Cisco’s Flip cameras may have died all too soon, but fortunately it wasn’t the only good line of dead-simple, single-purpose camcorders on the market: Sony’s Bloggie cameras, aside from being horrifically named, have long been worthy pocket camcorder competition. Sony’s latest model, the Bloggie Live, takes the concept of dead-simple video recording and gives it a 2012 twist with the addition of Wi-Fi connectivity that allows for live-streaming of video, as well as a lot of simple and easy sharing options for YouTube and Picasa. At $249, it’s considerably more expensive than most other low-end camcorders, but it’s far more powerful in functionality than the Flip cameras ever were. Does the Bloggie Live improve an already-great camera, or do the extra features hurt the turn-it-on-and-press-record simplicity we loved in the Flip line? Does it even do measurably better than your smartphone’s video camera? Read on to find out.
Hardware / design
Sony's camcorders have always been nice to look at
Sony has always taken a classier approach to its Bloggie line than Cisco with the Flip camcorders, and the Live may be the best-looking Bloggie yet. It's a rectangle with rounded edges and sharp corners, with a brushed metal front and a black back. The long, skinny rectangle feels more like a phone than a camera when you're holding it (though it's considerably thicker), and thanks to the one-button-below-display look it's legitimately reminiscent of an iPhone. On the front, there's a Sony logo, the f/2.8 Sony lens, and a single LED flash, and on the back there's a 3-inch LCD and the huge Record button. There's a mini HDMI port on the right side, which lets you output to an HDTV.The power button is on the left side next to the shutter release for taking still shots, and the two are annoyingly close together — I turned the camera off a number of times when I was trying to take a photo, and vice versa — but since the shutter button is enormous and the power button quite small, it's not as bad as it could be. On the bottom is a flip-out USB arm, which the Bloggie uses to both sync and to charge. The arm is a little difficult to access, since it only pops out if you press it directly in the middle, but it doesn't feel breakable like on some other cameras. It's short, too, which makes it hard to plug in and makes it take up a lot of adjacent ports as well — there's an extender USB cable, but that kind of defeats the purpose — but it's not too heavy or too thick to plug into a laptop USB port.
The Bloggie Live may be the better-looking camera, but Flip models were smarter in their design. If you hold the Bloggie candybar-style, like the Flip, you'll get vertically oriented video — it's the same thing that happens with an iPhone, giving you big black bars on the left and right of the image instead of showing it in proper widescreen HD format. You're meant to hold the camcorder sideways, with the Record button beside the screen, like a point-and-shoot. That's fine, but I'd wager it's not how most people will intuitively hold the device, and it also makes the Bloggie harder to use in one hand. It's clearly designed this way so that you get much more viewfinder real estate holding it sideways, but it makes the Bloggie a little more confusing to use.
The LCD is a 3-inch touch-enabled display that handles every operation other than recording video or turning on the camera. It's not the best LCD I've seen on a camcorder, with individual pixels readily visible and a tendency to mute colors a bit, but it does its job fine. Its responsiveness to touch is better than I expected, too: things like zoom rarely work well as on-screen toggles, but it was mostly responsive on the Bloggie Live.
The touch experience is helped by how simple the Bloggie Live's menus are — basically everything you'd want to do is a tap or two away, and it's usually a tap on a large icon that's hard to miss. Of course, the camera's feature set is fairly limited anyway, but whether you're earmarking a video for upload, or changing shooting settings, it's all really easy and intuitive. The one frustrating thing is how often the screen rotates: the keyboard always shows up in landscape mode, and the menus in portrait, so you're constantly flipping the Bloggie around in your hands to maneuver through it. Every time the screen rotates, it also turns off for a split second before turning back on in the proper orientation, which is a pretty jarring experience — it's also really sensitive, so there's a lot of screen flickering as you hold the Bloggie Live, even if you're not trying to turn it.
Sharing is easy, streaming even easier
The most significant difference between the Bloggie Live and old Bloggie models is the new built-in Wi-Fi radio. Wi-Fi connectivity means the Bloggie never needs to be plugged in except to charge, and you can upload photos and videos from the Bloggie without needing a computer at all. You'll obviously need a Wi-Fi connection available to really take advantage, which aren't available everywhere (which might explain why the Bloggie Live comes with ads for both Verizon's and AT&T's MiFi devices), but even if you're not connected you can earmark content and it'll automatically upload when you connect again. Videos and photos can be uploaded to Facebook, YouTube, Picasa, Flickr, and oddly Dailymotion, easily the least popular of the available services. You can also use Sony's PlayMemories online service to upload and backup your photos and video, and you can also view photos and videos on your phone or tablet using the PlayMemories mobile app.
