The Flip and Kodak Zi8 – A Good-bye To Our Favorite Pocket Camcorders

Posted on April 20, 2011 by Martin Tzanev

Flip training at the International AIDS Conference, Mexico 2008 Last week we found out that the two pocket camcorders most used by WITNESS and our partners, the Flip and Kodak Zi8 (the Zi8), have been discontinued. First, blow-out sales prompted us to notice that the Zi8 is officially discontinued. Then, Cisco announced that the entire Flip company will be closed. As we say good-bye, here is a look back on how we used these successful products in our work, some alternative models we considered and the features we like and hope to see in future models.
_Sam Gregory, WITNESS, Video Advocacy Training with Flip at International AIDS Conference, Mexico 2008
WITNESS has had a good relationship with Flip for a few years. We have conducted numerous video trainings and distributed hundreds of Flip cameras to human rights activists around the world. Here is an example of a video shot with Flips; it highlights the International AIDS Conference in Mexico in 2008. We liked the simplicity and robustness of the Flip. The option to use AA batteries in remote places without electricity was also an essential part of our choice to use the Flip camera. The lack of 1080p resolution (Flip’s HD models record in 720p) was not a deal breaker for us. However, as many users have pointed out, the Flip’s major drawback is the lack of external microphone input. Flip’s built-in mic is not able to capture clear sound when recording interviews, especially when background noise is present.
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Shooting with Kodak Zi8, Cambodia 2010
In 2010, we turned to the Kodak Zi8 camera. It had already become many vloggers‘ tool of choice. Unlike the Flip camera, the Zi8 was capable of recording in 1080p resolution and, most importantly, provided an input for external mic. The Zi8 was reviewed by just about any blog covering technology and was considered Flip’s main competitor (see a useful comparison of Flip and the Zi8 published by Videomaker magazine). Other features of the Zi8 that we particularly loved were its low cost, ergonomic design, use of SD/SDHC memory cards, and capability to take photographs.
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We deployed the Zi8 for the first time in August 2010. WITNESS staffer Ryan Schlief, Training LICADHO with Kodak Zi8, Cambodia 2010Ryan Schlief trained LICADHO, our partner organization in Cambodia, to integrate Kodak Zi8 cameras in their campaign against forced evictions (learn more about the campaign and the training). After the training, LICADHO produced this video using Flip and Kodak Zi8 footage – it was screened at the international conference Land Grabbing in Africa – Dangers and Challenges. The Zi8 camera packages we provided to LICADHO contained a lavalier mic,  two batteries, a 16gb memory stick, and a tripod. Using lavalier mics with the Zi8 camcorders enables the capturing of good sound when recording interviews or testimonies. Alternatively, the Zi8 can be mounted on a bracket with a shotgun mic, such as Sennheiser MKE 400, or with a video light.
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In the fall of 2010, Flip released the UltraHD 8GB model, with the much-anticipated external mic option. However, the proprietary external mic made the device too expensive and the placement of the port on the bottom of the camera seemed impractical for use in the field.
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Zi8 or Playtouch for the next training? Evaluating the two Kodak models, October 2010Around the same time, Kodak announced the Playtouch with an array of promising new features (read a review), such as in-camera editing, stereo jack shared between mic and headphones, and a larger LCD. We decided to evaluate the pricier Playtouch for potential use in our upcoming video training in Uganda. We conducted a side-by-side comparison of the Zi8 and the Playtouch. We loved the Playtouch’s edit and share capability, slicker design and more sensitive face recognition, however, the Zi8 proved to be more cost-effective, and to have a more ergonomic design for shooting in the field. One interesting observation about the Playtouch (which is likely to become our next pocket camcorder of choice) – compared to the Zi8 (specs), the Playtouch (specs) has a smaller lens and CMOS sensor while it actually covers a wider angle shot. This works well when shooting close up to a well-lit subject but the image becomes noisier once you pull back to a medium shot. Additionally, the external mic input located on top of the camcorder makes it possible for the mic cable to fall in front of the lens.
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In December 2010, a WITNESS team Training with Kodak Zi8, Uganda 2010headed to Kampala with Zi8 camcorders and accessories. This time we included two memory sticks, 16GB each, and three batteries per kit as our partners would film in areas without electricity. A fully charged KLIC-7004 battery lasts for about 80 minutes of recording time. With three batteries our partners would be able to record about 4 hours of video before needing to re-charge.
Bukeni Waruzi, WITNESS, training with Kodak Zi8, Uganda 2010
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In Uganda, our team, headed by Bukeni Waruzi, held a video advocacy training with seven women from the Greater North Women’s Voices for Peace Network, an activist group focusing their advocacy around Uganda’s recovery plan for the Greater North area. For more information, read this post or watch this video highlighting the training and the campaign. Since the training, the women have been actively shooting with the Zi8 camcorders we provided – their footage is currently being edited into an advocacy video.
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With Flip and Kodak Zi8 out of the picture, WITNESS will have to look for alternatives to update our pocket camcorder kits for the upcoming video advocacy trainings. The Kodak Playtouch is a likely candidate. The Zoom Q3HD with its amazing mic and stereo input is very desirable but at $300 is unlikely. Perhaps, now is a good time to do a case study with video enabled phones instead of pocket camcorders, as my colleague Ryan Schlief suggested. In some areas where we work, a smart phone is not a practical substitute for a cost-effective pocket camcorder. Where there is no electricity or cell coverage, or where people have never used a camera before, a smart phone may prove to be unnecessarily complex, fragile and cost-prohibitive.
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Cisco’s rationale for closing Flip is partially based on the idea that pocket camcorders can no longer compete in a world full of smart phones. This New York Times blog questions Cisco’s reasoning, insisting that the pocket camcorder niche still exists. Similarly, CNET points out that the Flip is the best selling pocket camcorder and its competitors, such as Kodak, Sony, Panasonic, and Samsung, just released new models that are Flip-like. In this post, Sony states its dedication to its line of pocket camcorders, acknowledging the growth of mobile phone video but asserting that it is a separate market. It will be interesting to see whether other companies will follow Cisco’s lead or see a market opportunity opened by Flip’s demise. We hope they come up with new devices that fit our idea of the perfect pocket camcorder for video advocacy – low cost, external mic input, simple and intuitive controls, robust, and with no proprietary ports and batteries.

