Barebones recording

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.

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

This blog was posted in Guardian column

16 comments on “Barebones recording”

  1. marxy says:

    Dear Stephen,

    you might be surprised at the quality of video recording you can get from so called “still” digital cameras. I’ve used both Canon and Sony pocket cameras and they are certainly up to youtube requirements.

    Thanks for the blog!

  2. andcam says:

    It’s not officially available in the UK (yet), but I’ve recently been given the latest Flip model, the Flip Mino (http://www.theflip.com/products_flip_ultra_specs.II.shtml). It’s quite a bit smaller and lighter than the Ultra, mainly due to its use of an internal rechargeable battery like the Vado. They’ve also improved the sound quality a little, and introduced touch-sensitive buttons. Generally speaking I’ve always used my still camera for video-on-the-go, but the Flip is the gadget which has finally convinced me to change my approach, and if anything it means I now take more video than photos.

  3. BritSwedeGuy says:

    I recently bought a Canon EX-F1, which is probably enables the most fun to be had with a camera with your clothes on. An excellent digital camera with all the toys, plus true 1080i HD video, plus 1200 frames per freaking second. Suddenly every rapidly moving object has become a source of entertainment…

  4. Selma says:

    Oh dear. Now we will expect nothing less than vlog (does that come with lengthened eye teeth?).

    One thing I wonder about these devices: Function? Yes. Use? Hmm…
    A vlog from Mr Fry is (or will be, if we are so lucky) interesting, engaging and informative. A vlog from a standard-issue 14 year-old, or, now that recording is so easy and cheap, from thousands of the aforementioned spotty creatures, may well be less so.

    Still, their friends will be excited for at least three and a half minutes.

    When did I get so cynical?

  5. LynxLuna says:

    I don’t know, but I think the sound of the Creative camera is more natural, although it sounds a bit lower. The colors are more bright too, but I’m not sure that’s an advantage. Anyway, I don’t know why they assume that we girls lose our asses for things painted in pink. That makes me me mad enough to just don’t buy the Vado (silvery or pinkie) and chose a green Flip. Minimum details are the most infuriating for the buyer sometimes.

  6. ianp says:

    It’s not quite arrived yet, but this offering from Kodak looks like it might be a winner: http://www.kodak.com/eknec/PageQuerier.jhtml?pq-path=9/13061/13063&pq-locale=en_US . It looks like it’ll offer much better video quality than the Flip and Vado, not sure about sound though…

  7. ameel says:

    Awesome. I’m torn between buying a dedicated camcorder and a digital camera that can also record video. Although you’ve now made my life a little more complicated — since I was leaning towards the latter — it’s great to see the quality of video (and audio) that these compact camcorders can make. Thanks! Hope to see more of your videos in the future.

  8. RubyCosmos says:

    Video-wise, I actually prefer the Vado. The Flip is superior re: colour, but it’s also a lot darker. My monitor’s top brightness is still on the dark side, though, so I have no idea if the Flip is normal and the Vado is just incredibly washed out. I’ll have to look at them both on my home computer tonight.

    I do agree with you on the sound, though. Very faint ringiness on the Flip that I could do without. And, you know, price and things. Over here the price difference is a bit more noticeable: the Vado goes for $82-$90, and the Flip is going to be $115 at the cheapest. So if I could ever justify a new toy, I think that’s the one.

  9. steph-angel says:

    “a) What is the point? and b) Where is the market? The answers, refreshingly, are a) Fun and b) The young…”

    I applaud your youthful stubbornness :-)

  10. Anskov says:

    Dear Stephen:

    I just found your site and am glad I did. I’ve been a fan for some time and have introduced my folks to the Jeeves & Wooster DVDs – they’re hooked. I’m going to add your blog to my “blogs to watch feed” to keep up with your posts. If you want, feel free to visit my sites: http://www.anskov.blogspot.com and http://www.christieinayear.blogspot.com.

    Best regards!

    Matthew Christensen
    Minneapolis, MN USA

  11. ysabella says:

    I have a Flip, and I really appreciate the built-in USB connector. I spend so much time looking for the cable for my digital camera that it isn’t even funny.

    Being able to share little videos of my toddler son with family from near to far is what I use it for…so definitely for the young!

  12. I am truly, madly, deeply in love with my Flip. (She’s getting a bit too serious for me, to be honest and I’m backing off a bit.) I’ve also got a bit of a thing going on with WordPress so I’ve brought the two of them together by Flipping (is that the verb?) me making a WordPress site. See this: http://is.gd/1gJH

    Search for the Flipping post at the site for our first outing together on the banks of the Kennet and Avon Canal.

  13. Fryphile says:

    Hark! Is that Sir Digby Chicken Caesar?

  14. Zazou says:

    First we were able to read, then we could listen, and now we can see Mr Fry in all his glory on YouTube. Marvellous! How about a blog to camera next time?

  15. Acebyte says:

    Just received a vado for my birthday. I really like the slim and light design. It can fit easily into my bag without adding much weight to it. Have updated it with the latest firmware (version 1190) once i got it and the video is really nice be it indoor or outdoor. Great for convenient shooting anywhere i go. Glad to have it!

  16. Salfordian says:

    Excellant reading, as always.
    When I first fell under the spell of the wonderful Mr Fry I thought all I would have in common with the great man himself is a love words and the gift/curse of being a born pedant. Imagine then my suprise when I found out that not only is he a Led Zepplin fan but also a videogame player. I no longer need hang my head in shame. No if only he would help me with my spelling…
    I don’t know if the man himself will get to read this but if that is the case then may I offer my thanks. Not only have you made me laugh, turned me onto some great writers and given my brain cells a good workout with your own novels but also for helping me to better understand a friend who suffers from a rather severe case of bi-polar disorder.

    With gratitude,
    Gareth

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