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Kodak Zx1 Review
by Allison Johnson -  5/14/2009

The Zx1 shares some of the same genetics as its predecessor, the Zi6. Both offer 720p video recording at 30 and 60 fps, sport a similar design, and boast up to ten hours of recorded video with an SD or SDHC card. The differences between them are subtle. The Zx1 features a slightly smaller LCD and a weather-resistant design, making this a better candidate for a camera you'd take to the beach or ski slope.

Kodak Zx1

 

Since its introduction at this year's CES, the Zx1 has garnered some buzz and attention from the tech world. The style and concept of the camera are solid, but what kind of image and video quality does it produce? Taking it for a spin around town through rain and shine, night and day, I found a lot to like about this little video recorder.


BUILD AND DESIGN
With a slim candy-bar form factor, the Zx1 is a camera in an MP3 player's clothing. Our model is decked out in a pink rubberized coating with matching accents on the camera's controls. Don't worry - if pink isn't your thing, Kodak offers models in other (more masculine) colors.

Kodak Zx1

The Zx1 is packaged with two rechargeable AA batteries with charger, an interchangeable "designer" plate for the battery compartment, HDMI cable, USB connector, and AV cable for non-HD TVs.

Ergonomics and Controls
Kodak may have taken some style cues from MP3 player designs, but it doesn't just look like an iPod- it handles like one too. Holding the device in one hand, I find it's easy to reach the controls with my thumb. The rubberized surface provides a nice grip. Those looking for extra flair will enjoy the interchangeable plates for the battery compartment. Ours features a subtle-yet-trendy leaf design.

Kodak Zx1

The layout of the camera controls also mirrors that of an MP3 player. Aesthetically, it gives the device a clean, modern look. Are they intuitive? Not exactly. It's easy enough to figure out that the big red button in the middle is the record/stop button, but beyond that, I needed guidance from the product literature. The controls aren't difficult to master, they're just not obvious to a first-time user.

For example, deleting a photo requires selecting a checkmark icon instead of an icon with a red "X." Intuitively, I tried to delete the file by selecting the red X. Is that a result of my Windows upbringing? Probably. I quickly learned that the Zx1's red X doesn't make the file go away. To further confuse things, there are no words or menu headings to help the user navigate.

Menus and Modes
Scrolling left and right on the main shooting screen will toggle through different recording modes, and the up and down buttons control zoom. The playback button allows the user to review photos and videos on full screen or as thumbnails. Pressing the battery shaped button will take you back to the main shooting screen, and the tiny trash can button allows you to select items to discard.

The Zx1 features four different recording modes:

HD: Records 720p video in 16:9 format at 30fps
HD60: Also records 720p video in 16:9 but at an improved 60fps
Still: Captures a 3 megapixel (interpolated) still image
VGA: Records a 4:3, 640x480 video at 30fps for a web-friendly file

Settings can be accessed by pressing any two buttons. The menu is short and sweet, offering a few general options. User can use this menu to turn camera sounds on or off and change date and time.

Display/Viewfinder
The 2.0 inch display is smaller than the LCD you'll find on the Zi6. The screen is large enough for video capture and quick review. However, with only 2 inches of real estate there, you'll want to upload videos to a computer or view them on a television screen for the full effect.

Kodak Zx1

As expected, the LCD was difficult to view in bright sunlight. Lining up photos or videos wasn't impossible, but it was hard to judge quality on review under bright conditions.


PERFORMANCE
As mentioned before, the Zx1 is differentiated from the Zi6 in part by its weather-resistant construction. The ports on each side of the device are protected by rubberized covers, and the buttons are sealed away from rain. While not fully or even semi-rugged, this is a nice treatment that really makes the Zx1 a go-anywhere camera.

Our test model stood up to several minutes of exposure to a mild rainstorm with no trouble. Though I wouldn't recommend it for full immersion underwater (and Kodak certainly doesn't either), it looks and feels ready for a tough trip to the ski slope or just a sudden downpour.