What Others Are Saying

  1. jahid October 26, 2011 at 12:22 am

    HI FRIENDS……

    I want to buy a pocket camcoder to record open lectures with good video and sound quality with microphone connection, price does not matter .please help me help me which brand and which brand have both quality ………….thanks

  2. kim@usb microscope camera October 25, 2011 at 10:44 pm

    It is more convenient, easy to bring, less hassle and navigational especially for those who wanted to make documentary films.

  3. daus October 16, 2011 at 1:54 pm

    Have you found a good flip camera that can replace zi8? I would deploy training and video witness in Indonesia using flip camera.

    • Martin Tzanev October 20, 2011 at 10:14 am

      Hi Daus,
      At this point, the only pocket camera (that I know of), which has a mic input and is comparable in price to the Zi8, is the Kodak Playtouch. The Kodak store sells the Playtouch for $179.95 but you can buy it on Amazon.com for less.
      I recently tested the Canon Powershot SX230 HS. It is a compact photo camera with 1080p HD video capability and it costs about $300. We were interested in it’s geo-tagging feature, (which only seems to work with still images,) but I was impressed with the video quality. Some of its useful features include a super telephoto zoom lens, optical image stabilization, and a decent on-board mic. Unfortunately, it does not have a mic input but the audio quality is definitely better than a Flip camera’s.
      If audio quality is more important than video quality, the Zoom Q3HD is a good alternative and it also costs about $300.
      Good luck with the training!

  4. Brenda Simard July 29, 2011 at 8:48 pm

    I think you made some excellent factors in Features also. Keep operating, good job.

  5. Sam Gregory May 9, 2011 at 6:32 pm

    Hi Jonathan – interesting feedback and thanks for the tips on mikes.There’s definitely a trend towards DSLR usage and the quality of footage from them is definitely very strong; we haven’t yet deployed them as a tool for one of our partners. I don’t think we’ve looked at the tablets as a recording option yet (they certainly have potential as a tool for doing targeted screenings of videos, and swift intuitive editing).

    I like your idea on the specs for a social justice camera – to some extent we’ve been thinking about this in our WITNESS Labs work (e.g. with the Guardian Project on the Secure Smart-Cam), but more there through an apps lense (i.e. what would a camera for human rights have in terms of ability to capture relevant evidentiary metadata, anonymize identity, collate information on consent). But a hardware approach is also an option, particularly for a more basic camera – since as Martin notes, smart-phones may be unnecessarily expensive or complex in some environments.

  6. Jonathan Marks April 24, 2011 at 7:17 am

    We are indeed at an interesting cross-roads in video recording… pocket camcorders going away in some markets, but not replaced by devices that have really the functionality that story-tellers want and need. Your points about sound are so important. I remember that Jeffrey W. Hayzlett, formerly the marketing manager at Kodak, was quick to realise that sound was as important as good video. That was the reason for me that the Zi8 stood out from the FLIP range.

    I believe that Witness and other organisations with a need for this type of camera could do more to influence the market. Take the specs and experiences of the FLIP and Zi8 and invite your partners to come up with the specs for the ideal device. I believe that a much larger range of other organisations who use video for advocacy (e.g. charitywater.org or community organisations in Africa, Latin America and Asia) also have a need for these kind of devices to track progress in the field. Post the specs and then openly challenge the industry to make the device. Other organisations use video for different purposes, but we all have an interest in simple, low-cost, easy to use devices.

    On the sound side, I have had good experiences with a small US audio company that makes wired lavalier mikes. http://www.giant-squid-audio-lab.com/gs/gs-podcast_stereo.html is the link. (I have no connection apart from being a user). I blogged about them here http://whatcaughtmyeye.blogspot.com/2010/08/getting-better-sound-on-vodcasts.html

    In addition to the survey of smart phone cameras, I think you should look at the kind of video some tablets are able to capture as well as looking at cheaper DSLR’s. These have a different purpose, but for intense in-depth interviews the shallow depth of focus is becoming very important, especially if the material has potential use in a TV documentary some day. May be its a case of deciding which bits of a campaign are registration of an event and which bits are capture of a personal story or opinion. They have different sound and vision quality requirements.

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