Like it or not, the good old tape-based video camera is well and truly on its way out the door. Buoyed by advances in compression technology, tiny flash memory-based devices like the Flip Video Flip – which became America’s best-selling video camera last year on the back of red-hot word of mouth – are setting the agenda in the video market, with tiny bodies and ever-improving features.
For those of you who value the quality and longevity of traditional DV tape-based shooting, reading further may bring a tear to the eye. Certainly, shooting video with a flash-based videocamera is like writing an essay without using the letter ‘a’: you can get by without it, but you’ll definitely know something is missing.
Having recently imported a Flip Mino from the US and been largely positive about its convenience and quality despite its few limitations, I was eager to see how Samsung’s VP-MX20C, one of several big-name devices trying to cash in on the Flip’s popularity – would compare. The answer: many of those ‘a’s have been put back in the sentence, but some punctuation is now missing.
It’s all in the lens. If you’re not familiar with the Flip, let me explain how it works: turn it on, push the red button, and you’re recording. Push it again and you stop recording. Push another button and you can view your video. Push another button and out pops a built-in USB plug, which you use to recharge the unit and transfer video to the computer. Video editing software is built into the device, and its small shape slides easily into your pocket to go virtually anywhere. That’s it.
In ease of use, the Flip has all comers beat hands down; however, some of its features left room for improvement. To point out what’s appealing about the VP-MX20C, it useful to point out what is lacking in the Flip Mino. For example, the Mino uses the highly effective 3ivx video codec, which plays fine in Mac OS X but has the same appeal to iMovie as broadbean and tofu salad to your average four-year-old (that is to say, absolutely none at all). The Mino has a digital 2x zoom that is all but useless, limiting its value in shooting sports, school plays and the like. And the Mino has just 2GB of RAM, which is enough for an hour of video.
Enter the VP-MX20C, which has done the Mino a few better. Samsung shoots standard H.264 MP4 videos at up to 720×576 pixels, which are supported from one end of the Apple ecosystem to another; this means videos can be dragged and dropped into iPhoto for archiving and viewing without conversion, as is necessary using iSquint or the like if you want to use Flip videos in iMovie. (Samsung’s unit mounts on the desktop as a flash drive and files must be manually dragged and dropped, whereas the Flip mounts like a digital camer, causing iPhoto to launch automatically).
With 8GB of built-in memory, the Samsung offers several hours of recording time, depending on which of the five recording settings you use, ranging from super-high resolution to YouTube small-and-funky or even the squintvision (mobile) setting. Unlike with the Flip, the VP-MX20C accepts additional storage space in the form of SDHC/SD cards.
We found recording quality about the same as that of the Flip – that is, pretty good but a step down from conventional DV-based recorders. Using the H.264 widescreen mode gave a strange stretched-out effect on the sides of the videos, although it’s not clear whether this is the camera’s fault or the fault of H.264. The Flip still seemed to have a slight edge in low-light situations, something for which it has been widely commended.
Where the VP-MX20C really stands out is in the fact that it marries the benefits of flash memory – easy accessibility, instant downloading and so on – with a real, honest-to-God videocamera lens. The Schneider-Kreuznach lens is rated from 2.8mm to 78.2mm, giving it a 34x zoom factor that makes it practical to use for school functions, sporting events, family functions, and basically anywhere else that you can’t stick the camera into your subject’s face, as is necessary with the Flip.
Samsung has also built in videocamera features like digital image stabilisation (which worked well in our tests); auto or manual white balance; manual focus; wind filter; and a flip-out 2.7″ LCD monitor screen that turns all the way around so your subjects can see themselves making funny faces. A nice feature is a swivelling hand grip so you can lift the unit well above your head, turn the monitor downwards, and see what’s going on – invaluable in a crowd. These features are simply unavailable in the Flip’s minimalist design, and they help make the VP-MX20C reasonably good value.
You get what you pay for. That’s not to say the Samsung unit is without its flaws; midrange and high-end features such as shuttle search, line-in recording, still photos, and so on are absent. And the body’s design is decidedly plastic, in a flimsy sort of way.
Whether these omissions were made to keep the price low, or to avoid throwing out the baby with the bathwater by packing features into a unit that can be easily found for just over $300 at Big W and other retailers, we cannot say.
What we can say is that usability is affected by some annoying and inexcusable design flaws. Most prominently, the battery and SD card slot cover is on the bottom of the unit and continually opens during regular use; this could have been easily avoided by making the panel just that much harder to slide open.
Another annoyance is the charger: the unit won’t charge directly from USB, but requires its own standalone charging base, which is fine – except that positioning the camera on the base requires more effort than it should. In some cases, we thought the unit was charging but would come back hours later to find that it had not in fact charged.
The fact that the Samsung unit won’t charge from the USB cable also means that its battery runs down – and quickly – during transfers to your computer. Make sure you don’t download too much video during the middle of your brother’s wedding reception, or you might not make it to see the cutting of the cake.
Australian Macworld buying advice. The Samsung VP-MX20C is more videocamera than the Flip, but sacrifices some of the keep-it-in-your-pocket-whip-it-out-slip-it-back-in convenience that has made the Flip so popular. Having said that, ‘proper’ videocamera features such as a perfectly respectable zoom lens, anti-shake technology, rotating monitor and Mac-friendly H.264-compliant video make this a good value for those looking for an easy-to-use flash-based videocamera that won’t break the bank.