Digital Video and Photo Tech Treasures [2011 Cool Yule Tools]

Like smartphones and music players, the digital video and photography category has exploded with cameras over the past few years. Rather than focusing on every model and device with an X number of megapixels, we’ve focused our attention on new ways and gadgets that incorporate photography or video in new or different ways. There are plenty of sites that cover each new camera (PC World comes to mind), rather, here are some cool gift ideas to enhance your existing camera or video device:

Watch a slideshow version of some of these products.

Products reviewed in this categoryOlloclip for iPhone, by OlloclipGE Power Pro X500 Digital CameraSportsCam DVR-460 Mini Digital Recorder, by SwannLooxcie2 wearable video camera, by LooxcieD-Link DCS-932L Wireless N Day/Night Home Network CameraHome Video Monitoring System with Skype, by LorexDVR 410 digital camcorder, by Vivitar (available at Staples)DXG 3D Camera and Viewer, by DXG USAVizit Frame, by Isabella ProductsCineSkates, by CineticsPlay video memo pad, by Native UnionVideo Spy Pen, by BrookstoneThe reviews

GE Power Pro X500 Digital CameraWhen the Cool Yule Tools Santa gave me a GE camera to test, I was worried that the flash would be a 100-watt light bulb, the zoom would sound like a jet engine, and the controls would be just like on my microwave oven. But not to worry. GE brought its strong reputation for good engineering to the world of digital cameras.

In fact, for $128, the X500 packs quite a punch. The basics are pretty impressive: 16 megapixels and a 15x wide optical zoom. But this baby is way more than a simple point and shoot. There’s image stabilization, a panorama mode that lets you stitch together several shots into one wide-angle shot, smile detection, blink detection, video capabilities, and all of the setting options that you could ever imagine.

On the plus side, I found the camera to be well designed and easy to use. There’s a nice grip with a groove for your finger, so you can hold and shoot with one hand pretty comfortably. The on-off button is a toggle that is well marked and easy to find. Same with the flash – just punch the black button and the flash pops up. All the other controls are intuitive. The 2.7-inch LCD is excellent, and there’s also a viewfinder option.

On the negative side, I did find the X500 to be somewhat slow. If you spot something and want to take a shot immediately, this might not be the camera for you. Also, the quality of indoor shots is OK, not spectacular. But for $128, I would definitely put this on my shopping list. The X500 comes in basic black or a black and white model that looks like something Darth Vader would use.

Cool Yule rating: 4 starsPrice: $128 (Amazon)Reviewed by Neal Weinberg

Olloclip for iPhone, by OlloclipThe Olloclip is a set of three tiny lenses that can clip on to an iPhone 4 or 4S, giving you a fisheye lens (180-degree field of view), a wide-angle lens (2x), and a Macro focal lens (get focus from half-inch away for really close-up shots). The fisheye and macro lens include the clip - to use the wide-angle lens, you screw that one onto the macro lens. The clip then snaps onto the corner of the iPhone 4, covering the existing lens to give you the "new" lens for photos.

You don't have to make any app adjustments, just use your camera or other app to take photos as if you had snapped on a lens on a normal camera. The system comes with two lens caps for protection and a small cloth bag that can also be used to clean the lenses.

While the digital camera on the iPhone continues to get better with each new version, it's still not as good as other separate cameras. With the addition of the Olloclip, though, you can now get some additional photos types without needing to grab a separate device.

Cool Yule rating: 5 starsPrice: $69.99Reviewed by Keith Shaw

SportsCam DVR-460 Mini Digital Recorder, by SwannThe Swann SportsCam would make an awesome gift for the adventurer in your life, especially the one with the crazy stories about the outrageous stuff they’ve done. This mini camera (a little smaller than my thumb) is so basic and simple, but can be used for so many things. First off, it’s a decent camera shooting at 640 x 480 high resolution video and sound, and can record under water up to 65 feet of depth. It can be used as a camera, video camera or webcam. It can also take still shots while it’s recording film! It’s crazy simple to operate. Besides the on switch, there is a button to record and a button to snap pictures. There is also a button to turn off the sound if you’d like. And that’s about it! There’s nothing crazy to configure if you want to make a video.

