CES 2012: Kodak PlayFull Dual Hands-On: Don’t Call It a Camcorder

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Kodak PlayFull Dual FrontKodak had only one new PlayFull model on display at CES this year, but the company was clearly going for quality, not quantity, as the PlayFull Dual really impressed me.

The PlayFull Dual can shoot 1920 x 1080p HD video at 60 frames per second and features a roomier-than-usual 3-inch display on the back. It has a convenient removable battery, it’s expandable via a full-sized SD card slot, and it has micro HDMI and USB ports. It also has a single jack that doubles as both a headphone and microphone jack.

But what Kodak is attempting to do with the PlayFull Dual is to create a “dual-mode camera,” as described by the rep that I spoke with, so the PlayFull isn’t just a camcorder anymore. Ostensibly, it’s a solid combination of a pocket camcorder and a point-and-shoot camera, not just a camcorder that can take stills, which has been the case with all of their previous PlayFull models. And for the most part, Kodak has achieved their goal, as the PlayFull Dual is a massive improvement in terms of its still photo capabilities.

Kodak PlayFull Side Shutter ButtonSince people are generally accustomed to holding their camera sideways (landscape orientation) for snapping photos, Kodak has added a simple but significant ergonomic tweak to the PlayFull Dual: a dedicated, two-stage photo button on the side of the unit. I found it much more comfortable when I flipped the camera sideways to take stills and didn’t have to press a button on the back of the unit. It makes much more sense to be able to use this two-stage shutter button instead in a more traditional setup.

In fact, the ergonomics of the PlayFull Dual in general were excellent. In what has become a bit of a trademark with Kodak’s pocket camcorders, the d-pad was squishy and absolutely horrible, but all of the other buttons had a nice click to them and were very responsive. The inclusion of a dedicated flash button on the side of the camera (on the same side as the power switch and next to the shutter button) was a smart idea and a good way to avoid menu diving, as was the three-stage switch that lets users switch between auto mode, the effects menu, and the scenes menu. And, of course, the PlayFull Dual has a dedicated Share button, like many of the models before it, allowing users to tag their media with a single button press for automatic upload to their social network of choice the next time the camera is plugged in.

One of the issues I had with the navigation, though, was that the shutter button inexplicably doubles as the back button. So when you’re in the menus or adjusting your video or photo settings, the only way to back out and get back to standby mode is by pressing the shutter button. The obvious issue here is that the camera often ends up snapping a photo by accident in addition to bringing you out of the menus. I asked a rep about this and he responded by showing me me how I could switch out of the photo effects menu by going to the main menu, but this accomplished nothing as, still, the only way I could out of that menu and back to standby was by pressing the shutter button.

Kodak PlayFull PortsAlso problematic was the fact that if you selected a certain mode from the scenes or effects, you would be taken to standby to take your photos, and the only way back to the previous menu was to flip the switch to one of the other positions (auto, scenes, or effects) and then back again. Definitely not as big of an issue as the shutter button doubling as a back button, but definitely a navigation issue that Kodak didn’t consider when designing the three-position switch on the side of the camera.

As for the pictures themselves, the quality of the images themselves has taken a huge step up, as the PlayFull Dual can snap 12-megapixel stills and features a backlit CMOS sensor with digital image stabilization as well as a xenon flash. Pictures are not the sharpest I’ve ever seen, but they’re still an improvement as they’re sharper than those taken with previous PlayFulls and have much better color saturation. And I liked that the PlayFull Dual now includes a burst shot mode, another feature that adds to its legitimacy in terms of its capabilities as a point-and-shoot.

One of the more noticeable flaws with the stills, however, was that the white balance was a little off when taking pictures with the indoor lighting of the convention hall; whites generally came out yellowish.

In addition to its user-friendly auto mode, there are a slew of options and tools for users to choose from when taking photos.  The PlayFull Dual has face detection, as well as the ubiquitous suite of various scene modes and effects. The only shooting mode that disappointed me slightly was the macro mode, which has to be switched too manually; if you get up too close to a particular subject, the camera won’t automatically switch. You’ll just end up with a blurry photo unless you dive into the menus and switch to macro yourself.

And for some bizarre reason, the storage of photos (and videos) into the camera’s library was seemingly arbitrary. If I snapped a shot, it wasn’t just placed at the end of, say, the 44 pictures and videos that were currently viewable in playback mode. It would be throw in somewhere in the middle, like around 14. So whenever I went to playback mode to view a picture I just took, I had to sift around through all the existing media to find what I wanted. I asked the rep about this problem and he assured me that this wasn’t supposed to be happening and wasn’t reflective of the final product, so here’s hoping Kodak gets that software issue sorted out before release.

Kodak PlayFull Display OnWhat about the video?

Photos weren’t the only part of the PlayFull Dual that saw improvements. The improved sensor provides better video in general, and one of the major additions that I had a lot of fun with is that of high-speed video capture. The camcorder can be switched to high-speed video capture mode, where it shoots 720p video at 240 frames per second and plays the video back at 30 frames per second. This provided surprisingly smooth slow-motion videos of high-speed action; I was expecting to see some sort of tearing or motion blur when I recorded myself spastically waving my hand in front of the camera, but there was none. Very impressive stuff.

Other video features include the ability to trim video right on the camera, take stills from videos and, interestingly, a highlight mode, in which the camera attempts to intelligently extract clips from videos to create “highlights” that it plays back to you in said mode. I asked about what criteria the camera uses to select the highlights, and the rep told me that it attempts to isolate clips based on content changes and scene breaks.

Unfortunately, the PlayFull Dual’s video capabilities weren’t flawless — this is, after all, a pocket camcorder. Primarily, it struggled a lot with low-light shooting. I saw a great deal of noise and grain in a video that the Kodak reps chose to show me (which are usually the most flattering they can find), and I know for a fact that it was not that dark of a shooting environment. They had shot the video a couple nights before at Pepcom, which, while it was indoors and artificially lit, was certainly not a dimly-lit affair. I was surprised at how rough the video looked.

Kodak PlayFull BackThe Kodak PlayFull is due out in March and it will have a launch price of $199, which is probably my greatest issue with this device. Kodak has upped the PlayFull’s still-taking capabilities, and the improvements to its video shooting (like fast motion capture) are welcome additions as well. But I’ve always admired Kodak for their cameras’ affordability. For instance, I reviewed their last PlayFull model, the PlayFull Waterproof and while it was not a very good camera, it was waterproof with a solid build and only cost $69.99, which is extremely affordable, so it really doesn’t hurt for consumers to give it a try. For a camera like the PlayFull Dual, where it’s designed to be a budget camera (and obviously still nowhere near top-of-the-line despite its massive improvements), I’m disappointed to see that Kodak isn’t sticking to its tactic of giving it a super-attractive price tag. For maybe about $50 less, this would be an excellent deal.

For what it’s worth, the Kodak rep that I spoke to insisted that there wouldn’t be any delays or availability issues with the PlayFull Dual on account of the company’s recent financial woes. “We will continue to serve the needs of customers,” he said when I asked if Kodak’s possible bankruptcy filing in the future could affect consumers in anyway. “We will continue to honor our plans and our published marketing programs.”

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