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.
With a long lens and a full complement of manual controls, speed and overall performance are relatively serious considerations for the enthusiast-focused Z915. And as we've seen before with Kodak models, however, actual lab and field test results prove to be much more of a mixed bag with the Z915.
Kodak touts the Z915 as the zippiest camera in its class - one of those magical asterisk-ridden statements that quickly qualifies itself into meaninglessness. Which isn't to say the latest Z camera is slow. In fact, where focused press-to-capture speeds are concerned, it's a better than average performer. It came in just below the rest of our test sample, but a snappy 0.05 seconds is relatively fast.
Shutter Lag (press-to-capture, pre-focused)
|Canon PowerShot SX20 IS||0.02|
|Nikon Coolpix P90||0.03|
|Olympus SP-590 UZ||0.03|
|Kodak EasyShare Z915||0.05|
AF Acquisition (press-to-capture, no pre-focus)
|Canon PowerShot SX20 IS||0.40|
|Nikon Coolpix P90||0.56|
|Olympus SP-590 UZ||0.57|
|Kodak EasyShare Z915||0.94|
In our studio tests, the Z915 just couldn't crank out a better performance in the AF acquisition test. Kodak claims much faster times here, and under ideal circumstances this may be the case. Then again, our test is about as ideal as circumstances come, and a full second or more from press to capture was in keeping with our experience of the Z915's sluggish performance in the field.
|Kodak EasyShare Z915||1.6 fps
|Nikon Coolpix P90||1.4 fps
|Olympus SP-590 UZ||1.2 fps
|Canon PowerShot SX20 IS||1.1 fps
Likewise, the Z915 won't be winning any awards for its continuous shooting prowess, managing a merely acceptable three frames at 1.6 fps before stopping for several seconds to clear the buffer.
In general, the Z915's AF system was this camera's one consistent frustration. Multi-area focus point selection is the default setup, though users can opt for a locked down center point only option as well. Depending on your shooting mode, of course, face detection focusing is also available, though Kodak's system certainly isn't as snappy or as reliable as some others we've looked at.
The Z915's overall speed wasn't exactly class-leading when shooting outdoors, and the camera actually gets even slower indoors (though there's not as much difference between focusing speeds in good and poor light here as in some competitive models). Even more frustrating is the Z915's tendency to be unable to lock focus, even in routine shooting situations. Changing the mode to center-point focusing helps somewhat, but even then the Z915 struggled to find a lock an awful lot. If there's a bright spot here, it's that shooting toward full telephoto didn't make as much difference in performance as I expected: admittedly, the Z915's lens isn't particularly fast (f/3.5) even at full wide, which makes the drop to f/4.8 at full tele a narrower step than is sometimes the case.
The Z915's flash is about what you'd expect from a point-and-shoot, producing flat but generally well-exposed pictures. Four basic modes, toggled via the dedicated flash button on the camera's top panel, include auto, red-eye reduction, fill, and suppressed options. The red-eye reduction mode worked as advertised, and the camera places flash power compensation where you can find it without hunting - right in the main heads-up menu. It is a little disappointing, though, that there's no slow sync option here. All in all, the flash doesn't have huge range or power, but these limitations also ensure that recycle times are kept well under five seconds regardless of shooting situation (assuming your batteries are fresh).
Speaking of batteries, Kodak's choice to use AA-format batteries to power the Z915 is at once a blessing and a curse. Power the EasyShare with expensive but long-lasting lithium cells or even high-power NiMH rechargeables and you should be good to go for a long time - 300 shots or more. Choose to buy cheap disposable AAs at the corner convenience store instead and you'll learn the hard way that this thing simply inhales alkalines. I was able to eke out 150 shots before the first set of Duracells gave up the ghost, and shooting a lot more video and flash pictures on the second set, I'm not sure that I even cleared 100 stills before the batteries were done for. Having the option to power the Z915 with easy-to-find alkaline AAs is great: for the sake of the environment and your wallet, though, don't depend on them for day-to-day power in this case.