The first time you use it is also pretty simple. Take it out of the box and charge the built-in lithium-ion battery. It takes about 60 to 80 minutes to charge the device. My only real criticism about the start-up is that the camera doesn’t have a way to tell if it’s completely charged while charging. You can run a check, but at best it will only tell you if it’s between 75% to 100% charged. Also, the camera gets intensely hot when charging. Once it’s charged, you’ll need to throw in a MicroSD card. There are about a million accessories in the box, but this is not one of them. Also, that’s not labeled well on the box, so make sure you get a MicroSD along with the camera. The camera records about 20 to 30 minutes per gigabyte.

Also, I absolutely love the user’s manual (best ever!). It’s so simple and easy to follow, plus it’s the only user’s manual I have ever seen for any product that has such a sense of humor. For example, one header is “Seeing How Cool You Are (Playback).”  Setting it up with your computer and viewing your videos and pictures is also well explained.

Wearing the camera was easy. The camera comes with 16 accessories, mounts, and sleeves to help you. It has a heavy duty waterproof case (also good for blocking out the sound of wind in your video), as well as a simple silicone one. Plus it comes with arm bands, clips to attach to clothes, helmet mounts, and magnetic mounts. The only mount it doesn’t seem to come with is a chest mount. My only tip is: don’t wear the camera on the arm band while running unless you’re filming B-roll for a horror film.

I’m a fan of the simplicity of the camera, and the video was of good (not great) quality – you’ll save some great memories, but you won’t win photo competitions. This would be good for taking videos of boating trips, surfing, skateboarding, skiing, biking, hiking – really just any active activity.

Cool Yule rating: 4 starsPrice: $86.88 (Amazon)Reviewed by Jennifer Finn

Looxcie2 wearable video camera, by LooxcieImagine taking a Bluetooth hands-free headset and combining it with a video camera, and you start to get the idea of what the Looxcie is all about. It's a wearable video camera, but it's not one of those cameras like the GoPro Hero that end up getting strapped onto a helmet or bike handlebars. If you're looking for more of the "action" wearable cameras, head elsewhere.

Rather, the Looxcie is meant to provide simple video recording for people, hands-free. Many times when I'm recording my kids playing soccer, or dancing, or just goofing around, I have a camcorder in my hand and watch them on the display rather than watch them live. With the Looxcie, I can record the event and still watch it with my eyes. Quite frankly, it's a much better experience.

The company also recently launched Looxcie Live, which takes this experience a step further. When teamed up with a smartphone (Android only at the moment, iOS devices coming later), a Looxcie owner can "broadcast" the feed from their camera to other smartphone viewers (again, Android only). Web viewing is also coming soon. This allows people to record different events that others may not be able to attend live - so grandma and grandpa can watch Susie play soccer live, to give one simple example. The possibilities are many, once some of these other platforms become available (such as Apple and Web viewing).

On the downside, the camera at the moment only records 480p video, which is not very good considering that 1080p (and even 720p) cameras are plentiful. Also, wearing the camera on the side of your face (and hooking it inside your ear like a Bluetooth headset) can take some work initially. Fortunately there are some iPhone apps (LooxcieCam and LooxcieMoments) that help you with this - for example, you can broadcast to your phone to see if the camera angle is correct.

All in all, there's still some more work to be done before everyone is using one of these devices as much as they use either a video camera or a Bluetooth headset. But it's fun to see where the company will go next.

