What’s wrong with Flips?

I’m on a train heading to the World Conference of Science Journalists, but I’m following the ‘New Media, New Journalism?’ plenary via Twitter. Obviously. A couple of people ( @franknorman, @emmapotter ) have mentioned that the National Science Foundation is planning to distribute a large number of Flip cameras to scientists in the US.

This piqued my interest, partly because I’m hoping to do something vaguely similar in the UK, but also because I think Flips are so so close… but ultimately not quite there. Distributing them this year might, I think, set a difficult precedent for the recipients, and steer us into making a whole load of wrong-headed video.

Ideally I’d show you what I think is wrong in a video, but people might start getting angsty if I haul out the three cameras I’m carrying (including a Flip Ultra), and start demonstrating on the train. So:

Let me be clear – Flips remain the cameras I recommend to people starting out with SciCast, and my colleague Alom seems to be handing them out like sweets to labs involved in the pilot of a project we’re developing. Flips are terrific because they get lots of things right:

  • Decently wide-angle lens, which places the camera (and hence microphone) closer than with most similar cameras. This is also why I prefer the Ultra to the smaller (but longer-lensed) Mino.
  • Low-light sensitivity is far better than the competition. This is critical.
  • AA batteries (in the Ultra).
  • Surprisingly effective auto exposure and white balance. Mostly, it ‘just works,’ again in contrast to most of the competition.

Overall, they’re very well set-up for going from somebody talking to you, to YouTube, as smoothly as possible.

Trouble is, people making short science films don’t want to be limited to filming a person talking. They want to film close-ups of an experiment, or a wide shot that still features reasonable sound. Here, the Flip fails – the minimum focus is about 60cm, and the screen is too small to see when it goes soft. The screen also doesn’t swivel, so it’s hard to shoot from the hip or a low angle. Finally, there’s no microphone input, so audio is unfixable if the built-in mic isn’t enough. It’s good for somebody speaking at arm’s length, but anything else is inevitably troublesome bordering on useless.

I hear the same complaints about Flips time and again, from people who love them but have run into their limitations. I steer some of them towards the Canon FS100/200, but the low-light quality isn’t anywhere near and they’re now clearly overpriced at £280. However, I’m not aware of anything else below about £500. Crazy.

I think there’s a clear market for a Flip Pro. Something like:

  • Same sensor as the UltraHD.
  • Perhaps a higher bitrate recording option?
  • Autofocus lens. I’d be happy without a zoom, note: ‘zoom with your feet’ is a reasonable mantra. Or, fit a little screwthread on the front and let people make accessory lenses.
  • 3.5mm jack mic input.
  • Fold-out & swivel screen.
  • I’d be willing to forego an SDHC card slot, but that’s a tough call.

The hard bit here is, I suspect, the lens… and then the knock-on effects to battery life. But I’d love to see Pure Digital try something like this. With their current products they already make more appropriate/enlightened compromises than do Canon or Sony. Now I want to see them push the boundaries a bit.

Who am I kidding, though? The hard part, obviously, is working out how to sell such a product. The original flip sold into an obvious (in retrospect) target market that had a clear precedent – mobile phone video was rubbish, but lots of people did it anyway. Surely they’d prefer to make films you could, you know, watch?

A Flip Pro would be breaking new ground, and that’s an order of magnitude more risky. Are people ready for it?

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