At first glance, you'd be forgiven for disbelieving that the Kodak EasyShare Z915 is designed and built by the same people who flood retailers with hordes of cheap EasyShare point-and-shoots season after season. Look a little closer - or even better, pick up the camera - and some of Kodak's cost-cutting measures become apparent, but on the surface at least, the colorful and stylish Z915 is as trendy looking as any Canon or Nikon. Whatever your perception of Kodak's recent consumer digicam efforts, chances are the enthusiast-focused Z915 isn't it.
Once the most powerful force in the imaging world, Kodak still packs a punch on sales volume alone. And with new models from the manufacturer inching further and further up the ladders of style and performance, Kodak is clearly hoping to regain some of its former street cred. With a 10x zoom and manual controls in a compact package, could the Z915 be the very model to do just that?
BUILD AND DESIGN
When we think of cameras with innovative styling and robust build quality, Kodak has, unfortunately, not typically been at the top of our list. But if the original photographic giant has been content to hold down the fort by protecting their stockpiles of entry-level discount store models for the last several years, we've seen a subtle but evident change in tactics of late.
Exhibit A: the Z915. Borrowing Canon's styling cues and Sony's color palette, the Z915 is a very attractive, very compact 10x that manages to at least look like serious competition for the Canon SX200, the Panasonic ZS3, and the host of other pocket-size ultrazooms that have recently joined this burgeoning class of devices.
Build quality is improved, if not impeccable. There's still too much thin, creaky plastic to carry off the Z's upscale styling. The buttons, and especially the zoom toggle, feel cheap and flimsy, as does the mode dial. Glossy finished areas are prone to scratches and smudges. But even admitting these construction gripes, the Z915 still manages to hit a home run in bringing together a serious set of features with a body that doesn't look like an industrial-design afterthought.
Inside the Z915's shell, you'll find a 10 megapixel CCD sensor backing a 10x (35-350mm) optical zoom. It's not a wide-angle lens, which puts the Kodak at another disadvantage compared to rivals from the likes of Panasonic and Olympus. That said, given its price advantages, it's a trade-off that some buyers may be willing to make.
A small-ish 2.5 inch LCD is the Z915's only shot composition aid. Other features include P/A/S/M manual shooting modes, Kodak's in-camera Smart Capture image processing technology, and optical image stabilization. The Z915 runs on a pair of AA-sized cells - though you'll want to invest in lithium or, at the very least, NiMH batteries instead of straight up alkalines in this case - and uses conventional SD/SDHC memory to store stills and video (in addition to 32MB of built-in capacity).
Finally, the Z915, and especially its related packaging materials, are slathered in "HD" badging. In Kodak's world, though, this high-profile high-def advertising has to do not with the Z915's video capabilities, but with the fact that it sports a playback-optimized 1920x1088 still capture mode. Kodak's insistence on advertising the Z915 as an HD model is slightly hokey, and potentially more than a bit confusing for newbies as well - call it what you will, you'll still only get 640x480/30fps video out of this camera.
Ergonomics and Controls
In keeping with its mix of throwback and modern styling approaches, the Z915's basic shape is, for all intents and purposes, a somewhat bulky, clean-lined rectangle. Overall, the camera is visually attractive, not too heavy, and about as ergonomic as a metal folding chair. Of course, as we've seen recently with other retro-chic devices (cf. the Olympus E-P1), few apparent ergonomic considerations don't necessarily translate into an unpleasant use experience. Such is the case with Z915 as well, with the camera's light weight, ample grip space, and logical control layout all working in its favor.
As noted previously, the Z915's buttons have the ironic yet dubious distinction of being at once flimsy and hard to press. And there are certainly plenty of them to deal with in this case. More dedicated buttons is (almost) always better in my book, but awkward placement of the Z915's tiny flash, macro, and self-timer buttons next to the shutter release/zoom toggle makes them more than a bit hard to use - and a bit too easy to press accidentally as well.
Menus and Modes
If you can make the controls respond when you want them to, though, the camera's menus and overall interface aren't hard to live with. Basic options are organized into a few pages of generally logical page menus. There's also a heads-up interface that lets the user change common settings (i.e. ISO, exposure compensation, etc.) while shooting. It's a display arrangement that we've seen on other EasyShares in the past, and even with this history, it's not the most lucid on-screen control system we've ever worked with - with too many button presses required to make and confirm changes. That said, once you get the hang of it, the Z915's on-screen controls are plenty usable in actual shooting situations.
Basic shooting modes on the Z915 include:
The Z915 comes equipped with a 2.5 inch, 230,000 dot display. As basic digital camera screens go, this one is fine: it's reasonably smooth in good light (even when tracking motion), color-accurate, gains up automatically in low light, and even provides five steps of manual brightness adjustment. Where it doesn't do well is in (you guessed it!) bright sunlight. Even cranked up to the max, this screen's brightness can't overcome the strong glare from its top-layer coating when using the camera outdoors, making me wish for some sort of viewfinder and/or a brighter LCD more times than I cared to keep track of during the course of this review.
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