Cool Yule rating: 4 starsPrice: $150 (5 hours of storage) or $180 (10 hours of storage); Looxcie Live currently in open beta, service may charge later.Reviewed by Keith Shaw

D-Link DCS-932L Wireless N Day/Night Home Network CameraWi-Fi cameras have certainly come a long way. Many I’ve tried over the years had problems with resolution, color, brightness, or, more often than not, all three. Still, the convenience and flexibility of this class of products are undeniable, whether using them for security, surveillance, or as a webcam.

D-Link’s DCS-932 has a number of novel features, and one in particular stands way out: this is an infrared camera that can “see” in the dark. If you’ve ever seen night-vision goggles, you get the idea, and the range of applications is thus vastly expanded. The IR range is pretty limited (five meters; for you nerds out there, get a larger IR illuminator and I’ll bet your results will improve), but that’s still pretty amazing, especially in this price range. Web access to video from this type of product is becoming more common, and the mydlink.com portal lets users view and manage the camera over the Web, another amazing feature. iPhone and Android apps are also available. Other features include 300Mbps 802.11n, 4X digital zoom, and resolution of up to 640x480 at up to 20 fps. But keep in mind that AC power is required, which limits applications to some degree.

Installation was easy – connect to wired Ethernet, run the installation software (you can set up wireless at this point if you wish), set up a mydlink.com account, log in, and that was pretty much it. I was able to view the camera over the Web right away. D-Link’s mydlink.com needs some work – a firmware upgrade failed, applet downloads took a very long time (just getting to the screen for changing camera settings took minutes, including the all-too-common security warning), and in general all of this was frustratingly slow and clunky to use. But there are many configuration options and flexibility was really very good here.

Image quality, though, was disappointing. It took a bit of work to get the camera adjusted for a particular location and its given lighting conditions. Night (IR) mode, though, worked great – you won’t see any color, of course, but there’s good image definition.

Now, don’t get any funny ideas about possible James-Bond deployments. The one bright green and four bright red LEDs preclude any kind of clandestine installation, so don’t become a statistic here, OK? The D-Link DCS-932L really is a pretty good little camera – with a few improvements to the Web site, this one could be a killer.

Cool Yule rating: 4 starsPrice: $95.91 (Amazon)Reviewed by C.J. Mathias

Lorex Home Video Monitoring System with Skype Let’s just start with “I like it”.  It’s simple and it works. The handheld baby monitor is pretty basic and easy to use.  The microphone picks up everything.  I could hear the cats' paws jumping onto the window the camera was in.  That being said, you will want to keep the handheld monitor in a different room from the camera.  Feedback loops get started very fast with this.

A great and surprising feature was the picture quality and frame rate of the video when viewing it via Skype on my iPad. I could even see distant objects in the background moving when I had it in a window.   The picture on the handheld baby monitor is even better.  The detail in a well-lit location is very good.  Even the low-light picture shows up well.  A nice feature here is that the camera switches automatically when needed from regular to low light.

I had my wife do the setup of the camera and monitor without me.  She is by no means a technical novice, but she isn’t an IT tech either.  I figured this would be a good test of the instructions and ease of use.  Right out of the box she had all the components together and working in no time.  The only question she had for the initial setup was, “What router port do you want me to use?”   That was it.  The camera was working and viewable on the handheld monitor.

The only downside of this was the Skype setup. If we were on Vista/Windows 7 machines at home I have no doubt I could have made a Skype call to it before leaving the office.  The directions and setup are that easy and straightforward.  But when it comes to Macs/XP systems the instructions are “If you are connecting with Windows XP or Mac, please refer to the User's manual for more information.”  Basically you have to know how to log into your router to get an IP address for the device.  Not a problem for me.  But it might be for some other folks.  Once you can get to the web interface of the device it’s a breeze.  I was able to add the Skype account I created to it and had no problems connecting.

I give it a cool Yule rating of 4 for anyone who has a baby or just wants to watch their cats play during the day.  It would have been a 5 but for the price.

