First Review of the FLIR First Mate HM224 Handheld Thermal Imaging Camera

This review should also apply to the Scout PS24, TS24, and others

Scout TS-series
FLIR Scout TS-series
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 specs. The PS-series and MS-series are smaller, but have the same resolution, and even include a handy LED task light. But most importantly they are significantly cheaper than the larger TS-series, HS-series, and HM-series 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."
Scout PS-series
FLIR Scout PS-series
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
FLIR 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.

Deer - Night Vision

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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