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Switched On: The camcorder's disposable, but the memories aren't

Ryan Block, @ryan

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Every Wednesday Ross Rubin contributes Switched On, an opinion column about consumer technology, multimedia, and digital entertainment:

Pure Digital camcorder

It's small, white and plays video, but it costs only $30. One look at the Pure Digital one-time use (that's marketspeak for "disposable") camcorder and you'll feel dumbfounded as to why the camcorder industry has been so slow to embrace flash memory the way that digital cameras and digital audio players have. Sure, JVC has its tiny hard disk-based Everios, and Panasonic and Sony push their respective flash card format agendas with products such as the SV-AV100 and Cybershot M1. For the mainstream of digital camcorders, though, the transition underway is from MiniDV tapes to mini-DVDs. These provide the easiest path to living room playback since the days of the original VHS camcorders, which were employed by junkyard operators to crush sedans back in the day.

In contrast, the Pure Digital camcorder is perfectly pocketable. Operating it is a joy; its interface is a case study in ease of use, lacking so much as a menu button for options. It's far less expensive than even an analog camcorder and eliminates worries about having a charged batteries or film around. Saving only twenty minutes of video may not seem like a lot, but it proved more than adequate for capturing highlights from a week-long vacation.

At roughly $50 for a finished DVD (the only way to get output from the camcorder), the camcorder costs a lot more than a disposable camera plus film development, but Pure Digital has innovated far beyond what you get from most disposable cameras. The DVD that you get back from CVS ? Pure Digital?s exclusive partner for now ? not only plays back on TVs and PCs, but boasts one of the best solutions available for sharing video online. Simply pick your clips, choose your email addresses, and the Pure Digital servers will offer your video in an appropriate format for the viewer. If you?re sending to a dial-up Mac, it will serve up low-bitrate QuickTime. If you?re sending to a broadband Windows PC, it will send high-bitrate WMV. Why can?t other camcorder companies make sharing video this seamless?

Pure Digital claims it can offer the camcorder at such low cost because the servers that it sells to its retail partners perform sophisticated video processing. In essence, they?ve taken the intelligence out of capture device and put it in the processing device. While the camcorder?s processed video may indeed beat what you get from a hacked Pure Digital camcorder, though, there are critical limits to its magic.

Pop the DVD into your DVD player and you?ll be struck by a thick black border around the video as its low resolution would look even worse scaled up to the full screen. On the PC, the ?full quality? videos are convenient to save to your PC?s hard drive without any ripping software, but are akin in quality to what you?d expect from a webcam.

Despite recent attempts from purveyors of Mickey and Mighty Mouse to convince us that low-resolution video is cool, the Pure Digital?s output compares poorly to what you?ll get out of the latest models of most digital cameras. This is especially disappointing after the input process has been so fun as you feel as if you?ve been subjected to a bait-and-switch. Despite the device?s charm, I couldn?t recommend it to anyone who cared about preserving any kind of special event.

Still, the future of the Pure Digital camcorder is bright. As flash memory vendors adroitly follow Moore?s Law, the disposable camcorders of the next year or two should be able to capture video at double the resolution and frame rate. Pure Digital has set the standard for digital video convenience and ease of use, but ultimately a quality video experience must include quality video.

Ross Rubin is director of industry analysis at NPD Techworld, a division of market research and analysis provider The NPD Group. Views expressed in Switched On, however, are his own. Feedback is welcome at
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