Cool Yule rating: 4 starsPrice: $399.99 (Lorex Store site)Reviewed by Tom Lupien

DVR 410 digital camcorder, by Vivitar (available at Staples)This durable, inexpensive camcorder is great for recording home videos or any special event. It features an SD card slot, a USB drive, eight scenery settings, and a photo capability. Its screen swings out 180 degrees, allowing the user to take easy self-portraits.

The video quality is fairly high, but the image resolution for the photographs is so low that they are blurry when viewed on a computer. Users may encounter difficulties installing the software necessary to view the photos. The SD card cannot be placed directly in the computer, but rather must be in the camcorder while the USB drive is in the computer. Despite these minor quirks, the Vivitar DVR 410 is simple to use and a great buy for the price.

Cool Yule Rating: 3 starsPrice: $27.39 (Amazon)Reviewed by Abigail Weinberg

DXG 3D Camera and Viewer, by DXG USAThis 3D camera is a quirky gift. It lets you snap one shot, but it will print out as a set of two. You can put those prints into a supplied 3-D viewer and see your photo in 3D, much like the old ViewMaster toys that many of us may have played with as children.

In fact, I think this camera is aimed more at children than others. If you’re going to buy it for a creative child, make sure they’re also old enough. I first thought this might be a great gift for a 5-year-old, until I started testing it. First, in order to take the 3D photo, the camera has two lenses, placed similarly to where your right and left eyes would be on a face. But the viewfinder only shows you what the right lens sees. If your left finger gets in the way, you won’t know this until after the picture has been taken. And with the two lenses, it’s easy to get your fingers in the way.

Second, it takes forever to snap a photo – I think smaller kids would move and ruin the pictures without even realizing it. In addition, there’s no flash, so your subject either needs to be in bright sunlight, or be extremely well lit. In my house, the normal lighting wasn’t cutting it, and many of my pictures came out too dark.

This doesn’t really seem like something you would take along to remember fun events or even to use daily to capture any life happening moments. Instead, the best scenario we can think is that you give this to a budding Tim Burton, to help an older child learn about setting up creative shots to see how fun 3D can be. Otherwise, I think the novelty wears off too quickly.

Cool Yule rating: 2 starsPrice: $50.97Reviewed by Jennifer FinnVizit Frame, by Isabella ProductsThere are a wide number of ways to do photo sharing, but the Vizit Frame has reduced this necessity (for an increasing number of us, anyway) to absolute simplicity by connecting the product to AT&T’s cellular network and enabling the simple MMS and e-mail transfer of photos directly to the frame. This will have obvious appeal for the less technically literate out there, who will nonetheless be thrilled to the arrival of new pictures of the grandchildren, that new bathroom, or Aunt Ruth’s cat doing something so amazing that it really should be on one of those TV network home-video shows that I never watch because I spend all my time testing products for the Network World Holiday Gift Guide. Actually, I wouldn’t watch them regardless, but I like to see new photos of the family as much as anyone.

But I digress. Product setup involves very little work – turn on the frame, register at vizitme.com, authorize users by inviting them (by e-mail or mobile number), and that’s that. Just direct new photos to <framenumber>@vizitme.com, and after a minute or two, smiles all around. The only real disadvantage to the Vizit Frame is those photos cost money to transfer – plans are available starting at $6/month, or $79/year for up to 1450 pictures sent. I think it’s wrong to send a gift that requires an additional expenditure, so be sure to include a subscription with your gift. And be sure to check local cellular coverage – if the frame’s home has no service, this puppy is a paperweight. Maybe they could add Wi-Fi to a future edition.

There are a few configuration options that one can access via the Web or by tapping (and it takes a pretty good tap, by the way) on the screen. But the Vizit Digital Photo Frame is otherwise easy to use and will prove to be a big hit with those who just love to see new photos of friends and family, and, with just a little experience, it’s easy to use and fun to watch. Image quality is excellent, and even non-techies will be comfortable with operating the device and its service after just a few minutes. So save the iPad for the heavy-duty tasks and get one of these for full-time photo fun.

