As an ordinary homeowner I never thought I could justify the cost of a Flir thermal imaging device. Sure there are a lot of things that it could be useful for, maybe even save some money on energy costs by identifying and correcting thermal leaks, but $300-600 or more didn’t seem to be a justifiable expense. Then one day I had a plumber over to find a water pipe leak inside my wall and I watched him image the leak with one of the lower priced Flir handheld devices that he used in combination with his cell phone camera to visualize the IR image combined with the normal photo image so I could better understand it. I said wouldn’t it be nice if you didn’t have to use two devices, if you could just use the camera in your phone.
THE ORIGINAL VS THE NEW FLIR ONE
Later that day I did some research and found that Flir made such an add-on camera accessory for smartphones but A) it wasn’t cheap; and B) it wasn’t all that great. That was the Flir Generation Two. BUT their site said they were working on a newer 2017 model that promised to be better and even more affordable. The “more affordable” part got my attention so I pre-ordered the new 3rd generation Flir One before it was even a real product, paying full price, long before it was available to buy here. I had to wait a few months for it and just received one of the first production units recently, mine has a serial number lower than 10.
IS IT WORTH IT?
Now the question is if it’s worth it, especially since one of Flir’s major competitor calls it a toy. This review covers the iOS version and the Android version, which are essentially identical other than connectivity. The review is long and detailed because this is a specialty product and anyone interested in buying one needs as much information as possible.
IT’S A TOY, RIGHT?
I’ll skip to the final conclusion immediately, this is not a toy. Sure it may not satisfy the ultra-purist scientist/engineer who has far more sophisticated needs than a DIY homeowner, but for joe average people who may have broken pipes in their walls, bad insulation, drafts, etc. it is everything we need and maybe more.
WHY SO INEXPENSIVE?
The biggest advantage over the high-priced scientific instrument variety of thermal imaging devices (besides the obvious one of being so affordable) is that you’re not paying for electronics you already own. Your smartphone’s computer is smarter that what NASA had 20 years ago; why not use the excellent smarts of your phone instead of paying again for the same thing in a tool you will only use occasionally?
Like the plumber who was strapping his thermal imager to his phone with rubber bands, the Flir One 3rd Gen sees not only the thermal image but (even better) it superimposes it onto a video image that everyone can understand without special training. That image (and data) can be recorded, stored and emailed/texted in real time to a professional repair contractor, possibly saving you an expensive service call charge for an on-site estimate. By the way you can record the image as a still, a video or as a time-lapse. Oddly, the Flir One does not use the phone’s own camera for the still and/video overlay but instead uses its own visual camera which is mounted adjacent to its thermal camera.
They concentrated on simplicity, not geekiness, with this model. You install an app, plug it in to the accessory port and you’re in business. I didn’t even have to read the instructions, which by the way are very well written. The Flir One operates on its own rechargeable battery but that’s not important because this isn’t intended to be used for hours at a time. Battery life is rated at about an hour with a 40 minute recharge time, so there’s no issue for a casual user like me.
I can’t (and won’t) compare this to much more expensive professional tools, that’s not what it’s all about. To me, at the price, this is simply a “must have” for any home toolbox.
NOT SO ROSY
We’ve already established that this is a basic DYI version, not a pro model so if you’re reading complaints somewhere about that, stop reading them, it’s like comparing apples and oranges. But let’s be clear, there are some things to consider that may not be to everyone’s liking. High on that list is that they do offer both Android and iOS versions but you have to choose one or the other, I would have loved to see one model with adapters that fit different phones. And to complicate that the Android version has a USB-C connector which will only fit a handful of the newest (and most expensive) phones, not the ubiquitous universally used micro-USB connector that’s on most existing Android phones (Flir says they will be coming out with a micro-USB version later this year). On the subject of the connection, I like that it has a depth adjusting knob so it can plug in while my phone is still in its protective case. I consider having to take my phone out of the case a major hassle and kudos to Flir for thinking of this important detail. The depth adjustment is present on both the iOS and Android models.
