Being desperate for some Christmas present ideas for my wife, I had to resort to asking her to give me some hints. OK, not very romantic, although to be fair she did get one present she wasn't expecting, and before you ask, yes, it was a pleasant surprise.
One of the less surprising was the Cisco Flip Mino HD 8 gigabyte camcorder. At least it was nearly as quick to gift-wrap as it is to say, being packed in a nice firm box of diminutive proportions.
If the box it comes in is small, imagine just how small the real thing is, at 10cm long by 5 cm wide and 13mm thick.
True, you don't get a charger with it, charging being done whilst it's connected to a PC via its pop-out full-sized USB connector. Incidentally, the USB port is rigid so if you're not going to lay it on a table to take its weight next to a laptop, you'll need an extension lead (not supplied) so that you can connect to the front ports of a desktop PC (or Mac).
There are two other disadvantages, which if buying for use at Christmas you might want to know about. You only get the flimsiest of felt 'pochettes' for it (another gift idea for someone else?) and the HDMI port, which is the 'mini' version, does not come with a lead, so there'll be no playing your own version of The Queen's Speech on the telly till you get one, or any old queen's speech, for that matter.
Fortunately, I'd got the latter HDMI lead to connect my Nikon D90 to the TV for play-back of its own videos.
Although it came partly charged, we gave it a full load before using it. This is unusual for us, as we're both the type to rip off the wrapping paper to get at the goods, thereby losing the labels and consequently the ability to write relevant thank-you letters - "Dear Aunty Mabel/Iris/Gladys (delete as required), thank you ever so much for the ..........errrr........thing you sent me. It will be very useful in the bathroom/bedroom/summer/car (delete as required)."
Having talked largely about what you don't get, let's concentrate on the positive. Despite being of all-plastic construction, there's an air of solidity to it, being made with a gloss black shell and a completely flush viewfinder/playback screen. It certainly passes my 'Does it creak if you try to twist it?' test.
FLIP - THE ONE-TRICK PONY
The front panel, if indeed that constitutes the front is adorned with one solitary control, a large friendly red button. On boot-up, several other indents in the plastic light up, and it's easy to see that these are the various cursors you need to navigate the system, raise or lower the volume on playback and so on.
To set the machine up in the first place you just hold down the red button after having turned it on with the recessed button on the top right-hand side. There's not really much to set-up really - just which language you want the menu to display, the date, the time, whether you want bleeps on pressing buttons and whether you want the recording light to come on.
That's all there is to it.
It's assumed that you want it to film at maximum definition and that you want to use all the 8 gigabytes of memory for two hours of movies.
Just about the only creative control is the 2x digital zoom. It's as well they've limited the zooming to just two magnifications, as digital zooming is merely a blowing up of the centre of the screen losing some of the picture definition as it goes.
One sensible feature in something so light (116 grams), is the automatic image stabilisation, which is immediately obvious if you move the camcorder up and down rapidly emulating a drunken session at our local's music evening. It is in fact remarkably difficult not to look like you've got a steady hand with one of these.
PLEASANT SURPRISES ABOUND
Another fair assumption is that you'll always want it to shoot a 16:9 format widescreen picture as there'd be precious few 4:3 format TVs into which you could plug an HDMI lead, probably none, in fact.
I had been told that its low-light performance was, well, non-existent, and that lacking any kind of lighting, even that now fitted to phones, meant that it was strictly an outdoor movie version of a 'Box Brownie', which to a certain extent, given its lack of controls apart from the stop-start button, is true.
However don't be put off. We've got some pretty impressive footage of our pals Banjo Bob and (Banjo-less) Jeff doing a gig at our local pub with only a modicum of stage lighting. The auto colour balance seems just about right.
The fact that it's fixed-focus (i.e. it doesn't focus) doesn't seem to matter really. At least in low light you don't then get that hunting in and out so prevalent with cam-corders of higher specification. The only thing that lets it down is the rather tinny mono sound which doesn't improve much by routing it to a superior amplifier.
Shooting outdoors on a 'Box Brownie' day produces even better results, with sharp definition thanks partly to the small aperture on the lens. Colours seem natural enough and so it's difficult to criticise this gadget.
ALL IN ALL.....
I'd say we are, or rather, my wife is happy with her new toy. It's eminently pocketable and therefore much more likely to get used. In fact I'm going to give my JVC cam-corder to charity.
If pushed, I'd say that the results are better than even the best mobile phone and not far off the results I used to get from the JVC, and all in a package that cost me just shy of 100 quid - which is no mean feat.
A YEAR DOWN THE LINE (JAN 2013)
First we thought we'd lost it, had it stolen, whatever. Then we found it again, and it was whilst looking at our shots of Dubrovnik that it dawned on me how saliently different one of these is to a cam-corder. On a cam-corder, you pause between shots, so that the end result is one contiguous recording. This applies to analog and digital camcorders. With the Flip, every single shot is its own .avi file. If you apply the 'four second rule' to your shots, just like most real films, you're going to have an awful lot of files to join together. This probably explains why most people using one of these think it's OK to bore the pants off their audience by filming continously for 3 minutes!