A Camera That Honors the Flip
This column might look like a review of Casio’s radically designed Tryx camera. But it’s really a thinly disguised defense of single-purpose gadgets.
The Tryx ($250) is a very simple camera. It has only two buttons. It has no optical zoom. It doesn’t have an image stabilizer. You can’t remove the battery. You can’t set the aperture or shutter speed. Casio is calling it “the Flip of still cameras.”
That, of course, is a reference to the incredibly simple Flip pocket camcorder. People loved the Flip because it worked: the first time, every time. When something happened worth filming, you pressed the big red button on the back. You didn’t mess with tapes or disks or menus or mode dials or flipping out a screen.
That’s why the Flip became outrageously popular. Its maker sold two million Flips in the first six months. It became the No. 1 bestselling camcorder on Amazon.com , and remained there ever since. As of last month, its sales represented 37 percent of all camcorders, and kept climbing.
And then Cisco killed it.
That’s right. Two years ago, Cisco bought the Flip for $590 million. Then last month, it shut down the whole division and fired 550 people. The blogosphere reverberated with a rationale: “Smartphones killed it. Nobody needs a dedicated recording machine when the phone can record video.”
But if that were true, then Flip sales would not have still been climbing at the time of its demise. If that were true, we wouldn’t still be buying 35 million still cameras a year (phones have still cameras, too). If that were true, nobody would buy GPS units for their cars.
Phone photography, phone video and phone GPS have their places. But they’re different places. They’re additional places. They don’t replace single-purpose gear in their traditional roles. You’re not going to take iPhone pictures of your wedding. Normal people don’t suction-cup their phones to their windshields for navigation. And you won’t be able to fire up the video app on your phone in time to catch your toddler’s sudden adorable burst of singsong.
No, Cisco killed the Flip for its own business reasons — primarily to demonstrate to shareholders, after last year’s stock nose dive, that it’s serious about focusing on its core businesses.
All right, rant over. Now then: the Tryx. This gadget isn’t just dedicated to a single purpose. It’s also dedicated to a single audience: young, fun-loving adults.
It has a lot going for it. First is the wild design. At first glance, it looks exactly like an iPhone: a thin, black slab. And you can use it that way, holding it as you would an app phone.
But the outer edge is, in fact, a sturdy rectangular frame. The body of the camera connects to a hinge at one end of it. You can push it around the hinge in a complete circle, through the frame and back around again. It’s a little bit like those toy gyroscopes. The outer metal circles don’t move — you can grip that framework while the flywheel spins madly inside. (That’s the best analogy I could think of. Leave me alone.)
Once the camera body is rotated away from its starting position, you can also tip it up or down 270 degrees on a second pivot point, so that it points more toward the sky or the ground. Very trycky indeed.
This design makes possible a bunch of neat shooting options. The swiveling camera clicks at 90-degree stopping points, but there’s enough friction that you can stop it at any point. So you can use the frame as a tripod, propping the camera at any angle. You can use the frame as a hanger, so the camera dangles from a branch or wall nail or lamp knob, for superstable shooting. And because the lens is on the frame and not the body, self-portraits are a piece of cake, too.
In these configurations, you’ll usually want to be able to fire the shot without pressing the shutter button. There’s a self-timer, of course, but also a really cool motion-activated shutter. On the supersharp, three-inch touch screen, you drag a hand icon wherever you want — say, the upper-right corner. Then, once you’ve stepped into the frame, you move your hand to that spot in the composition, and wave. Two seconds later, the shot fires. You can wave again for another shot, and another. Absolutely brilliant.
The Tryx's bag of tricks.
When you’re capturing video, you can grip the empty frame as a handle; the whole affair looks like you’re holding a traditional camcorder, since the camera body flips 90 degrees away in either direction (lefties, rejoice!). It’s like, yes, the Flip camcorder; there’s no zoom and no stabilization, and the video looks terrific (1080p high definition). There’s an HDMI jack right on the camera, so you can connect it directly to a TV for playback.
The name Tryx is apropos for a couple reasons. In addition to all of those body-frame tricks, this camera does some pretty rocking photographic tricks, too. Its Slide Panorama mode lets you whip the camera around you in space; it snaps many photos and then stitches them together into one enormously wide panorama, instantly and incredibly well. It’s a lot like the extremely useful Sweep Panorama mode on Sony cameras, except that on the Casio, your panorama can capture a full 360-degree circle around you.
The touch screen harbors a few tricks of its own. Instead of using the tiny shutter button next to the screen, you can tap anywhere on the screen itself to fire the shot. You can use two-finger, iPhone-style pinch-and-spread techniques to zoom into a photo you’ve taken. You can drag across the screen to flip through your pictures.
The image on the screen always flips upright, no matter what crazy angle you’ve twisted it into. When you twist the camera body upright, you can even film tall, skinny videos.
What a weird, weird camera. Sometimes it seems like a Flip camcorder, in that it’s fast, fun and fumble-proof. Sometimes it feels like a point-and-shoot camera (an Advanced menu lets you adjust the exposure, white balance and ISO — light sensitivity — but not manual focus, aperture or shutter speed). Sometimes it seems like a phone; for example, it has an LED video light instead of a real flash. (At the moment, in fact, the Tryx has no still camera flash at all; Casio says that a coming software update will turn the LED light into a flash for stills.)
The photos are slightly better than a phone’s, but not as good as, say, those from a Canon pocket camera. There’s a softness to them, a tendency to “blow out” the bright areas into pure white, and some pretty bad distortion at the edges of the frame. (That’s a side effect of the camera’s extremely wide-angle 21mm lens.) Since there’s no stabilization, there are plenty of ruined blurry shots in low light.
Now, most people should probably opt for something more traditional; for the same money, you can get much better pictures.
There’s still value in Casio’s crazy experiment, though. Many of the Tryx’s ideas — the wave shutter, multitouch screen, the frame concept, 360-degree panoramas — deserve to live on in other, future cameras. And many among Casio’s intended audience — those fun-loving young adults — will get a lot of joy out of this camera. Especially if the price drops, as Casio hints that it will in a few months.
The bottom line: the Tryx is great-looking, superslim, a blast to use and almost Flip-simple. Above all, it’s solid evidence that there’s value in a single-purpose gadget.