Pocket camcorders are a hot holiday gift, but due to their nearly identical feature sets, it can be tough to tell which is best—so I tested seven of these humble unitaskers to make your decision easier. You're welcome.
Pocket camcorders (AKA mini cams or budget cams, or sometimes Flip cams after the pioneer of the category) are simple gadgets. They've got one job to do: Shoot watchable video, often for uploading to streaming video sites. They're also very close to the end of their lifespan, with perhaps only a year or so left before smartphones make them obsolete, but right now they're the easiest and cheapest way to take quick and dirty video. I tested seven of these diminutive camcorders, or more accurately six camcorders and one capable PMP, in five categories: Outdoor, indoor, low light, macro, and sound.
The criteria for judging fell mostly to smoothness of video during motion, image sharpness, noise, and color reproduction. Specs like storage capacity, screen size and battery life are mostly the same across the board, although overall, compared to last year, this crop of mini cams are faster and stronger, with beefed up memory and HD sensors. All save the iPod Nano take 720p video (or better) and add HDMI ports and more memory to accommodate the higher-quality footage. Yet I wasn't really all that thrilled with any of the camcorders—the bar for these cams is so low you could trip over it, and several of them actually did. Battery life was disappointing across the board, as none could break two hours of filming. Anyway, on to the results!
Choosing between the Kodak Zi8, Flip Mino HD and Flip Ultra HD is tricky. The Zi8 is unreliable, but when it's good it's unbelievably good; the Mino HD is diminutive, solid and stylish, but overpriced and with lousy touch controls; and the Ultra HD is a reliably good shooter with a low price and the best controls of all, but physically unappealing (read: fat as hell). In my opinion, you should never judge a book by its obese cover, so the champion is...the Flip Ultra HD!
Flip Ultra HD: First Place
Flip's Ultra HD is the best overall choice. It's one of the cheapest cams around (at $150, it's $70 less than it's younger brother, the Mino HD), but it tied for the highest score in our lineup, and it features nice tactile controls that I much prefer to the sleeker Mino HD's touch-sensitive exercise in frustration. Unfortunately, the Dom DeLuise HD is upsettingly fat—about twice as thick as the Mino HD, but even that doesn't really get across how truly large it feels in the hand. It's not particularly heavy, but it is by a long shot the thickest pocket cam here. On the plus side, that girth hides a useful battery—Flip includes a rechargeable pack, but the John Candy HD can also use two AA batteries, which is great since pocket cams have generally abysmal battery life (usually about an hour, though of course they're often rated for double or triple that). Replaceable, cheap batteries are really nice, but some will have to decide whether the William Howard Taft HD's girth is worth that feature. Given its price, I think it is.
Video quality is just fine, above average if not particularly impressive on every test, and it, like the Mino HD, is extremely user-friendly. Although that simplicity yields less flexibility and a barebones feature set compared to the Kodak Zi8, it's a good distillation of the aims of pocket camcorders, and its 100% tactile controls are a welcome change from the Mino HD. If you're not superficial, it's a very smart buy.
Flip Mino HD: Second Place
Flip's Mino HD is the best-looking and best-feeling camcorder I tried. Its aluminum body feels solid and expensive, which might be because it is—at $230, it's the priciest camcorder I tested. But I wouldn't be surprised if it sells the best, even though it's not the greatest deal, because it looks (and is) simple, cute, and functional. I won't rehash my review, except to say that I hate those goddamn touch buttons more and more every time I use the Mino HD. They're incredibly sensitive and I guarantee that you will accidentally trigger the playback function more times than you can count.
Besides that, it's totally serviceable: It did well on all of my tests, it's thoughtfully designed and stupid-easy to use. But it's definitely overpriced, and I have a hard time recommending it over its physically awkward yet substantially cheaper older brother, the Ultra HD, just for its looks.
Kodak Zi8: Third Place
Wider and taller than the Flip Ultra HD, though not nearly as fat, the Zi8 packs a 1080p sensor and the largest and best screen of the bunch. The controls are easy and tactile and aside from flimsy-feeling plastic covers over the ports (one of mine already fell off), the hardware is high-quality. The Zi8 snagged the bronze medal, because while its highs were higher than either of the Flips, its lows were lower—and given how focused and simple this type of gadget is, reliability is worth more than flashing moments of greatness.
The Zi8 absolutely rocked in two of my tests, outdoor and macro, with perfect color reproduction and excellent clarity, and it even takes pretty decent still photos (think point-and-shoot circa 2006 quality). But the conditions need to be just right to get the most out of this guy—I first tried it in 1080p mode (neither of the Flips can break 720p) and while picture quality was amazing, scenes with lots of motion were pretty jerky to the point of being distracting. But even in 720p, it was still head-and-shoulders above the competition—but only in outdoor and macro testing. In the indoor test it proved to have difficulty focusing on objects closer than 10 feet but farther than 2 feet away, and low light shooting was distinctly tinted red and a bit dark. It wasn't unusable in any test (unlike the similarly uneven Creative Vado HD) and at $180 it's fairly priced, so I'd still recommend it—but you and I are likely to be more forgiving of the Zi8's flaws than, say, your mom, who just wants a camera that works pretty well all the time. For her, go for a Flip.
The Creative Vado HD scored pretty high, only a point lower than the bronze medalist Kodak Zi8, but while its design is fairly middle-of-the-road (albeit nice and teeny), its abilities were all over the place. It was one of the worst in standard daytime shooting (it has a hard time with sunlight, a serious problem for a pocket cam) and macro, but was the best at indoor, and while its low light video was a little dark, it was the clearest and smoothest of the lot. It also, likely due to Creative's background in stellar-sounding PMPs and sound cards, boasts excellent sound quality. At $150, it's very fairly priced, but I can't recommend a camcorder that mangles sunlight the way the Vado does.
Apple's iPod Nano is the only "camcorder" in this roundup to peak at VGA resolution, and aside from a surprisingly strong macro performance, it shows. It turned vibrant colors dull and lifeless, washed out detail and made everything seem darker than it was. It can't compete with the Zi8s and Flips of the world, but it's still usable and incredibly priced at $150/$180 for 8GB/16GB—if you've got a Nano already, you probably won't need a dedicated cam. Convergence killed the video star, I guess.
The JVC Picsio GC-FM1 sucked. It's spectacularly ugly (think Ed Hardy-inspired) and cheap-feeling, with a confusing button layout (unforgivable in a pocket cam) and a high price ($200, or $178 at Amazon). Besides all that, it scored poorly in every one of our tests. Avoid.
And finally, the worst—Aiptek's PenCam HD. I wanted to like it, I really did—it's got a tongue-depressor-like design and came with a sweet tripod that attaches to a bicycle's handlebars—but it bombed in almost every one of my tests. The 1.1-inch screen is nearly unusable and battery life barely topped 40 minutes, so it's definitely the loser here.
Here's a giant gallery of all 28 videos I took.
Don Nguyen assisted with this Battlemodo.