Column “Dork Talk” published on Saturday 2nd Auguest 2008 in The Guardian
“Barebones recording” – The Guardian headline

Stephen Fry on sprightly camcorders the size of a packet of Rothmans. They’re cheap, they’re light and they’re fun.

Dork Talk on YouTube

Video. Your mobile phone might be capable of it, your compact digital camera almost certainly is and there are dozens of dedicated camcorders available that can write moving picture information to all kinds of media at all kinds of qualities for all kinds of money. Why, then, a basic handheld video camera that can do nothing else? a) What is the point? and b) Where is the market? The answers, refreshingly, are a) Fun and b) The young.

I am looking at the Flip Ultra from Pure Digital (£94-£99), and the Vado Pocket Video Cam (£89.99) from Creative. Each is the size of a packet of Rothmans; a light, “barebones” camcorder with a small LCD screen; basic playback, zoom, record and bin-it buttons; a built-in speaker; tripod mount connections; 2GB of memory; and a cunningly recessed USB cable. The most striking distinction between the two is that the Flip takes standard AA batteries, while the Vado has a lithium-ion unit, charged through its USB connection to a PC or Mac. The Vado has a two-inch screen to the Flip’s 1.5.

The Flip has been in the world a little longer and offers all kinds of accessories: a tripod, an “action mount”, underwater housing, pouches, skins and adaptors. Most of those will work on the Vado, since they are so similar in size and specifications. There are five colourways to the Flip: silver, black, pink, tangerine and lime green, while the Vado is available only in silver and the inevitable girlie pink.

They are both light and quick in their responses; they are so cheap and so jolly that you don’t really worry about slamming them into your pocket or handbag, or dropping them on the beach. You point, you press a button and you record. You can review on the device itself, although the sound playback is horrendous. The 2GB memory allows up to an hour of MPEG-4 AVI footage to be recorded at an acceptable 640 x 480 resolution. This memory is fixed and built in. Pre-installed on it are applications to run on your computer, available the moment you mount the camcorder via USB. They include the 3ivx codec and, in the case of the Flip, a PC and Mac application that allows direct uploading to YouTube, MySpace and AOL, as well as (PC only) Muvie-style video mixing capabilities.

I made a couple of very quick test movies of myself this morning and uploaded them to YouTube; it was very early so forgive the dégagé appearance and dopey manner. You will find the results on a YouTube account I have set up: DorkTalk2008. The Creative footage is on youtube.com/watch?v=0qaA5AQCqug and the Flip on youtube.com/watch?v=eKA_omhtb7Y, but on YouTube it is easier to search – I suggest “DorkTalk2008″ as the query term.

So, which should you choose? The Vado has a larger screen and is slimmer, lighter and cheaper: the Flip Ultra has a wider choice of colours, the advantage (or disadvantage) of standard batteries and better pre-installed software. I think I prefer the Flip. It is bulkier, however. If you have had a look at the YouTube clips, you may think the Vado’s sound recording is superior, on the other hand are the colours on the Flip a little richer? And which one responds better to changes in light? Oh dear… so hard to decide. Frankly, I wouldn’t throw either of them out of bed.

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Have fun and stay young.

Acronyms of the week

LCD Liquid Crystal Display … if your TV isn’t plasma or an old-fashioned cathode ray tube, then it will be LCD, the display technology used for everything from phones to fridges.

USB Universal Serial Bus, the standard interface that connects your computer to devices such as phones, printers and cameras.

MPEG-4 The fourth video and audio compression standard of the Moving Picture Experts Group.

AVI Audio Video Interleave. A ‘container’ format or ‘transporter’ for playing the video.

3ivx A ‘codec’ (short for compressor-decompressor or coder-decoder) that allows the AVI to contain and transport the MPEG-4 data stream.

© Stephen Fry 2008

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