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

Take a picture, it will last longer!

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 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:

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 Olloclip

GE Power Pro X500 Digital Camera

SportsCam DVR-460 Mini Digital Recorder, by Swann

Looxcie2 wearable video camera, by Looxcie

D-Link DCS-932L Wireless N Day/Night Home Network Camera

Home Video Monitoring System with Skype, by Lorex

DVR 410 digital camcorder, by Vivitar (available at Staples)

DXG 3D Camera and Viewer, by DXG USA

Vizit Frame, by Isabella Products

CineSkates, by Cinetics

Play video memo pad, by Native Union

Video Spy Pen, by Brookstone

GE E1680W Digital Camera, by General Electric

The 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 stars

Price: $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 stars

Price: $69.99

Reviewed 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 stars

Price: $86.88 (Amazon)

Reviewed by Jennifer Finn

Looxcie2 wearable video camera, by Looxcie Imagine 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 stars

Price: $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 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 account, log in, and that was pretty much it. I was able to view the camera over the Web right away. D-Link’s 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 stars

Price: $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. 

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