Two Lenses are Better than One - Twin Video review

12/31/2010 07:54 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Overall rating:
As a fun toy: A
As a vlogger/journalists' tool: A-
The Good: Useful tool and fun, clever toy
The Bad: Standard def; "Me" image is mirrored and "Me" lens should be wider (see end of review for explanations)
The Ugly: None.

Buy it: Amazon, about $100.

Ever wished you had eyes in the back of your head? Yes? Sorry, can't help you there.

Ever wished your Flip-style video cam had eyes in the back of its head? No? Maybe you should, and maybe you should consider the Twin Video handheld video camera by Ion Audio.

Yes, it sounds strange to buy a video camera from a company with "audio" its name, but this quirky company even offers a heated blanket with sleeves. Go figure.

But back to the Twin Video. The basic idea is simple: the camera has two lenses and two mics - one pair on the front of the unit and one pair on the back. With the press of a button, you can go from recording what's in front of you to recording yourself. The button is labeled You/Me because that's who you'll be recording. The label's hard to read, but you'll be familiar with the button in an instant anyway. Perhaps a picture will help:

Essentially, this is two cameras, two mics and an A/B switcher, all in the palm of your hand. A simple idea, but very clever, and no one else seems to offer such a unit.

A 2.3" LCD screen shows you the scene being recorded. When you press the You/Me button, the video freezes for a brief instant, then changes to the other view (i.e., from You to Me or vice versa). In addition, two red LEDs - again, one on the front and one on the back - alert you and your subject as to which one of you is live. Ok, here's another pic:

Now, why would you want this clever camera? If you're a vlogger or journalist, the answer is easy: you can start an interview with an intro in which you're talking to the camera, press the You/Me button and interview your subject, then press the button again and do a closing commentary (an outro). It's a great device for one-man-band, on the run web journalism.
If you're just in it for the fun, check out this YouTube video for an idea of how to play with this cool camera:

The camera would also make a nice accessory when you go out clubbing. In fact, it might make a good pickup toy.

Now, there are alternative devices. For instance, the Sony MHS-PM5 (Amazon, $130) is HD, whereas the Twin Video is standard def (640 x 480, 30 fps). But the Sony unit has a single lens on a swivel mount. That's not as seamless as the You/Me button. It might be ok for fun, but watching the world spin on video isn't the coolest thing. And, anyway, it's certainly no good for vloggers and journalists.

So, let's go to the out of box experience. There's a lot to like: the battery is replaceable and arrived well-charged. A 2 GB SD card is included (good for about 50 mins. of mp4 video). There's a handle that's nicely weighted and screws into the camera's standard tripod base - and, in a thoughtful touch, the base of the handle itself is threaded, but for a standard mic stand, offering a versatile option for schools and music settings.

The package also includes a wired remote for the You/Me button - useful when you want to avoid shaking the camera when switching between You and Me, especially if you have the unit mounted on a tripod. It would have been helpful, though, if the remote also controlled the record button, so that starting and ending the recording wouldn't produce camera shake either.

There's also a hand strap - it's buried underneath the packing materials and isn't mentioned on the instruction sheet, so be sure you don't accidentally throw it out with the packaging.

The included soft case is nice, but could use a second zipper, so that the unit could be more easily stored with the handle on. That's still possible though; it just looks slightly odd, since you only zip on one side. Another alternative is to pop the camera and accessories into a small camera bag, such as the cheapo America Tourister 1801BK Journey Photo Bag (Amazon, under $1) that I had lying around.

About that instruction sheet: it has details on the product's buttons and controls, but doesn't actually have installation instructions per se. So read through the sheet to learn how to install the battery and SD card, and how to get started. It's pretty straightforward.

I found it strangely difficult to close the small plastic cover over the SD card slot. It's just hard to get it to fit right. Keep at it though, and it closes tight. On the other side of the unit, the cover for the USB and remote jacks is easier to close.

