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Digital camcorder delivers simple, clean design

Posted: 29 Jul 2009     Print Version  Bookmark and Share

Keywords:digital camcorder  design HD camcorder  teardown Cisco camera 

Figure 1: On the outside, the Flip UltraHD looks like its predecessor. Photo courtesy of a PR spec sheet.

After being bought by Cisco Systems for $590 million (Rs.2,847.68 crore) in what the New York Times called a head scratcher of an acquisition, Pure Digital unveiled the Flip HD, the latest chapter in its runaway digital camcorder success story. Of course, I just had to tear it apart.

The NYT blogger wasn't the only one left scratching their heads. It turns out that both Cisco and Pure Digital may also be wondering where the synergies may lie. Clearly, Cisco is making inroads into consumer electronics and likes anything that pumps video over IP networks. But does it really need to own a company that enables that? Might it not be better off partnering with all the video-acquisition/sharing options now emerging to compete with Pure Digital to get video over its networking equipment, where its bread is truly buttered?

While the Pure Digital deal has now closed, Cisco was itself wondering up until recently what to do with the acquisition. Its Cisco Mobile blogs have solicited ideas from the "community" on what to do with the Flip. Its promotion videos on the acquisition discuss the clear value of Flip video technology, but not what Cisco can do to augment it: The company has yet to state what it can do in that regard. Wi-Fi connectivity comes to mind, of course, given Cisco's acquisitions over the years (Radiata, then Linksys, Airespace, and more recently, an investment in Celano).

For its part, Pure Digital clearly comes out a winner in the deal. According to Scott Kabat, director of marketing for Pure Digital, Cisco has scale and technology that "will help us get bigger and expand our markets and technology." At a time when Sony, Kodak and other consumer giants are hot on Pure Digital's video tail, Cisco's interest comes at a good time.

So, with $590 million (Rs.2,847.68 crore) on the table, it still seems odd that, when I spoke with Kabat at the end of April, the two companies "are only beginning to explore areas of collaboration."

End of biz talk. On to the insides.

Simple design
The Flip HD's main features are: 8Gbytes of memory for 2hrs of HD video (vs. 1 hour for the minoHD) at 1,280 x 720 resolution; a 2-inch screen; a rechargeable battery pack; a mini-HDMI output and selling price of $199 (Rs.9,604.88). The full list of specs is available here. Basically, for the same price as the Flip Ultra, which I tore down over a year, you get 4x the memory, 2x the resolution (vs. VGA), a larger screen, rechargeable battery and the HDMI interface instead of NTSC.

As with the Ultra, I'm again taken by the simplicity of the design and its ease of use, though it's getting harder to differentiate it from the competition, such as Kodak's Zi6. This fact adds to the mystery of why Cisco would buy—at such a high cost—a company with a product that is very easy to emulate, at least at face value (USB snap-out interface, easy video sharing, point and shoot etc.).

But remember, Pure Digital's secret sauce lies in its video processing algorithms, particularly with respect to exposure control.

So, without side-to-side A/B tests of the competitors' products, it's hard to say how much of a difference there may be that's discernible to the average user.

According to Kabat, the difference is sufficient to keep the company at number one in its market, and in total, as it approaches its second birthday, it has sold over 2 million (20 lakh) cameras.

Figure 2: The brains of the Flip HD reside in the Zoran Coach 10 processor on left, while for imaging buffs, the heart of the system is the Micron image sensor on the right. That's 512Mbits of Samsung DDR2 SDRAM memory next to the Zoran chip. (Click to view full image)

With the original Ultra, the algorithms were implemented on a Zoran Coach 8 image processor. With the Flip HD, the brains of the system reside in the Zoran Coach 10.

The Zoran choice is no surprise. In fact my colleague David Carey, president of teardown specialists Portelligent, called it as soon as he heard I was taking apart the HD. Fact is, the Coach 10 has pretty much everything anyone doing a digital video and still camera could need. Quoting the spec sheet: "The COACH 10 highly integrated digital camera processor supports high ISO-6400 while maintaining image details, jitter stabilisation for both video and still photos, high definition video capture, Advanced Video Coding (H.264), MPEG-4, DivX, and still picture capture of over five frames per second at eight megapixels, using Zoran's patent-pending still and video processing technologies."

It has the HDMI interface on board, along with every other interface a designer might need to implement a system.

I made the mistake of asking Kabat (via the PR team) what image sensor the camera used, he said "the Coach 10." So much for that approach. In reality, the sensor is a Micron 1/4.5-inch HD CMOS sensor with 2.2µpixels. With those specs, it has to be the MT9M002 with 12bit on-chip ADC that was announced in March 2009.

Figure 3: The Flip UltraHD's main memory resides on the back side of the board, and comprises the Samsung 904 KMCMG0000M-B998 8Gbyte NAND flash (left) for main storage, supported by a Samsung K9F5608U0D-J1B0 256 Mbit SLC NAND flash (right).(Click to view full image)

Memory support
The third leg of the FlipHD is the memory support, which resides mainly on the back side of the board, and comprises the Samsung 904 KMCMG0000M-B998 8Gbyte NAND flash for main storage, supported by the Samsung K9F5608U0D-J1B0 256Mbit SLC NAND flash in a 9mm x 11mm FBGA package.

On the board's topside, the Zoran Coach 10 is supported by the K4T51163QE ZCE6 512Mbit DDR2 SDRAM in an FBGA package, as shown in Figure 2.

Figure 4: The Flip UltraHD's insides are exposed.

All told, and putting business issues aside, the Flip UltraHD is another excellent, easy-to-use digital camera that makes taking HD video a snap. The insides are proven technology, and the simplicity of design and user-interface improvements (such as more tactile and responsive buttons) make it clear the company is listening to its customers' feedback. An ode to even cleaner design.

- Patrick Mannion

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