We reviewed 5 thermal imaging cameras from FLIR Systems, the world’s largest name in thermal imaging cameras. From these reviews we compare the different models of thermal imaging camera across the FLIR Ex-Series, the FLIR Exx-Series and the FLIR T-Series. Ranging in cost from around $2,000 to $12,000, there are a number of features on each model, which makes them suitable for a wide range of industries.


FLIR E5


First up, the FLIR E5 is the entry level thermal imaging camera, offering a no-frills point and shoot system, focused on ease of use and low cost, which tends to suit those users looking for something just to get started. With resolution of 120 x 90 pixels, the E5 is capable of turning in a no-nonsense performance, but nevertheless is capable of measuring 10,800 points and does have a simple built in digital camera for capturing both infrared and visual images for reporting purposes. One pull of the trigger saves both the infrared image and the visual image together for easy import into the FLIR Tools software, which is supplied as standard with all FLIR cameras for image analysis and reporting.


One thing we did like about the E5 is the rubberised housing which gives the unit a robust, armoured feel, and as FLIR claim the unit has been drop tested to withstand drops of up to 2 metres, the FLIR E5 does appear to have been built to withstand harsher environments. As well as this, the E5 is supplied in a modern looking hard field case, with all the internal nooks to hold the camera, the power leads and up to 2 batteries and a desktop charger. As standard though, the E5 is supplied with just 1 rechargeable battery, which FLIR claim gives an operating time of up to 4 hours and on our test, we managed to get close to that value.


FLIR have added a much simplified menu system to their thermal imaging cameras, and this also includes the E5. A central control button is surrounded by a four way keypad to navigate through the menu, and the display is bright and clear. Although the FLIR E5 does not have a touch screen, this will not bother many users looking in this price range. Connecting to a PC to download the images has been made extremely easy – it’s just a case of connecting the USB cable and following the instructions on screen to download the images, which can be manipulated and analysed. Just a few clicks later, a customised report can be generated for emailing, or printing.


What we liked most:
Ease of use, robust and feels like a quality product, MSX image enhancement, price, hard transport case


What we didn’t like:
Resolution is a little lacking for detailed work, but OK for general thermal imaging, visual camera could do with some LED lights to make images taken in dark switchboards and building areas better, has a tendency to produce slightly fuzzy images on small temperature differentials


FLIR E6


Stepping up a stage from the E5, the FLIR E6 improves the performance by adding both extra resolution, with a 160 x 120 infrared detector (19,200 pixels) and a better level of sensitivity. Having almost twice as much resolution as the E5, the FLIR E6 is effectively able to measure smaller “temperature spots” from the same distance. It has the same field of view as all of the FLIR Ex Series, including the E4, E5 and E8. The FLIR E6 also boasts an excellent level of thermal sensitivity for a thermal imaging camera in it’s price range. Not to be confused with resolution, the thermal sensitivity is a measure of the minimum temperature difference that can be measured with the camera. Thermographers express this figure in milli-kelvin (mK) and the FLIR E6 has a 60mK (or 0.06°C) level of sensitivity, which is significantly better than the FLIR E5 at 100mK (0.1°C). As well as adding depth to the image (as there are more gradients) the better sensitivity improves the signal to noise ratio of the thermal imaging camera, and delivers a smoother, less fuzzy image which is particularly apparent where there is a lower level of thermal contrast, or in other words, where the difference between the coldest and warmest part of the image is not large. Therefore, the E6 tends to be popular with the building and pest industry, as users looking for moisture, termites, and building problems are on the whole, looking at applications with smaller temperature differences.


At the same resolution, a better thermal sensitivity will improve the thermal image, as the fuzziness of the image is reduced or eliminated, as can be seen in the 2 images below. The image on the left is taken at a 200mK (0.2°C) sensitivity, and the image on the right at 100mK (0.1°C).

The E6 has all the features of the E5 and cosmetically is the same size and weight. However there are a couple of additional usability features with the E6, and the E8 for that matter, which can add to the functionality of the camera. One of these features is manual span adjustment, which gives the user control over the thermal contrast of the image by allowing the temperature range of the image to be manually controlled, which is really good for bringing out subtle differences. In the two images here, the one on the left has not been adjusted, whereas the one on the right has been optimised by manually changing the temperature span of the thermal image, to highlight subtle, finer temperature differences:

 


Having some additional measurement functions on the FLIR E6, adds some further usability to the measurement data. With the E6, and for that matter, the E8 you also have the option to select a red above and a blue below measurement tool. What this does is, instead of having a spot with a temperature display, or box with auto hot/cold spot, displays an image in black and white, and allows the user to set a threshold temperature. Anything that is warmer than the selected temperature is shown as red, or if looking for cooler areas, which is really useful for moisture detection, you can display these areas as blue patches.


