positioned horizontally, but it was supported just as well when I propped the phone up vertically.

The app uses the built-in camera capabilities of the phone, so at first glance it looks like you’re just using the phone’s camera. But by using the remote, I was able to start and stop recording video on my phone without having to reach over and hit the Record button. I shot a few test videos, and my clips were stored and could be played back within the Swivl app. The app also includes the option to save the video clips to the iPhone’s camera roll, email them and share them directly to YouTube.

The settings section of the Swivl app includes a battery gauge for the device and offers a choice between iPhone audio capture and Swivl audio capture.

The app is only available for the iPhone 4, iPhone 4S and iPod touch; so with other devices, such as my Flip camera, I had to reach over and manually press the record button. But the swiveling function still worked.

Now for the “swiveling” part of Swivl.

I spent several hours recording videos and staging interviews with a friend while using the Swivl. When we passed the remote back and forth, the Swivl moved to follow whoever was holding the remote, though the movement wasn’t as immediate as having an actual cameraperson follow with a camera.

The side-to-side movement of Swivl was a lot smoother than its vertical movement, however, which I activated by holding down the Action button on the remote. Satarii co-founder Brian Lamb said this was by design, and that the vertical movement is really just meant for initial set-up of the shot, while the horizontal movement is meant to be used during the video-recording experience.

Swivl does turn a full 360 degrees, but I found that when I remained in one place it took some pretty emphatic arm movements with the remote in hand. It worked better when I stood up and slowly walked around the Swivl while aiming the remote at it.

One of the bonus features of the Swivl is that the remote acts as a wireless microphone when your iPhone is attached to the base and you’re using the app. To capture ideal audio levels, the company recommends that the remote be located about a foot away from the user’s mouth. I found this to be accurate: When I brought the remote closer, my voice sounded irritatingly loud and scratchy in the recorded video.

I inadvertently discovered another function of the Swivl, too: I could control the movement of the device with other objects, such as my phone, a foil-wrapped sandwich, even my knee, as long as I had the remote turned on and in the vicinity of the base. This is because the signal that’s sent from the remote can be reflected off some surfaces, allowing for some interesting experimentation with the Swivl.

The Swivl is a fun device. For an iPhone or iPod touch owner who is really itching for a hands-free, mobile video tool that will follow your movements around the room, the Swivl does what it promises to do. But it’s expensive. Consumers less concerned with having the swiveling option have plenty of cheaper smartphone and camera mounting choices.

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