The Bloggie Live's hallmark feature, though, is its ability to livestream through Qik's video service. Setting up livestreaming requires setting up a Qik account, and logging into it from the Bloggie — then, two taps and you're streaming live. (Most of this setup you'll be able to do from a Sony website when you first get the camera, but it wasn't live for me to test during my review.) Viewers can see the stream at qik.com, and can even leave comments on the video that show up on the camera live, overlaying the display. When you're finished streaming, your video gets saved, uploaded and stored more permanently on the Qik website. The streaming is pretty seamless, though the resolution's a bummer — the camera might be able to shoot 1080p, but it'll only stream 320 x 240 footage (though you can later upload the 1080p video). The need for Wi-Fi obviously precludes livestreaming from a huge number of places out there unless you've got a MiFi in tow, but there are still plenty of use cases, and until video chat gets better on smartphones it's still a big lead for Sony.
There are a couple of quirks with the connected functions, but none are especially problematic. In order to save battery, the Wi-Fi network is off except when it's in active use, which means there's about a ten-second delay while the radio turns on every time you want to upload something. The Bloggie also tries to connect, even if it doesn't see a network it recognizes — you have to manually interrupt it before you'll get the option to connect to a new network. When you go to upload something, every service shows up as an available destination even though some won't accept video; try uploading a video to Flickr and you'll run into problems, even though the option shows up.
Image quality and performance
1080p30 and 720p60 are the two resolutions I typically use for recording video — 720p60 for anything with lots of motion, 1080p for anything else. The Bloggie Live shoots both, plus 720p30 and a couple of standard-definition resolutions. For the most part, video looks really good — Flip cameras were always the gold standard for video quality in this type of device, and the Bloggie line measures up well. Colors are clean and crisp, though 1080p video was occasionally too heavy on contrast, making the whole picture feel a bit darker than it actually was. The lens also lets in a fair amount of ambient light, so anytime I was shooting in sunlight there were stray beams of rainbow light in my footage. Audio recording is good, clean and without distortion even from very loud sounds, though it did pick up some background noise, and the occasional whooshing wind. Generally speaking, quality is better than most smartphones, but probably not notably so; the Bloggie's primary advantage is how simple it is to use, rather than a quality jump.
The Bloggie can autofocus and zoom while it's recording video, but it does a pretty poor job of both. Zoom is completely unusable — it's digital zoom, which already isn't great, but it also zooms in steps rather than smoothly, so your picture just jumps slightly closer every time you zoom in more. It looks awful. Autofocus at least works, but it works really slowly, taking upwards of three seconds to refocus when you move the camera around. Its focusing results are solid — ditto for metering and white balance — but it's slow enough to be a noticeable problem. You can avoid this problem by keeping your focus on things at a similar distance, since everything beyond about five feet will always stay in focus, but if you move from close focus to far you'll regret it. The Bloggie also had an annoying habit of starting the video out of focus, which isn't a great look. There's some image stabilization, but it's only marginally useful — if you're walking and shooting, prepare for a Cloverfield-style result, whether that's what you were going for or not.
There's 8GB of storage inside the Bloggie Live, good for a little over three hours of 1080p footage. It'll only record 29 minutes at a time, though, which could be problematic for some people (but is unfortunately a very common limitation). The battery lasts about the same period — three hours or so, less if you're stopping and starting recording frequently.
You can shoot 12-megapixel still photos with the Bloggie as well, but the results are nothing to write home about. Most camcorders add still photo capabilities as a hastily-done afterthought, and though the Bloggie's results are better than most of its competitors', they're still not good. Outdoors in good light, photos are at least usable, but the camera still has some issues: bright light gets blown out by the camera, it has a very shallow depth of field that there's no way to manually control, and lack of image stabilization means you're going to get a lot of blurry photos. Indoors or in poor lighting, pictures are either too dark or too blurry to be useful. The Bloggie Live's still shots are about on par with most smartphone cameras, as long as you follow the general cameraphone rules: don't even try to shoot moving things, and make sure you've got tons of light. You can shoot separately, or while you're recording video — the latter actually came in handy a number of times, though in that situation it shoots photos at the video's 16:9 aspect ratio
You'll shoot good video, and terrible photos
There’s an easy way to decide whether or not you should buy the Sony Bloggie Live: do you want the livestreaming and wireless uploads? If not, save your money and buy the Bloggie Touch or the Bloggie Duo, which you can get for as little as $169.99 (and probably less, now that the Live is on the market). Video quality is roughly equivalent between the three, as are most of the key features and limitations. And frankly, if you own a high-end smartphone you really don’t need a Bloggie camera at all — it’s video is better, especially at full size, but not enough to be meaningful. It’s much easier to use, though, and it’s one less drain on your phone’s battery. But if the ease of use and wireless features appeal, what Sony has done with the Bloggie Live is impressive: the company added a ton of features without taking much away from the dead-simple operation. The Bloggie Live does a lot of things well, and as long as you don’t expect video recording magic, this is a solid camera that should make you miss the Flip a lot less.