In spite of Cisco's lack of faith in the market for budget standalone camcorders, a number of companies such as Kodak and Samsung have carried on. Most notable among them, though, might be Sony, which has continued to innovate with its Bloggie line. The company's latest offering, the Bloggie Live adds WiFi to the equation, for wireless file transfers and, as the name not-so-subtly implies, live-streaming. But are these features enough to keep buyers interested in pocket camcorders, or is this too little, too late in a world where video-capturing smartphones are the norm?
Sony Bloggie Live
Sony really knows how to make a stunning piece of hardware, and the Bloggie Live is no exception, especially compared to its borderline disposable competitors. It's a solid little device with a bit of heft at 5.2 ounces, and a body measuring 2.4 x 4.3 x 0.8 inches -- roughly the size of an iPhone, but a little narrower and thicker, thanks to that curved face. It'll slip in your pants or shirt pocket, making it easy to carry on the go, preparing for those unexpected moments of America's Funniest Home Videos fodder that spring up from time to time.
The curved front is made from that brushed aluminum you might find on a laptop or tablet, with a hole where the lens and surprisingly, borderline-blindly flash live. A small Sony logo juts out slightly toward the bottom. The metal front is quite slick and adds to what is a really solid build feel for the product, a far cry from the early days of plastic Flip cameras. The metal does conduct heat fairly quickly, however, and the camera gets pretty warm if left on for a while.
The bottom of the camera is flat, making it possible to stand is up for stationary shots. Sadly, the curved sides don't make it possible to do the same for shooting in landscape mode, and anything that gives preference to shooting in portrait orientation gets a big frowny face from us. The bottom of the device also houses the retractable USB arm that's been a staple of pocket camcorders since the early days. Rather than opting for the customary button, however, the arm is triggered when pressed, which has surely saved Sony a bit of real estate on the device. The inclusion of a stationary arm, however, means that the device will be tricky to navigate through crowded USB hubs. Thankfully, the company took the extra step of including a USB extension cord, which address the issue quite well. The tripod hole is located on the bottom, as well, which again presents that whole portrait orientation problem. Come on, Sony, be part of the solution here.
The power and camera buttons are located along a silver swath on the curved left side of the device -- as with the rest of the design, Sony clearly paid a lot of attention to aesthetics here. Rather than requiring a standalone button to toggle between stills and video, you can do either from the main screen of the device. We did have some trouble with the placement of the still image button, however -- it's quite easy to trigger the feature accidentally when holding the camera in portrait (let that be a cautionary tale).
On the right side are holes for attaching a lanyard and a door for the HDMI port. There's no slot for expandable memory on the device, however, a feature that's long been neglected on this class of products. The built-in 8GB should probably do the trick for most users, but as companies are working to set themselves apart from the competition, hopefully the option will become standardized at some point.
The rear of the Bloggie showcases a three-inch screen -- an impressive size for this manner of device. The TFT LCD is nothing to write home about, but it should do the trick for shooting and playback. The screen also features touch functionality, reducing the need for physical buttons and thereby clearing room for the increased display real estate. There's no multitouch here so you won't be pinching to zoom any time soon, not surprisingly. The display also isn't too responsive -- it's hardly as zippy as the average smartphone, but it gets the job done. The decision to abandon physical buttons for things like play / pause and zoom also means that you're going to have to take off the gloves or invest in a special touchscreen-friendly pair, if you want to capture some footage of the kids sledding in a blizzard.
Record still gets its own button, however, and it's a big one, located directly beneath the display -- a nice placement for both portrait and landscape shooting. Sony has the metal button flush with the rest of the back, which means that you won't accidentally start recording when the camcorder is placed on a table screen-down. To the left of the record button is a small speaker, which doesn't get particularly loud -- and as with most pocket camcorders, there's no headphone jack option. The even greater oversight is the lack of a mic jack -- though again, this is the sort of feature that tends to be overlooked on these sorts of budget devices. After all, the camcorder is really designed for simple point-and-shoot recording -- still, it would be a great option, moving ahead.