The Z915's lens does away with any references to Schneider-Kreuznach, coming with Kodak Retinar badging instead. Although it offers a lot of range and decent sharpness to boot, the Z915's glass doesn't manage to pull off the stellar performances from optics in some other compact ultrazooms out there.
For starters, barrel distortion at the wider end of the zoom range was severe enough to earn comment from just about everyone who played with the Z915 - it's obvious enough to be noticeable on the camera's display in normal shooting situations. There's not much pincushioning to speak of at the other end of the range, but some inward bowing does make itself apparent when trying to capturing absolutely straight lines.
When it comes to usability, a three-position lens iris provides a bit more aperture control than the basic "open" and "closed" settings on many point-and-shoots. It's obviously still not DSLR-style control, but Kodak deserves some credit for going a step beyond the basics in their optical design, and making the manual and aperture priority modes in particular a little more usefully usable than those on most the Z915's competition.
Optically, the Z915 is relatively sharp throughout its range and across the frame, though narrow base apertures can make diffraction a detail-killer. The camera was also prone to haloing and fringing in high-contrast situations.
Blow out the highlights against a darker background, as in the white cage bars in this shot, and you're in for a bit of a visually distracting mess.
Likewise, macro performance is another mild disappointment, with the Z915 struggling to lock focus on anything closer than about two inches - making for some otherwise pleasing, but relatively un-macro macro shots.
As noted, HD it isn't when it comes to the Z915's video capture. Not only is capture size not much to write home about, but quality wasn't stellar either, with some strange choppiness showing up in our testing at times. Sound quality is average, and the Z915 even allows you to use the zoom while shooting video. That said, Kodak clearly makes no guarantees that the camera's AF will be able to adjust, with the device often taking three to five seconds to find focus after tweaking the zoom while filming. Overall, compared to some of the Z915's more expensive HD-equipped competition, this is one area where you definitely get what you pay for - which, considering the Kodak's low price, is "not a lot" on both counts.
Vibrant color is Kodak's specialty, and the Z915 doesn't disappoint in this regard. Shots from the EasyShare are punchy right out of the gate, and can be amped up further should you choose to do so by selecting the High Color processing mode. Conversely, a Low Color option looks considerably less processed and more natural than the default Natural Color setting.
Auto White Balance, 3200K incandescent light
You do have to be careful with boosting saturation on the Z915 too much, however, as the camera can be prone to channel clipping (and the attending visual messiness) when shooting in High Color mode.
Metering with the Z915 is accurate and generally reliable across the board. As is typically the case, the camera provides a handful of options, but I found the default multi-area setting (combined with the ocassional exposure compensation tweak, of course) perfectly acceptable for a point-and-shoot.
In order to keep skies vibrant in higher-contrast scenes, though, you'll need to ride the compensation control a little harder. With highlight-clipping tendencies similar to most other cameras with small sensors, the Z915 is about par for the course in this regard.
In terms of noise, the Z915 starts out with a little more noise and softness than I'd like to see at ISO 100. Thankfully, though, things don't deteriorate as rapidly as expected from there, with the camera providing a very clean ISO 800 setting and even a print-usable ISO 1600 option. Not bad considering that the Kodak handily outperforms cameras costing twice as much in this area.
ISO 100, 100% crop
ISO 200, 100% crop
ISO 400, 100% crop
ISO 800, 100% crop
ISO 1600, 100% crop
That said, you still don't want to look too close at fine details on anything above about ISO 400.
Additional Sample Images
Let's be honest: regardless of how it performs, the Z915 will attract plenty of buyers. It's a visually appealing camera with an attractive price that many discount retailers carry in their on-shelf inventories, which - performance and image quality considerations aside - will easily be enough to seal the deal on a fair number of purchases.
But ubiquity and good looks do not a superior camera make, and in the case of the Z915, there are so many choices out there anymore in the compact ultrazoom space that Kodak's offering doesn't really do a lot to stand out from the pack. There's no doubt that, in most respects and for most purposes, the Z915 is a perfectly capable camera. But considering some of the truly excellent ones against which it directly competes, the EasyShare also doesn't prove itself to be a best buy - even factoring in its attractively low price - in this increasingly crowded field.