What we liked most:
Excellent thermal sensitivity for a point and shoot camera – delivers improved image quality for building and pest work, as well as more sensitive electrical work, MSX image enhancement, quality built thermal imaging camera, easy to use


What we didn’t like:
Wide angle field of view is good for getting a lot in the image, but not as good for detailed measurements from longer distances. Focus free leaves the user without the ability to control the focus of the image. A second battery would be useful.


FLIR E8


The flagship thermal imaging camera in the FLIR Ex Series is the E8. Offering excellent resolution of 320 x 240 resolution for a point and shoot camera, the FLIR E8 will appeal to those users looking to get the best image quality, while keeping the equipment simple to operate.


In many ways, the FLIR E8 is similar to the FLIR E6. After all, it is the same size, the same weight, looks identical (apart from the model number on the back). However, the E8 is supplied with an extra re-chargeable battery, giving you 2 batteries in total and a desktop charger. This makes it possible to have both batteries on charge at the same time (one in the thermal imager and one in the desktop charger), or the batteries can just be charged in the desktop charger without having to get the thermal imaging camera out and connect it to the mains or a computer. Having the second battery, we found useful for those users who may travel to various sites, and want the knowledge that they always have a charged battery ready to go. With the 2 batteries, it should in theory be possible to get up to 8 hours of continuous use, which should be more than adequate.


Apart from the cosmetic side of things, the FLIR E8 is a major step up from the E5 and E6. While it’s thermal sensitivity is the same as the FLIR E6 at 0.06°C (60mK), it’s infrared resolution is four times higher. The 320 x 240 resolution is able to deliver 76,800 temperature spot measurements in the same field of view as the FLIR E6, making the E8 capable of measuring hot or cold spots with 4 times less surface area than the FLIR E6.


Looking at the images on the display of both the FLIR E6 and the FLIR E8, there is some difference, but it doesn’t appear to be as significant as perhaps would be expected with the price difference. However what most users overlook is the fact that the LCD display has a 320 x 240 screen, so the images will look much closer to each other than will be achieved when they are downloaded to a PC. When the infrared images from a thermal imaging camera are imported into the FLIR Tools software, you see them in real resolution, and this is when the differences in image quality become more apparent between models with different resolutions and thermal sensitivities.


All in all the FLIR E8 is one of the more popular thermal imaging cameras, and with a very simple to use device, giving this sort of resolution, it is easy to see why it is such a popular choice with electrical contractors, plumbers, building and pest inspectors and a wide range of other applications and industries. The MSX image enhancement, coupled with the extra resolution gives a powerful infrared thermal imaging camera, which is both easy to use and still has a nice robust feel about it.


What we liked most:
Excellent, best in class infrared resolution, FLIR’s patented MSX image enhancement technology, the fact that you get two rechargeable batteries and a desktop charger. The FLIR E8 is as simple to use as all of the FLIR Ex Series thermal imaging cameras. Only one charging and USB port makes connecting to a computer and re-charging very simple. With a built in memory, SD cards are a thing of the past.


What we didn’t like:
Although the resolution is 320 x 240 pixels which is the same as the E60 costing twice as much, the field of view is also much larger than the E60’s so to measure the same size hot or cold spot as the E60, the operator would have to halve their distance from the object. Focus free loses some of the finer user control of the thermal image.


FLIR E60


Taking a step up from the FLIR Ex series to the FLIR Exx series is a jump both technically as well as financially. The Exx series offers more advanced features than the Ex series, including manual focus, touchscreen control, higher quality optics and extra connectivity options to name a few. The Exx series also has a smaller field of view than the FLIR Ex series and is suited for more detailed work, plus these higher series cameras can also be matched with add on lenses which can narrow or widen the field of view for far more versatility in the field.


The FLIR E60 is the top of the Exx series range, with more resolution than the other two cameras (the E50 and E40) and on the whole tends to be popular with users who may already have some knowledge and experience of thermal imaging. Available in both the standard version, and the BX version, which is aimed at building and pest inspectors, we chose to review the standard version. The BX version looks and feels exactly the same, but has a reduced temperature range and a slightly better level of thermal sensitivity, although not much at all. The standard FLIR E60 still has an impressive 50mK (0.05°C) level of thermal sensitivity. The E60, and for that matter the E40 and E50 can measure temperature up to +650°C. The BX version loses the higher temperature range so is restricted to a maximum of +120°C, but with a 45mK (0.045°C thermal sensitivity).


