Pure Digital Flip Ultra Camcorder Review
The Pure Digital’s original Flip camcorder, released earlier this year, created an unusual amount of buzz by positioning itself well below the price point of traditional point-and-shoot camcorders. For the first time, a company truly succeeded in taking video away from the computer-savvy and making it safe for the technophobe.
Video Performance* (1.5)*
The Pure Digital Flip Ultra doesn’t post headlines about its specs, but you can find them if you dig deep enough. We were able to ascertain that the camcorder comes equipped with 4:3-aspect ratio, 1/4-inch VGA-format CMOS sensor. Pure Digital doesn't give the actual resolution of the sensor. We’ll have figures for the final outputted resolution in the next section.
Our first test is shooting our DSC Labs Chroma DuMonde color chip chart at an even 3000 lux, a strong light that should bring out the best the camcorder can do. Under these conditions, the image still looks quite poor. To put it in perspective, the image quality is about on par with a webcam or a cheap digital camera. The final, outputted clips are highly compressed, leaving the image marred with huge chunks of compression artifacts. In fact, when you point the camcorder toward a dark, even surface, you can clearly see the map of pixel chunks that are the result of the heavy compression algorithm.
The Flip Ultra’s performance has very little in common with most "true" camcorders. However, for the price and form factor, we were sometimes impressed with the picture quality. For instance, while our 3000 lux test showed the camcorder produces an incorrect auto white balance that warmed the image too much, under outdoor shooting the colors looked fine. As we’ll get into later, some of the auto responses to shifting light conditions were rather good.
Pure Digital has obviously made improvements since its arrival as the unnamed producers of the first-generation CVS camcorder, which had an image so bad we weren’t even sure if we’d been pointing the camcorder at the chart.
The ZR800, Canon’s entry-level MiniDV camcorder, can be found in virtually the same price range as the Flip Ultra (we reviewed the Canon ZR830, which has the same imaging specs). The picture is phenomenally better, but if you were shopping on the basis of performance, you probably wouldn’t be looking at the Flip anyway. For the record, we’d like to point out that the Canon ZR800 offers more accurate color, a sharper image, less noise, less compression, and a number of easy one-touch color improvement modes.
Video Resolution* (1.05)*
We tested the Pure Digital Flip Ultra for its video resolution by shooting a DSC Labs video resolution chart at an even 3000 lux. Resolution is measured in line widths per picture height (lw/ph). The Flip Ultra was only able to produce a horizontal resolution of approximately 210 lw/ph and a vertical resolution of 100 lw/ph. This is an incredibly low resolution score, by far the lowest this year. We don't expect to see a worse camcorder this year.
This does not come as a surprise. In every other test, we saw the lack of fine detail due to a low-resolution imager and a high compression.
Low Light Performance* (6.15)*
The Flip Ultra was tested for its low light performance, just like every other camcorder that passes through our doors. First, we shoot our DSC Labs Chroma DuMonde color chip chart at an even 60 lux and 15 lux. At 60 lux, the Flip Ultra produced a surprisingly bright image compared to traditional low-end camcorders. This is likely due to two reasons. First, the 1/4-inch CCD is larger than the standard entry-level 1/6-inch CCD. Second, the pixels on the chip measure 5.6 µm, which is rather large compared to most camcorders.
Typically, a manufacturer determines a chip size, then packs in as many pixels as it can. Resolution, vis a vis the pixel count, is almost always the leading spec that sells camcorders. Over time, manufacturers pack more and more pixels onto that same sized chip, each time reducing the size of the individual pixels. But as the pixel size decreases, low light sensitivity goes down and noise goes up.
Here’s where the real cleverness of the Flip Ultra enters into the picture. Pure Digital knows that its video is destined for the Web, where resolution is generally garbage. Having the freedom to virtually ignore resolution as a selling point, it was able to boost the size of the pixels, thus improving low light performance.
At 60 lux, the image is about twice as bright as the Canon ZR830 (which has an identical imager to the ZR800). The Flip Ultra also had a lot less noise. But was it better overall? It depends on your intentions for the video. While the Flip Ultra’s color and brightness are better, the resolution is so low and the compression artifacts are so many that most of the fine resolution has been obliterated. On the test chart, you can see that the color blocks all bleed together, whereas nearly every other camcorder is capable of at least showing the border lines between each chip.
At 15 lux, the color retention and brightness remain high. In fact, it appears to match that of the Canon ZR830 at 60 lux, four times the light level. Again, though, the compression artifacting is awful, killing even moderate detail like the larger text on the chart.
In short, you’ll be able to see large objects in very low light – that’s great for certain kinds of shooting. But you have to accept that nearly all fine detail will be lost.
The second part of the test determines the sensitivity by steadily lowering the light until the IRE levels (an exposure indicator) peak at 50 IRE. The camcorder was able to produce 50 IRE at 12 lux, which is a very low light. By comparison, the Canon ZR830 required 15 lux, as did the Sony DCR-DVD1088. The Sony DCR-HC38 required 13 lux.
The final test involves shooting a GretagMacBeth Color Checker chart at 60 lux and running those stills through Imatest imaging software in order to determine color accuracy, noise, and saturation. At best, the Flip Ultra was able to achieve a color error of 8.9, which is relatively good for a camcorder in this light. The noise level was very low, at only 0.5875 percent. The saturation level was 81.1 percent.
In summary, the Flip Ultra performs quite well in low light, as far as these tests measure. What must be factored in is the resolution score that preceded it, which proved how utterly blurry these images are.
The Flip Ultra camcorder does not offer a stabilization feature. Because our stabilization test involves finding the difference between apparent shake with the stabilization feature on and off, we could not perform the test. Hence, the score is zero.
Wide Angle* (9.6)*
We tested the Flip Ultra’s maximum field of view by placing the camcorder on a tripod with the zoom pulled back to its fullest extent. The right and left angles were measured using a vertical laser. The difference between the measurements attained produced a wide angle score. The Flip Ultra’s maximum field of view is 43 degrees, which is on the lower end of the spectrum. However, for its size, the Flip Ultra performed admirably.
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