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Flir’s new smartphone thermal cameras double the detail

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One for pros, and one for the curious

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Flir is one of those companies that, even if you don’t know its name, you know its work. Almost any kind of infrared footage that you’ve seen, whether it’s of hot tires in Formula One, or the Boston Marathon bomber hiding in a boat, was captured with Flir cameras. But the company’s been growing a strong set of consumer tools over the last few years, with an increased focus on smartphone attachments.

The newest of those, the Flir One and the Flir One Pro, were announced this past year at CES. They are cameras that attach to your iPhone or USB-C Android phone. They each use two image sensors — the company’s Lepton sensor, which captures infrared light to measure heat, and a regular image sensor that captures visible light for detail — to create thermal images and videos that you can use for everything from home projects to just goofing off. They finally go on sale today at $199 and $399, respectively.

The 1080p CMOS sensor doesn’t take wonderful images, but they’re much more usable than they have been in the past.
The extra detail makes it easier to identify objects. Here you can even make out strands of my dog’s fur.

Why the big delta in price? The company sees the more basic, less capable Flir One as a product that satisfies a curiosity. Both it and the Pro have a 1440 x 1080 CMOS sensor, but the regular Flir One’s 80x60 thermal sensor is lower resolution than the Pro’s, and the companion smartphone app for the Flir One offers fewer customization options. It still gives you the basic abilities to do things like measure heat signatures, and essentially see in the dark, though.

The Flir One Pro, on the other hand, is the kind of thing you might be more inclined to buy if you have a legitimate need for the technology. Maybe you’re doing home renovations or fixing plumbing or you need a compact thermal imaging solution for your job but don’t want to spend thousands of dollars on Flir’s professional-grade cameras.

In that sense, splitting the Flir One into two devices was a smart move. People who just want to fool around with thermal imagery can get a Flir One for cheaper than before, and those who actually need the tech have a more advanced option that isn’t that much more expensive.

I’ve been using the Pro for a few days, and it’s a noticeable (if not revolutionary) improvement over the last version of the Flir One I tried back in 2015. The 640 x 480 CMOS sensor found in the old Flir One was good enough to create a legible representation of a given scene. The new Flir One Pro’s visible light sensor has more than double the resolution.

Combine that with the Pro’s new 160 x 120 thermal sensor, and you get sometimes startling amounts of detail when compared to what Flir’s consumer products have offered in the past. That’s not just a higher number on the page. The boost in resolution makes it easier to understand what you’re actually looking at in these thermal images. They’re less likely to just look like blobs of blue and red. The outlines of shapes are more distinct, and people’s eyes, for example, now pop in a very noticeable way.

Now, the images that the Pro’s visible light sensor takes are still a far cry from what your smartphone’s integrated camera is capable of. But you could use one of these photos in a pinch, especially in a work environment where quality is secondary to just capturing detail.

The Flir One Pro has more options than ever for tinkering in the app. But the best thing about the way the app broadly works is that nothing’s ever final — you can always go back after taking a picture and decide to remove the thermal information, or add new temperature measurement points, or adjust the mix of detail and heat.

There’s a lot of control at your fingerprints, even if some parts of the app still need work — the interface for adding multiple heat measurement points is a mess, for example. Flir has spent the last few years building a robust and dynamic system for something that is only ever going to occupy a niche. It’s still not perfect, but it’s better than ever.