Seeking a substitute for the popular Flip, Dominic Norrish checks out the Samsung HMX-W200
Samsung HMX-W200Samsung HMX-W200Over the last three or four years, in schools up and down the country, the dinky and memorably-named Flip camera has emerged as the de facto approach to providing pupils with a simple video and photography device.

Child’s play to use with its minimal buttons and pop-out USB connector to plug straight into a PC, classrooms saw the benefits of the shift in learning outcomes such a device affords. It was cheap too, with various flavours available for less than £100, putting a half-class set within reach of schools. Sadly, this great little product has been discontinued. Is there a natural successor or will smartphones fill the gap?

Since this announcement earlier this year, the education sector has been looking for the next Flip – an affordable, rugged device with no stealable parts which will shoot video and photos in an unfussy way and allow pupils to get this material into their work as easily as possible. Could Samsung’s new HMX-W200 be the answer we’ve been looking for?

Suitably ruggedised, the Samsung survived a drop from a table

On first impressions, the answer appears to "Yes". Roughly the same size and barely a few grams heavier than the Flip Ultra HD, the metal and plastic  W200 will fit fairly comfortably in the hands of young children (key stage 1 and upwards). At around £85, it certainly hits the right price point. It is also suitably ruggedised to survive a classroom environment and multiple casual users; the buttons have a chunky, permanent feel and its designers claim it’s shockproof when dropped from heights of up to two metres. I knocked mine off a table – in the interests of scientific discovery, naturally – and it kept right on videoing regardless.

As the W200 records in MPEG-4 format, it works natively with Windows Live Movie Maker (though not the older XP version, so bear this in mind if you rely on older netbooks). This is a boon for pupils who may be more familiar with Microsoft’s free video editing package than anything else, and it’s fantastic that there is no tedious or baffling transcoding  step between shooting and editing – simplicity itself for learners.

My footage imported straight into Apple's iMovie without a hitch too. The camera also hosts Samsung's own editing package which transfers to and launches on a PC when the device is plugged in, but this can happily be ignored.

The W200 has some great features which arguably push it beyond the Flip. First, it is possible to pause while in the middle of recording and then un-pause to carry on. This stops the camera from making a series of separate clips which need editing together and simplifies children’s use of video even further. It is also waterproof, which gives scope for some interesting footage from imaginative film-makers. The camera boasts "full HD" resolution of 1920 x 1080 pixels at 25 frames per second as well as Digital Image Stabilisation (compensating for the shakiness of a handheld), which overall makes for very high quality footage.

However, there are a number of design issues for teachers to be aware of: the lens is only protected by a slight lip and there is very little to prevent the 2.3-inch front screen from being scratched. In addition, the panels which hide the memory card slot and USB port pop out at 90 and 180 degrees respectively and look decidedly snappable by over-curious little fingers. These panels have been added to achieve waterproofing but they could present a serious weakness in a school context.

Samsung W200Battery life is adequate at two hours (though expect under an hour of continuous videoing) but charging and secure storage, an important requirement for schools, is problematic as this is done by plugging the W200 into a computer and there is no easy way to manage this with more than a few devices. After-market solutions have been developed for just this purpose in the case of the iPod Touch but it’s likely to be a while before anything similar becomes available for this Samsung device.

Perhaps the most negative issue is the camera’s USB port itself. The point of this feature is that a learner can go straight from video capture to editing and using the footage in seconds, by plugging the camera directly into a laptop or PC. The problem with the W200’s port is it's short, making it difficult to insert into a slot if anything is plugged into an adjacent socket.

When this design feature combines with a small amount of lateral movement in the port (in my device, at least), and the fact that the camera’s entire weight hangs off this point, plugging the Samsung into a PC becomes a bigger challenge than using it to shoot video. Trying to insert it blind into a rear USB slot on a computer serves as a useful measure of one’s patience threshold. Mine was six seconds, then the camera’s shock-proofing underwent an unscheduled re-test.

There are a few other minor shortcomings to think about, particularly its performance when taking pictures. The lack of any optical zoom (claiming "1x optical zoom" on the spec sheet is somewhat disingenuous, if technically accurate), the lag between the viewfinder’s display and shutter release and the relatively average "stills" the W200 achieves makes it a mediocre replacement for a standard digital stills camera.

More complex than Flip and not as natural a fit for schools

More serious is the complexity of the interface compared with the simplicity of the Flip means there are many more buttons on the face of the camera. The W200’s record/ select button is particularly difficult to operate and appears to have two stops, one halfway and one fully depressed – this is likely to frustrate young or occasional users. All my footage began and ended with a blur of movement as the camera moved in my hand due to the force needed to engage and disengage the record button.

Another deal-breaker for many schools may be the fact that the W200 has no internal memory, relying on (though not providing) MicroSD or MicroSDHC cards which can easily be lost or stolen. However, the upside of this is that capacity can be extended to 32Gb (at a cost of around £25) but a 2Gb card (costing £3) gives only around 15 minutes recording time at the highest quality setting.

Having just recounted a lengthy list of the W200’s possible weaknesses, don't forget that the Flip was a limited product in many ways. However, it did the simple stuff very, very well and fitted fairly naturally into the school environment – and this is where the Samsung’s potential problems lie for school use. It is certainly an affordable, high-quality and very functional device with a multitude of clever features, but it’s far from perfect for the classroom. Its USB port, pop-out panels, removable storage, management overhead and sticky record button present various minor hurdles to its ease of use by pupils, and this is, in the final analysis, is probably all you need to know. My search for the next Flip continues.

Ratings (out of 5)
Fitness for purpose   2.5
Ease of use               3
Features                    5
Quality                       4
Value for money        5

Samsung HMX-W200 camera

Pocket video camera that also takes 'stills' (roughly 1x2x4 inches), waterproof to 10 feet and drop-proof to 6 feet, high definition (1920 x 1080 pixels at 25 frames per second) with Digital Image Stabilisation. Has flip-out USB connector, mini-HDMI slot and on-board editing software for PC. Requires MicroSD memory card.
Price: around £85 from online outlets

Dom NorrishDominic Norrish is an ICT consultant for Novatia plc and works nationally with existing and new-build schools