The first thing that you notice about the FLIR E60, if you have been used to one of the lower series units, is it is bigger and heavier than the FLIR Ex series cameras. This gives it a high quality feel straight away as it just feels like a quality thermal imaging camera, and the larger touchscreen makes it simple to use. Like most of their thermal imaging cameras, FLIR have given the E60 the same central “Enter/Select” button surrounded by a four way keypad for speed and simplicity when navigating around the menus, which have also been simplified for a better user experience. Other inclusions added to the FLIR E60 are MSX (multi spectral dynamic) image enhancement and auto image orientation. This will appeal to electrical contractors, as one of the shortcomings of the “pre-facelift” E60 was that imaging tall switchboards was difficult as the image had to be in landscape mode. Now if the thermal imaging camera is turned on it’s side, the infrared image will automatically orientate itself into portrait mode.


The FLIR E60, like all FLIR thermal imaging cameras is supplied in a nice hard transport case with all the inserts to hold the thermal imaging camera, plus a load of accessories. As well as just the E60, you get two rechargeable batteries, a twin bay desktop charger, which we liked a lot as it gives the opportunity to charge both batteries at the same time. On top of this you get a USB cable, charger plugs with multi plug adapters, which is useful if you travel, and video cables as well as an SD card, plus the FLIR Tools software and extended warranty. All FLIR thermal imaging cameras carry an industry exclusive 2/10 warranty, which means that as well as the standard 2 year warranty on the thermal imaging camera for parts and labour, FLIR also give a 10 year warranty on the most expensive and essential part of the unit – the infrared detector. FLIR build their own cameras from the ground up, including the optics and detectors, so have complete control over the manufacturing process, and as a result will stand behind their products with these expended warranties. Calibration, service and repair is all done locally which significantly lowers the turnaround time, but in another way this is slightly trivial as we have seen very few FLIR Thermal Imaging Camera failures at all.


Using the E60 is not difficult at all. The menu system is well laid out and easy to navigate. The control buttons are well laid out and display is bright and clear. The image quality of the FLIR E60 is excellent, with it’s 320 x 240 infrared resolution. Although this gives the same number of temperature spot measurements (76,800) as the cheaper FLIR E8, the E60 also has a much smaller field of view at 25° x 19°, so is capable of far smaller spot measurements, because each pixel is smaller. If you think about it, the field of view is far smaller, with the same number of pixels as the FLIR E8, so therefore, each spot measurement will be smaller from the same distance. As well as the infrared image quality, one of the things we liked a lot was the bright LED lights on the E60. When imaging dark switchboards in plant rooms, or in roof areas and dark parts of buildings, the FLIR E60 was able to deliver a reasonably good visual image in a wide range of lighting situations, unlike the FLIR E4, E5, E6 and E8. The visual camera is also much better in terms of resolution, delivering a surprisingly good image with it’s 3.1 megapixel arrangement. The FLIR E8 in comparison does not have any form of lighting and only a 0.3 megapixel visual camera, which gives an image quality similar to the first cameras found on mobile phones.


E60 Infrared and Visual Images (not in MSX mode):

 

 

One of the things which appealed to us was the manual focus. This offers the ability to focus the areas of interest sharply. With the focus free thermal imaging cameras, the user loses control of the image focus, whereas e found the manual focus of the FLIR E60 was able to bring different parts of the image into focus, which was extremely useful for situations where objects are in the image at different distances.


The FLIR E60 boasts WiFi and Bluetooth connectivity, which will appeal to those users who want either the ability to showcase the latest technology, or have the extra productivity tools which the ability to connect to mobile devices gives. One of the neat features of using the FLIR E60’s WiFi interface is that it can be connected to a tablet or smartphone wirelessly, using the free FLIR Tools Mobile app. We did find that the E60 worked better with Apple devices than Android, as the WiFi allows a direct connection to an Apple device (iPad, iPhone, iPod). If connecting to an Android device, the procedure is slightly different, but nonetheless still simple. Once connected you can do a number of things with the camera. In “live view” mode, the information on the thermal imaging camera screen can be duplicated on the table or phone screen, which we liked for showing “problem areas” to customers in real time. As well as this feature, users can snapshot the screen, start a video recording, or even import the infrared and visual images from the camera into the mobile device. We tested this on an iPad and found it worked almost flawlessly. Our iPad also had a 3G SIM card, and one of the features we especially liked was the ability to upload the images to Dropbox, which allows instant transfer of images to anyone with access to the Dropbox folder on a Windows or Mac computer. In theory, it is possible for someone to be out on site, and upload the images to a smartphone or tablet, and then upload to Dropbox. Someone in the office can instantly complete the report and send it to the client before the thermographer leaves site, or if a second opinion on an image is required, it is made simple. If using a mobile device with 3G or Wifi access, a report can even be generated for problem areas, and sent straight to the customer for instant approval.