Starting up the Bloggie is quite speedy -- the little camcorder starts up in about two seconds. Thanks to the aforementioned touchscreen functionality, navigating around the Bloggie's menus is a breeze. At start-up, the display is mostly devoid of image overlays, save for an on-screen button for turning the flash off and on and a zoom scroller at the bottom of the screen. With a tap, you'll get more info at the top of the screen, including the image quality, the amount of recording time you've got and the battery level. On the bottom, you get buttons for menu and playback. Clicking the latter will bring up a gallery of stills and videos on the device, cataloged by date. Touch the one you want, to view it -- you can also flip through these with a swipe.
Hitting menu brings up all sorts of options. From here you can adjust the settings, choosing between 12, eight or two megapixels and full HD (1080 30p), HD sport (720 60p) and plain old boring HD (720 30p). If you've got PlayMemories Mobile installed, you can transfer images to a nearby tablet or smartphone -- sadly, however, the app isn't available for all that many mobile devices, at the moment. Creating a PlayMemories online account, meanwhile, lets you wirelessly transfer images and videos to that site, for viewing via mobile devices that don't have the app installed.
It's features like these that really drive home the importance of built-in WiFi, the ability to circumvent the PC entirely to upload videos -- it certainly beats the clunky uploading software traditionally installed on these devices. You can also share photos and videos via Facebook, YouTube, Picasa, Flickr and Dailymotion in preview mode. The process takes a few clicks -- and you'll have to utilize the passable virtual keyboard to log into each, the first time. Of course, if you want to do any editing you're still going to have to plug the thing in -- in that case, you can simply drag files off of the camcorder onto your desktop.
It's the live streaming feature, however, that Sony has really made the centerpiece of the device. The company seems under the impression that the next step in the evolution of pocket camcorder involves using the device to broadcast the events of your life in real-time. The feature requires an account with Qik.com, which, unlike most of the of the aforementioned sites, we weren't already signed up with before picking up the camera. Unfortunately, the WiFi was a bit buggy on the model we tested, and we couldn't quite get the live-streaming feature to work.
The idea of broadcasting pieces of one's life Justin.tv style is certainly a compelling one, though it's hard to imagine that the feature would be enough to bring too many people over to the world of pocket camcorders, especially given the fact that it's a feature most smartphones can duplicate with the right app -- and it's worth pointing out, of course, that unlike a cell phone, the Bloggie requires that you be around a working WiFi network to stream said content. Unless you're the sort who has a MiFi on you at all times, this could prove a massive oversight for a number of users.
Image and video quality
Let's get this out of the way: if shooting stills is your primary end game, do not buy the Bloggie Live. Think of the ability to take pictures as more of an added bonus. Really, in spite of the prominently highlighted fact that the camcorder rocks 12.8 megapixels, the Bloggie still relies on a a video sensor, which means that you're not going to get the same sort of photos you would on, say, a point-and-shoot. This is more decent cell phone level we're talking about, and the 4x digital zoom will only serve to degrade those images further -- zoomed in completely, the image has a tremendous amount of noise.
Video-wise, you'll get somewhere between a cell phone and point-and-shoot here. Video is sharp as long it's still -- walking around with the camera does downgrade quality a fair amount. Zooming in makes things even worse -- but such are the pitfalls of opting for digital over optical zoom. The zoom itself is also quite choppy -- a fairly common problem with these sorts of budget camcorders. If you do have to use it, you're well advised to get the shot all zoomed and framed before hitting the big record button. Zooming in close also gives the auto-focus feature a bit of trouble -- you can see it struggle and fail to put the image into focus.
Sony's Bloggie Live is undoubtedly one of the best pocket camcorders we've seen. The company has really carried the torch for the now-defunct Flip line and made it its own. It's a surprisingly great looking piece of hardware for a category where such things are often neglected, with some solid feature additions, like the touchscreen and built-in WiFi, which make it just that much more appealing.