First Review of the FLIR First Mate HM224 Handheld Thermal Imaging Camera
This review should also apply to the Scout PS24, TS24, and others
UPDATED! Nov 4, 2011
Recently, FLIR released a new line of budget thermal cameras targeted to the general
consumer. With the price point finally within reach, I was very interested in
the possibilities, but found a substantial lack of hands-on reviews. Hopefully the
following information will help you decipher the models and decide if it is right for you.
My very first problem was trying to even decide which model to pursue. There's
surprisingly little information differentiating them and they seem to have the same
are smaller, but have the same resolution, and even include a
handy LED task light. But most importantly they are significantly cheaper than the
TS-series, HS-series, and
cameras. I contacted FLIR support and
received the following response:
"The difference in price between the compact models (PS and MS) and the full size
platforms (TS and HS) is due to optioning and capabilities. The compact models
have no video export, image capture, power cell extraction, or lens options while
the full size models come standard with an extractable battery pack and video
export jacks. Full size models also can be optioned with image capture, and a
various arrangement of focal lengths."
For me, one of the largest reasons to immediately rule out the compact models is the
inability to change the battery without sending it back to FLIR. We all know how
poor our current rechargeable battery technology is. I don't want to spend thousands
only to have a camera that won't work in a couple years. However, I also found the
video export jacks to be a major benefit too. The lens options is also a nice touch.
So a full-sized platform it would be.
However, there's several full-sized platforms, such as the First Mate HM-224 and
Scout TS-224. From everything I can find, they're identical other than color. Although
I would have preferred the more covert black or green models, I settled on the HM-224
due to finding an excellent deal. The First Mate is also specified to be waterproof
and will float, which I didn't see specified for the Scout. A nice feature, although
I don't intend on intentionally testing that anytime soon...
First Mate HM-series
Right out of the box I have to say I'm impressed. Being that it's relatively low-end
for a FLIR product, I wasn't sure how sensitive it would be, but it is by far more
sensitive than I expected. If you walk barefooted in the house, you can vividly see
your footprints for about 20 seconds. You can even draw pictures by sliding your
foot around. Unfortunately that doesn't work when wearing shoes so you wouldn't be
able to use that to your advantage in locating someone. During the daytime I could
even see my hot wooden chairs on the outside porch through the closed blinds.
The only thing that seems cheap about it is the display. It reminds me of an old
80's or 90's camcorder and of course the resolution of 240x180 is low by today's
standards. And there is more lag than I expected, although I don't think it's
necessarily a problem. I would guess that the framerate is probably around 10fps.
Another thing you'll notice immediately, that is not documented in the manual,
is it makes a distinctive clicking noise about every 30s, during which time
the video pauses. An internet search revealed there is a physical lens that slides
into place so that it can recalibrate the sensor array and keep the picture clear.
I was excited to test the limits. You can easily spot someone at around 300 yards,
which is the longest area I had available. I had someone hide behind a tree and
I could still see just their head peek out at around 200 yards. That was getting to
be the limit to the resolution, but if you hold the camera still, the few changing pixels
are definitely noticeable.
On the extreme end of the scale, and although completely unpractical, I was still
surprised I could see a large spider on its web at about 3ft, especially since it's not
warm-blooded. Apparently it was colder than the background so it still showed up as
a single pixel. Another similarly impractical but interesting surprise is that you can
also see passenger planes flying over at 30k feet.
I recently had the opportunity to test it under dense fog conditions. To the naked eye
I could only see approximately 200ft. While doing a normal scan, I noticed a family
of deer 200 yards away. The resolution was still high enough to tell the buck from
the doe and 2 fawns. They ended up approaching to within 100ft of us and they were still
completely invisible due to the fog, but they were absolutely unmistakable through the FLIR.
They ended up running directly away from us and they were still visible at around 280yds,
although at that point they were approaching being only about 3 bright pixels. I hated
not to be able to save a picture or video, but I'll get to that later.
UPDATE: Was able to capture a family of coyotes.
This was in similar dense fog as the
deer before. This picture does not do the FLIR justice as it was taken by holding a phone camera
against the eyepiece, but it gives an idea of the superb ability to see through dense fog. The
coyotes were approximately 220ft ahead and were completely invisible to the naked eye.
UPDATE 2: Was able to connect the DVR to the
video-out and capture these deer on a clear
night. The small deer were approximately 150ft away. I tried to intentionally move the camera
so that you can get a feel for the 9Hz refresh rate. You can also see how the homes in the background
are more visible in the FLIR than in the night vision. Click the video to play.
The still photo on the right is using the night-vision on a Sony camera directed at the same
location, but the deer had already left.
Another nice use is detecting parked cars that have been driven recently, since they glow white-hot.
On the other hand, I was somewhat surprised at how easily you can hide from it.
Stepping behind any kind of fairly dense vegetation will make you invisible.
When you first hold it in your hands you expect you'll have superman powers,
but ironically you actually lose a lot of situational awareness. And there's
absolutely still times your eyes are superior. An example is someone walking
in front of a lit background. The shadow they cast is blatantly obvious with
the naked eye, but due to the background being a similar temperature as the person,
they won't be noticeable through the FLIR. You'll also initially have the tendency
to spend too much time looking through it. The ideal situation is to have one
person use their natural senses and maintain their natural night vision, and another
person use the FLIR to check the dark areas you know you would be invisible to
the naked eye. Even on the lowest setting, the brightness of the FLIR's display
will ruin that eye's night vision. If you intend to use this for any kind of
self-defense or security work, it will be crucial to spend time with it first
to learn how to use it most effectively.
Now on to the gripes. The power on/off is a disaster. I intend to contact FLIR to
see if there is a software update, but anytime you plug it in, the power automatically
comes on. If you try to turn it off, it immediately turns itself back on.
I don't care for leaving it on since it is reasonable to assume the sensors probably have
a limited lifetime. The only option you have is to put it in standby mode. Due to this,
I would prefer to just charge the standard AA rechargeable batteries in a conventional
charger, but you have to remove 4 screws to access the bay, so that's inconvenient.
Also, initially the lens cover spring made a loud plastic-on-plastic screeching noise
every time you open it which isn't great if you need to be covert. Fortunately,
the small plastic tab broke off during my first day of use, so now it is silent again, and
it really wasn't necessary to start with.
However, by far my most MASSIVE gripe is the Pro vs Standard versions. When I first
unpacked mine I thought I was lucky and had gotten the Pro model since it had the
SD card and buttons to take pictures. Nope. The $1000 difference between the two
models is SOLELY a software switch. All the hardware including the buttons,
SD card and reader, are there. They're just disabled in the software. Such a ridiculous
upgrade price feels like extortion! I can only hope some smart individual will
find a way to hack the software to enable the extra features. The software can be
updated via the SD card.
Hopefully this review helps demystify the myriad of choices of models. I want to add that
I am in no way affiliated
with FLIR and the unit was purchased solely with my own hard-earned cash!
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