Shooting Performance
Overall, shooting with the Zx1 is enjoyable. The feel in the hand is nice, it's easy to stow, and video quality is generally good. However, the Zx1 isn't without its quirks. We noticed a soft popping sound that crops up in videos when the zoom is used.

It's most noticeable in very quiet shooting situations, like an empty break room, but it's probably audible in noisier videos too. Some trade-offs must be made for the camera's compact design and water-resistant body, and it seems that this is one of them.

Lens Performance
The 4.1mm f/2.8 lens on board the Zx1 features a fixed focal range of 27.6 inches to infinity. The limits of the focal range rule out any macro photography, but make it easy to pick up the camera and shoot video at a moment's notice. It's worth noting that the Zi6 does offer a close-up focus option, so if that's a deal-breaker, consider the Zx1's predecessor.

This lens is also lacking any optical zoom capability, but it does allow for a meek 2x digital zoom. The lens will function best when the action is a few feet away, and that will serve the purposes of the casual video shooter.

Many cameras with CMOS sensors are prone to distortion of vertical images when the camera moves horizontally. We did notice some of this distortion with the Zx1, but it was only visible with fast camera movements on a horizontal plane and it wasn't extreme. The black wrought-iron rails in the video below show a little of the tell-tale wobble that CMOS sensors produce.

Video Quality
Bearing in mind that this device is portable and costs $150, I'd say that the video quality is very nice. We captured some sample video in each of the three resolution settings.

Details and lines are sharp in the 720p 60 fps setting. Our sample below of the fountain was recorded in this setting.

Some of the sharpness is lost in the 30 fps HD mode, but relatively speaking, it still produces a high quality video. In any setting, the sensor performed best under bright daylight conditions.

The resolution drops down considerably in the VGA mode, but it creates a file that's web-friendly and easy for a standard screen to display. Panning quickly through a scene in this setting does create a jarring effect, as in our sample video, and it's made worse under low light conditions.

Panning through a brighter scene produces less stuttering.

As expected, my own non-HD laptop screen struggled when playing back the 720p files. The video files played much more smoothly on a large high definition HP monitor. Those with HD monitors or televisions already in place will reap all the benefits from the highest resolution settings of the Zx1. Those who are still waiting to dive in and buy an HD TV will still be able to enjoy the Zx1 - and will find they have room to grow if they do upgrade.

Of course, the video quality we saw from the Zx1 won't rival that of a top-of-the-line HD video camcorder. This camera isn't built to rival those standards. For its size and price point, it performs quite nicely.

Image Quality
The 1.6 megapixel CMOS sensor at the heart of the Zx1 captures crisp, detailed videos at its highest quality settings. However, image capture isn't as stellar. Still images are boosted up to 3 megapixels via interpolation. The fixed focal length also limits the still image capabilities of the Zx1. In a pinch, it will take a decent photo, but it won't replace a point-and-shoot.

 

Kodak Zx1 Kodak Zx1

 

Generally speaking, images and videos were a tad on the brighter, overexposed side. White balance and exposure are all handled by the camera and there's no way to adjust them manually. The Zx1's white balance made outdoor shooting under good daylight conditions look best, and I suspect that many users will be taking this camera outside.

Battery Life
The included batteries lasted through a few weeks of moderate use, needing to be recharged only once. Since the Zx1 also uses standard AAs, it's easy to plan ahead and take the camera on a long trip.


CONCLUSIONS
Is the Zx1 worth a $150 investment? That depends on what you want. If you'd like an HD video recorder that travels well, doesn't occupy too much space, records decent video and does it all in style, then I'd recommend the Zx1. The video quality isn't top of the line, but at this price point, it's a good value.

Though the menu screens and controls are somewhat mystifying to the first-time user, they're easily mastered. The good qualities of the Zx1 outweighed my gripes with the interface.

Even those without HD televisions can take comfort knowing that the Zx1 will record lower resolution video until they're ready to step up and purchase a higher resolution TV. This is a sleek little device that isn't going out of style anytime soon.

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