Teardown: Inside Cisco’s Flip UltraHD digital camcorder

Commack, NY &#151 Six weeks to the day after being bought by Cisco Systems for $590 million in what the New York Times called a head scratcher of an acquisition, Pure Digital announced the Flip HD , the latest chapter in its runaway digital camcorder success story. Of course, I just had to tear it apart.

The NYT blogger wasn't the only one left scratching their heads. It turns out that both Cisco and Pure Digital too may be wondering where the synergies may lie. Clearly Cisco is making inroads into consumer electronics and likes anything that pumps video over IP networks. But does it really need to own a company that enables that? Might it not be better off partnering with all the video-acquisition/sharing options now emerging to compete with Pure Digital to get video over its networking equipment, where its bread is truly buttered?

While the Pure Digital deal has now closed, Cisco was itself wondering up until recently what to do with the acquisition. Its Cisco Mobile blogs have solicited ideas from the 'community' on what to do with the Flip and its promotion videos on the acquisition discuss the clear value of Flip video technology, but not what Cisco can do to augment it: The company has yet to state what it can do in that regard. Wi-Fi connectivity comes to mind, of course, given Cisco's acquisitions over the years (remember Radiata?, then Linksys, Airespace, and more recently, an investment in Celano).

For its part, Pure Digital clearly comes out a winner in the deal. According to Scott Kabat, director of marketing for Pure Digital, Cisco has scale and technology that, “will help us get bigger and expand our markets and technology.” At a time when Sony, Kodak and other consumer giants are hot on Pure Digital's video tail, Cisco's interest comes at a good time.

So, with $590 million on the table, it still seems odd that, when I spoke with Kabat at the end of April, the two companies, “are only beginning to explore areas of collaboration.” End of biz talk. On to the insides.

The Flip HD
The Flip HD 's main features are: 8 Gbytes of memory for 2 hours of high-definition video (vs. 1 hour for the minoHD) at 1280×720 resolution; a 2-inch screen; a rechargeable battery pack; a mini-HDMI output and selling price of $199. See full list of specs here. Basically, for the same price as the Flip Ultra, which I tore down over a year ago (see that teardown here) , you get 4x the memory, 2x the resolution (vs VGA), a larger screen, rechargeable battery and the HDMI interface instead of NTSC.

Fig. 1: On the outside, the Flip UltraHD looks like its predecessor–and its competition. Unfortunately, so does its insides, except for updated chips. Photo courtesy of a PR spec sheet.

As with the Ultra, I'm again taken by the simplicity of the design and its ease of use, though it's getting harder to differentiate it from the competition, such as Kodak’s Zi6, a fact that adds to the mystery of why Cisco would buy, at such a high cost, a company with a product that is so easy to emulate . At least at face value (USB snap-out interface, easy video sharing, point and shoot etc)

But remember, Pure Digital's secret sauce lies in its video processing algorithms, particularly with respect to exposure control (again, refer to my original teardown for more detail on this).

So, without side-to-side A/B tests of the competitors' products, it's hard to say how much of a difference there may be that's discernible to the average user.

According to Kabat, the difference is sufficient to keep the company at number one in its market, and in total, as it approaches its second birthday, it has sold over 2 million cameras.

With the original Ultra, the algorithms were implemented on a Zoran Coach 8 image processor. With the Flip HD, the brains of the system reside in the Zoran Coach 10.

Click on image to enlarge.

Fig. 2: The brains of the Flip HD reside in the Zoran Coach 10 processor on left, while for imaging buffs, the heart of the system is the Micron image sensor on the right. That's 512 Mbits of Samsung DDR2 SDRAM memory next to the Zoran chip.

The Zoran choice is no surprise. In fact my colleague David Carey, president of teardown specialists Portelligent, called it as soon as he heard I was taking apart the HD. Fact is, the Coach 10 has pretty much everything anyone doing a digital video and still camera could need. Quoting the spec sheet: “The COACH 10 highly integrated digital camera processor supports high ISO-6400 while maintaining image details, jitter stabilization for both video and still photos, high definition video capture, Advanced Video Coding (H.264), MPEG-4, DivX, and still picture capture of over five frames per second at eight megapixels, using Zoran's patent-pending still and video processing technologies.”

It has the HDMI interface on board, along with every other interface a designer might need to implement a system.

Fig. 3: The Zoran Coach 10, the brains of the Flip HD, has almost everything a designer needs to implement a high-definition video and still-image camera

I made the mistake of asking Kabat (via the PR team) what image sensor the camera used, he said “the Coach 10”. So much for that approach. In reality, the sensor is a Micron 1/4.5 inch HD CMOS sensor with 2.2-micron pixels. With those specs, it has to be the MT9M002 with 12-bit on-chip ADC that was announced in March 2009 (see EETimes' story).

The third leg of the FlipHD is the memory support, which resides mainly on the back side of the board, and comprises the Samsung 904 KMCMG0000M-B998 8-Gbyte NAND flash (if you find a spec sheet, let me know, I'll add it in) for main storage, supported by the Samsung K9F5608U0D-J1B0 256 Mbit SLC NAND flash in a 9×11-mm FBGA package.

Click on image to enlarge.

Fig. 4: The Flip UltraHD's main memory resides on the back side of the board, and comprises the Samsung 904 KMCMG0000M-B998 8-Gbyte NAND flash (left) for main storage, supported by a Samsung K9F5608U0D-J1B0 256 Mbit SLC NAND flash (right).

On the board's topside, the Zoran Coach 10 is supported by the K4T51163QE ZCE6 512-Mbit DDR2 SDRAM in an FBGA package, as shown in Fig. 2 above.

Click on image to enlarge.

Fig. 5: The Flip UltraHD's insides exposed.

All told, and putting business issues aside, the Flip UltraHD is another excellent, easy-to-use digital camera that makes taking high-def video a snap. The insides are proven technology and the simplicity of design and user-interface improvements (such as more tactile and responsive buttons) make it clear the company is listening to its customers' feedback. An ode to even cleaner design.

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