Cool Yule rating: 4 starsPrice: $198.01 (Amazon)Reviewed by C.J. Mathias

CineSkates, by CineticsWith digital video cameras now on every device from a tablet to a smartphone, not to mention free-standing handheld cameras (Flip, etc.) and more traditional camcorders, let's just say there's a lot of people out there taking video. And most of it sucks, because of shaky camera work, bad lighting, bad audio or just bad content.

Cineskates at least addresses the shaky camera issue, at least for budding filmmakers looking to create fluid motion filming of different things. The idea behind them is, "What if you put skateboard wheels on a tripod?" There's a bit more to it than that, but that's the basic idea. The ready-to-go system includes a GorillaPod Focus tripod (bendable, flexible arms for creating different positions), a BallHead X camera mount, and three CineSkates.

Using the CineSkates can be tricky at first, especially when trying to align the wheels on each of the legs to be as stable as possible. But once you get the hang of it, you should be able to create a dolly-like system for filming movement and other camera angle shots with more stability than before. Also, it would be very interesting to see if they can develop CineSkates that you can attach to a standard tripod or monopod (the small size of the GorillaPod Focus tripod means you usually get ground-level angles).

If you have any budding filmmakers on your holiday list, these are worth a look.

Cool Yule rating: 4 starsPrice: $315 for the ready-to-go system; $200 for just the skates (although the other components are required); version for the iPhone 4/4S also available.Reviewed by Keith Shaw

Play video memo pad, by Native UnionThe message board that many families use to notify everyone of upcoming events, stuff to remember or even shopping list has been around for a while now – remember “The Brady Bunch” where it was basically a chalkboard hung up next to the fridge? This concept now has a video component with the Play from Native Union. The small device lets people create video messages for others, and the magnetic back can be placed on a refrigerator or other surface (it comes with a sticky-backed piece of metal in case there’s a non-magnetic surface you’d like to use). Message recipients just hit the “play” button to view the message on the 2.4-inch screen, or they can record their own message as well. You can record a message up to three minutes (180 seconds) in length, or have smaller, multiple messages stored on the device. There’s a time-and-date stamp in case you need it, and the unit runs on three AAA batteries that offer standby time up to 45 days and play time of 3 hours. There’s no computer needed, but that also means there’s no way to save any messages to a different location if you want (so don’t use this to record any cute things your kids may say).

The device is what it is – if the message for your family is something that takes too long to write down, the Play can give you a chance to record your message in video form and hang it in a location where everyone will see it (in theory).

Cool Yule rating: 3 starsPrice: $59.99Reviewed by Keith Shaw

Video Spy Pen, by BrookstoneTiny little spy devices are nothing new, you can find them in many small items these days, whether it’s in a teddy bear, a Barbie doll or an ordinary ballpoint pen. Such is the case with the Video Spy Pen by Brookstone, which offers a tiny video camera located in the top of the pen. Video is recorded onto a 4GB USB flash memory stick, which is revealed when you unscrew the pen. Recording is handled by pressing and holding a button on the top of the pen for about five seconds, then a blue light will blink indicate that you are recording. You can use the hook on the pen to place it in a shirt pocket, for example, and the camera faces outward while the blinking blue light faces inward (although if people really look closely they will notice the blinking, which kind of defeats the purpose of being inconspicuous). The pen records in 640 by 480 resolution, which isn’t really as good as regular cameras, so you don’t want to bring this to record your kids’ soccer games. Also, I had trouble recording audio with our test unit – the instructions says it records audio as well, but all of our videos played without sound. Videos are recorded in AVI format, which you can then import into video editing software if you want to upload to YouTube or edit some more.

It’s kind of an interesting idea, but the blinking light issue and audio recording features bug me, preventing me from fully recommending this as a holiday gift. Maybe in a few more years with better resolution, more capacity and a non-annoying blinking light.

Cool Yule rating: 1 starPrice: $80Reviewed by Keith Shaw

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