A couple indicators aren't explained on the generally good instruction sheet: there's a green light that means the unit is charging (via the included USB cable; unlike the Flip cameras, a cable is needed). The light doesn't turn off or change color when charging is complete, however. There's also an "M" that appears on screen if there's no SD memory card inserted.

When connected to a PC via the USB cable, the camera appears to the computer as a USB mass storage device. You can just drag and drop files right from the camera to your PC. Or you can use the included MediaImpression 2 software, but there's really no reason to bother, since the software doesn't offer any real functionality. In fact, when I tried using the software to delete a single clip from the camera, all of them got deleted. I don't know if this was user error or a bug, but it didn't make me happy.

Speaking of software, what PC users could really use is a simple video editor. Each sequence you shoot with the camera is a separate MP4 clip, so if you want to combine them, you'll need a video editor. Mac users have iMovie, and PC users can find freeware online (try searching for freeware edit video) or buy a full-featured package such as Pinnacle Studio, but it would still have been nice if PC users could do some simple video editing out of the box, as they can with the software included with a Flip camera.

Back to hardware: The unit feels well-constructed, albeit not quite as tight and solid as a Flip. There's no AV out, despite a label to the contrary on the plastic cover that covers the USB and remote jacks. That will bother some people, but here's a workaround: if your TV has a USB input, try connecting the Twin to that. This arrangement worked great on my LG bigscreen. As expected for a standard def image on an HD TV, there was some jaggy artifacting of vertical lines (such as an image of books in a bookshelf), but overall the quality was good.

The unit is compatible with XP SP2, Vista, Windows 7, and MacOS 10.3.9 or later.

Now let's look at a few quirky things about the camera.

One thing I noticed immediately was that the speaker volume during playback was much too low. The company came around to my thinking on this and sent me a beta firmware patch that solved the problem. It's unclear when or whether the patch will be publicly available though. I'm checking with the company on that.

Sticking with sound for a minute: there's a switch on the unit for controlling the microphone gain (sensitivity). The low setting is useful only if you're in a loud club or interviewing someone operating a jackhammer. Otherwise, keep the switch set on high, and be careful that it doesn't accidentally switch to low when you pull the camera out of the somewhat tight case.

Now to picture. I already mentioned that this is a standard definition camera. CES is coming up in a few days and I'm crossing my fingers that Ion will announce an HD version.

There are white LED lights on both sides of the camera that you can activate in the settings menu in order to illuminate your subject. However, these lights are way too bright for anyone standing within 5 feet or so of the unit. You may want to put a bit of translucent (i.e., semi-transparent) Scotch tape over the LEDs to diffuse the glare. It may look dorky, but professionals are always making random DIY mods to their cameras and you really don't want people (yourself included) squinting into the lens while you're shooting.

Now we get to a couple points that bothered me enough to slightly lower the camera's letter grade when used by vloggers and journalists.

The unit has a digital zoom, but even with the camera zoomed out, the Me lens is focused too close for optimal interviewing purposes. That means that you (the interviewer) can't get your whole head in frame (let alone head and shoulders) without holding the unit at arm's length. That, in turn, means the interview subject needs to be a bit farther from you than is desirable. It also increases camera shake, because it's harder to hold a camera steady when your arms are extended than when they're not.

Now the quirkiest part. In the Me setting the unit is creating a mirror image, so that (for example) signage in the background reads backward, wedding rings are on the wrong hands, etc. Displaying a mirror image helps ensure that the user isn't confused by reversal on the LCD screen when they're recording, but it's too bad this isn't controllable via a setting. It was odd and disconcerting to play back a file and see the position of everything behind me reversed! And if your face or hairstyle happen to be visibly asymmetric (hey, it happens), or you're wearing a cap with a logo, you may find the result quite strange.

Even with these minor quirks, this is a great camera for vloggers and journalists. The unique Me/You switching allows for polished presentations that can be immediately uploaded. I don't know of any other product that let's you do that. It's a handy tool.

And for boys and girls of any age who just wanna have fun, this two-lensed toy may just make you the coolest kid on the block...