DIFFERENCE BETWEEN THE BASIC AND PRO MODELS
Both the basic and Pro models are essentially the same size and shape and connect to a smartphone the same way. Here is what the Pro model has that the basic model DOESN’T have:
1. VividIR (a detail and contrast enhancement)
2. Ability to select thermal or image only
3. High/Low gain mode
4. IR scale displayed on image
5. 3 movable spot meters (basic unit has one fixed)
6. 3 movable rectangular region-of-interest frames
7. 3 movable circular region-of-interest frames
8. The Pro model costs exactly twice as much
HOW IT COULD BE IMPROVED
If they had let me design it (they didn’t ask) I would have made it more user-ergonomic with some way of physically clamping to the phone other than putting all of the weight on the USB/Lightning connector, although as I mentioned above there is a depth adjustment so the entire length of the connector can be inserted into the phone’s power port. And that’s not a deal-breaker because the imager itself is only a fly-weight 1.2 ounces.
My unit arrived at a good time for me, we are in the hottest month of the year and I have been working on home-improvement projects to better insulate against leaks to help lower our energy bills. I have an idea where the biggest losses are occurring but before spending a lot of time and money on repairs I wanted to visualize EXACTLY what needed to be done. Nothing concerned me more than a huge southwest-facing clear glass clerestory window pane in my high-ceilinged living room. I knew it wasn’t very efficient and had scheduled for it to be replaced with an energy-efficient double-pane solarized window. Using the Flir One while the installers were there I could work with them to assure the best installation and see exactly how efficient my new expensive windows are. I’ve also been able to find energy-loss leaks around doors and windows, see the air flow of HVAC vents and discover that there’s something hot inside my stereo amplifier’s case even when the power is turned off. It’s little projects like this that add up over time that convince me I’ll probably save enough at some point to pay for buying the Flir One.
The included charging cable is USB-C and both the power indicator and a dedicated charging light flash during charging, replaced by a steady green glow when 100% charged (there is a numeric battery percentage readout on the display during operation).
In addition to the expected thermal imaging app there are specialized apps available for the Flir One, here is a partial list of some of the more interesting ones out of the 25 or so I counted:
– Comfort Tracker
– Aqua Check
– Thermal Scavenger Hunt (game)
– BulldozAIR (for construction sites)
The included semi-soft pocket-size carrying case is zippered and offers excellent protection for the device and its precision lens. Note that like so many devices these days all of the documentation is online, however it is very detailed and well-written.
The bottom line is that I think the basic unit is adequate for most DIY homeowner needs. Being a techie and gadget nut I probably could have justified getting the Pro model and likely would have if it didn’t cost twice as much … Flir’s marketing didn’t make a strong enough case to me that the differences were worth paying that much more. I think they will be more successful with it if they cut the price of the Pro model by 100.
And a note to the marketing people of the other brands who knock the Flir One as being a toy, well that pitch didn’t work on me either. I’m not a contractor or a scientist and for my needs my choice is that I am entirely happy with what the budget-friendly Flir One models is capable of doing.
THUMBS UP OR DOWN?
Is this a great thermal imaging device? No. But it’s not priced like one either. Is it a great tool to own? That depends. If you aren’t familiar with what thermal imagery looks like you may get frustrated and think the images are useless. If you are a contractor and work with imaging tools that cost 10x this one your impression may not be very favorable. If you think owning this will be a magical solution for you, my analogy is that owning a 1000 buck frying pan won’t make you a great chef nor will owning a megabuck camera make you Ansel Adams. It is what it is for the entry level ticket. It does exactly what it is advertised to do and does it exactly how they say it will do it.
Like with almost any tool the more you spend the more you will get. I’m satisfied with the result but IF I wanted to double what I paid I think the Pro model would give me slightly more performance. I seriously (for my DYI needs) don’t think I need anything more even if it was affordable. For that reason I’m happy and I like it.