The Bluetooth interface serves 2 purposes on the FLIR E60 – one of these, and in our opinion the least useful, is to allow connection of a wireless headset (which is supplied) to add voice annotations to images. The other purpose is something which FLIR call “METERLink” and that allows a number of FLIR test and measurement instruments, which include moisture meters, multimeters, clamp meters to be wirelessly interfaced to the FLIR E60. We used the FLIR CM83 power clamp meter for our testing, and really like this feature. It allows electrical based inspectors to thermal image a switchboard (or for that matter any piece of equipment), and while doing this, have the clamp meter measuring the current draw in real time. This reading is beamed back to the thermal imaging camera, and embedded into the infrared image when it is saved on the camera for inclusion into the thermal report later. The same system also works well for building and pest based industries, although they would most probably be using the MR77 moisture meter for beaming back moisture readings. It just adds a certain aura of quality to the thermal imaging process and we think, gives a further degree of credibility to the thermographer.


What we liked most:
Smaller field of view for impressive image detail, manual focus gives excellent infrared image control, MSX image enhancement for increased sharpness and information, Fast 60Hz refresh rate, MeterLINK, WiFi and mobile connectivity, better visual images than the Ex series and LED lamps, larger high quality feel


What we didn’t like:
A lot closer to the T420 in cost, quite expensive compared to the E8.


FLIR T420


To complete the FLIR Thermal Imaging camera line up, we decided to review the FLIR T420. This unit is the entry level thermal imaging camera in the FLIR T-series, which represent the professional level thermal imagers. You should not take the phrase professional level to mean that they can only be used by full time thermal imaging technicians, but the features and results achieved with the FLIR T-series are aimed at professional standard thermal imaging and reporting.


If you have been considering a FLIR E60, and decide to take the plunge into the FLIR T-series, you will have to part with an extra bit of money – in the region of $2,000 to get into the FLIR T420.
Offering a different design away from the “gun” shaped thermal imaging cameras, the FLIR T420 – and also the remainder of the FLIR T-series for that matter, have a design which is more ergonomic, with a rotating lens block and a feel which is nearer to an expensive digital camera. The rotating lens we liked a lot, as for applications where you have to look up a lot to image objects with the thermal imaging camera, this will save having a stiff neck, as you can rotate the lens to point up, and still look down at the screen.


Just like the E60 we reviewed, the FLIR T420 has a 320 x 240 infrared detector, and exactly the same field of view, so your 76,800 pixels are the same size at the same distance. Again you get MSX (multi-spectral dynamic) image enhancement, plus a temperature scale up to +650°C and a 60Hz image refresh rate, which makes for a far more fluid experience when thermal imaging something that is moving, or even when moving the thermal imaging camera around. However, the FLIR T420 improves the thermal sensitivity, and this time drops it down to 35mK (0.035°C) for an even better smooth infrared image. The FLIR T420 uses the same visual camera as the FLIR E60, but does have improved IR optics, so undoubtedly delivers a crisper image.


For mobile connectivity, the FLIR T420 has a WiFi and Bluetooth interface, and works (just like the E40, E50 and E60) with the FLIR Tools Mobile app and with a range of FLIR test and measurement instruments. The FLIR T420 is also available in BX format for building inspectors and pest inspectors, and this BX version, with it’s lower temperature range and increased sensitivity can also lend itself well to any application with a narrow temperature range where enhanced details are required, such as veterinary or equine applications.


One thing that is found on the FLIR T420, and not available on lower series FLIR Thermal Imaging Cameras is something FLIR have called ULTRAMAX. What this does, is takes the thermal images taken by the T420 and when they are imported into the FLIR Tools software, the user can elect to apply the Ultramax settings. This increases the number of pixels in the image by a factor of four, and also halves the amount of noise in the image, for really smooth imaging. The two images below show the same image. The one on the left without Ultramax and the one on the right with Ultramax applied.

 

 

Looking at the image on the right hand side, the most apparent difference is the improvement in thermal noise. This gives the image less “graininess” and makes it look smoother. The extra pixels we found made the temperature spot smaller, but to the untrained eye, the difference was not something we found was overly apparent, but there was no doubt that the image did improve. In measurements where the temperature difference was finer, this noise reduction from setting Ultramax to enabled was far more apparent.


