Like most people who follow tech, I didn't see Cisco's killing of the Flip pocket video camera coming. Not right now, anyway. While smartphone and iPhone owners continue to say it was a dying category, that's simply not true. It might not be growing as rapidly as it was a couple years ago, but it's not declining.
However, Flip was the leader in the category, and for good reason; it never strayed far from the original idea of quickly and easily capturing high-quality video for sharing online straight from the device. Many of the early copycat devices that came from other manufacturers missed the point, though, and went with features over simplicity. Fortunately, they've figured out for the most part that you need both.
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Kodak was one of those makers, and its Zi8 was the first of its mini-camcorders to really compete with Flip by improving video quality and adding things like a mic jack that made the device more valuable to a different type of user. It's now officially discontinued, but if you search for it right now, you can find it for less than $100 from major retailers. Its waterproof Playsport Zx3 is another model worth considering, especially as we rapidly approach summer. Its follow-up, the Playsport Zx5, was announced at CES and adds shockproofing among other things.
Kodak also announced the Playfull at CES 2011, which puts full HD video capture in a very small package. I haven't reviewed the two new models yet, but I have tested the Playtouch, Kodak's touch-screen model, which I wouldn't recommend. It's not a bad device, but making the touch-screen functionality work smoothly affected video quality. That shouldn't be the case for the new models, though.
Sony's committed to its Bloggie mini-camcorders. Its early efforts weren't stellar, but the Sony Bloggie Touch showed a better understanding of what made Flip cams great. Like the Kodak Playtouch, the Bloggie Touch comes up short in some key areas, making it good, but difficult to recommend.
Also like Kodak, Sony announced the expansion of its Bloggie lineup adding a simple shoot-and-share model; another, the Bloggie Duo, with LCDs in front and back for capturing yourself on camera; and the Bloggie 3D that captures 2D and 3D photos and video with a screen that can be used for viewing your 3D captures without glasses.
Panasonic entered the category last year with the HM-TA1, which disappointed in many ways except video quality. It didn't quit there, though, recently announcing five models for the U.S. Three of them are pistol-grip designs that are likely continuations of Sanyo Xacti models; Panasonic announced acquiring all of Sanyo in December 2010. The TA1 was updated into two models--one rugged, one not.
Samsung seems to launch products whenever and wherever it can. It's had a mini-camcorder line for a little while now and continues to expand it. The HMX-P300 and HMX-P100 were announced at CES 2011 with features like backside-illuminated CMOS sensors for better low-light video and a 3x optical zoom on the P300.
There are plenty of other manufacturers in this space, including less familiar brands like GE, DXG, and even Ion, probably best known for its USB turntables, which has a pretty cool product with its Twin Video camera.
Flip's disappearance will leave a big hole in the category. When Cisco bought Flip, I had hoped it would immediately start work on integrating wireless technology into them and it sounds like that's what was coming next. Hopefully these manufacturers will continue to innovate these devices instead of letting them die.
I asked Kodak reps for a comment on Flip and they said they were surprised by the move given how fast their pocket video camera business was growing. They added that there will always be a role in the market for single-purpose devices as long as camera manufacturers continue to innovate in ways that are meaningful to the consumer.
With Flip on its way out, we'll be ratcheting up our reviews of the upcoming products mentioned above. In the meantime, here are the two Flip alternatives we can enthusiastically recommend:
Kodak Playsport Zx3: Read the CNET Review
Looking for more alternatives? See all of CNET's recent camcorder reviews.