One of the features of the FLIR T420, and the rest of the FLIR T-series is the motorised focus. This saves the user from manually focusing the thermal image, and gives the option of either automatically focusing, using the capture button. A half press of the button automatically focuses the image, or alternatively, the user has the option to use a slider, located just above the image capture button to focus the image however it is desired for the thermal image. We actually really liked that feature a lot as it makes focusing quick and easy, while still retaining the versatility required by some thermographers.


Like all FLIR Thermal Imaging Cameras, the FLIR T420 is supplied complete in a hard carry case, with 2 rechargeable batteries, a desktop charger, calibration certificate, FLIR Tools software, and user documentation. The T420 also carries the FLIR 2/10 warranty, with a 10 year IR detector warranty.


What we liked most:
Surprisingly easy to use for a professional level thermal imaging camera, Ultramax for up to 4 times more pixels and half of the thermal noise, motorised focus, rotating lens, WiFi and Bluetooth connectivity, great infrared image quality.


What we didn’t like:
Automatic focusing sometimes takes more than one attempt to focus some images.


In Summary:
FLIR Systems have a fairly comprehensive line up of thermal imaging cameras, which should suit most applications and most budgets. From the entry level thermal imaging cameras, up to the top end infrared cameras, aimed at professional users, value for money and suitability for the job in hand are sure to be the two main things which are integral to most potential customers.


With the Ex series, the facelifted Exx series and T-series, FLIR have launched some innovative features. Every thermal imaging camera boasts a visual camera, which allows saving of both thermal and visual images together for inclusion into thermography reports which can be sent or emailed, detailing thermal issues.


The new MSX technology adds visual detail into the thermal image and brings out these details which would not be seen in standard thermal images:

 Images with and without MSX:


Value for Money:


With so many different models of thermal imaging cameras available, which one represents the best value for money?


In our opinion, infrared resolution and thermal sensitivity are the main driving factors, apart from the user, which can affect the quality of the thermal image. When considering the jump in price from one model to the next, how do you know if you are getting value for money. One way to compare one model against the other is to look at the performance to cost ratio. What this means is this.


The FLIR E4 costs around the $1500 mark and offers a resolution of 80x60 (4,800 pixels). An upgrade for potential customers looking for cost in this area would be to the E5, which more than doubles the resolution of the FLIR E4 and also improves the thermal sensitivity by a factor of around one third. The price increases by around $800 or so, which is less than double the cost of the E4 for more than double the resolution, so there is no doubt that the FLIR E5 represents a better performance to cost ratio, but not as much as the higher level cameras in each series. The FLIR E6 is around $1,300 more expensive than the FLIR E5 for more or less double the resolution and almost double the performance in thermal sensitivity, but you end up paying around 60% more in cost over the E5. For us though, the FLIR E8 represents the biggest jump in performance of 4 times the resolution of the FLIR E6, but at around $2,000 more of an outlay, or in other words, around a 40% cost increase over the FLIR E6, so based on that scenario, the best value for money award would go to the FLIR E8. When we looked at the E60, which is around twice the cost of the E8, you are paying for precision rather than increased resolution, as well as functionality and features.


When you are considering the FLIR E60, the resolution is the same as the FLIR E8 at 320 x 240 pixels, but having the smaller field of view means that the size of each measurement spot is going to be less than half the size of the E8 measurement spot, but if the user halves their distance from the object being measured, it is possible to reduce the spot measurement size with the FLIR E8.


The mobile connectivity and Bluetooth which is standard on the FLIR E40 and upwards without doubt adds a different level of productivity and professionalism to the thermal imaging process, but are the E60 and T420 worth the extra cost. In our opinion the answer is not as black and white as yes or no, and this is purely because each application can require different thermal imaging performance. For example if something needs to be thermal imaged and the thermographer can get no closer than, say 20 metres, then the FLIR E60 or T420 would be better options. If the thermographer needs to look at a small electronic component, which is perhaps 10mm long on a circuit board, then the FLIR T420 with an add on lens would have to be considered.


For general thermal imaging, the FLIR E8 would be our best value for money with a very good performance to cost ratio, but the FLIR E6 also comes close.


For precision applications, the FLIR T420 probably just edges out the FLIR E60, thanks to it’s enhanced features and Ultramax image enhancement.


Test Equipment are experts in FLIR Thermal Imgaing Cameras and related products. If you have any questions relating to thermal imaging cameras, or application please feel free to give us a call on 1800 837 837. Our friendly experts are always happy to answer any questions.