With the introduction of the Zi8, Kodak brought full 1080p HD video capture into their low-cost pocket camcorder lineup for the first time. It offers a step up from their 720p model - the Zi6 - by adding a few more bells and whistles including electronic image stabilization, an external mic jack, 5.3 megapixel still image capture, a more stylish and compact design, and of course, full HD video.
While there are many competitors in the pocket camcorder market today, like Pure Digital's Flip, Kodak's Zi8 is $20 cheaper than both of their HD models and records in higher resolutions than Flip's 720p HD offerings. That's right - for under $200 you can get HD video onto your computer and TV screen without much strain via the USB arm, or through SD/SDHC high-speed memory cards, making it the ultimate in convenience for digital users. But does the bargain price mean a trade-off in quality? Read on.
BUILD AND DESIGN
Slightly larger than my Blackberry Curve, the Kodak Zi8 cuts a figure that's more like a smartphone than a camcorder. Our review unit is an aqua color, but it comes in three different varieties total, including black and "raspberry." The Zi8 is a combination of hard plastic and what appears to be aluminum.
It is designed to fit in a pocket easily, and does so well, although without a retractable lens with a trap door I was somewhat concerned about dust and lint getting on the lens when I had it stowed away. Simple in design, the camera is different from the Zi6 in that it has a rechargeable lithium-ion battery instead of AA's.
Ergonomics and Controls
The Zi8 is a pocket camcorder that fits into compact spaces like large pockets and bags easily. Upon first examination of the Zi8, it does remind you of a Blackberry, with ergonomics that lend itself to holding it in two hands like you're about to type out an email on a QWERTY keyboard.
The design is simple, and intended to be easy to use. On the bottom right of the Zi8 is a trap door for the USB connector that connects to an articulated rubber arm so that you can move it around in any direction and hook it up directly to your computer without any impediments. As you move up along the right side, you'll see the trap door for the SD/SDHC. Farther up is the power button.
On the left side of the camera is the HDMI port, Stereo monoaural mic jack, and a plughole for recharging the battery. And of course on the back of the Zi8 is the lens, looking no larger than a cell phone pinhole camera. On top of the pocket camcorder is a switch that toggles between macro and normal focusing. The front of the Zi8 features a nice 2.5 inch LCD, a settings button, delete key, record mode button, a review button, a speaker, and lastly, a four-way controller joystick button with a red dot that controls the shooting aspect as well as toggling between controls.
The Zi8 has a certain amount of bulk to it, giving it a sturdy feel in the hand. The control layout is very minimalistic in nature and isn't difficult to figure out without reading the manual. Playback is simple; you hit the playback button and then press the red controller to maneuver through the different clips you've captured.
The biggest deficiency of the Kodak Zi8 in terms of control operation is that red button - it can be a bit clunky and tricky to master. For example, when you turn on the Zi8 you are first presented with a screen that gives you the choice of 1080p/720p: 60fps/720p/WVGA/Camera - these are the five different camera modes available to the shooter.
You have to switch over to one of these modes that you need by moving left or right, but when I first tried a new mode, the red button just clicked instead of scrolled. You almost have to dig your finger into the groove of the red button to guide it, instead of clicking on it. All in all, there's not much to learn about the Kodak Zi8, since its functionality is no more than a point-and-shoot digital video camera. It's not elegant, but it gets a thumbs up for simplicity.
Menus and Modes
The red button is the gateway to changing and controlling all functionalities on the Zi8. However, there really isn't much you can control. Once you press the Settings button, you have a very small amount of options to choose from, including changing the date, toggling between Video Out NTSC/PAL, LCD brightness, Sounds, External Microphone Gain, Electronic Image Stabilization, Face Detection, Format Memory Card, and Camera Info. Take that as a pro or a con, depending on how you'd like to use the camera.
Shooting modes are comprised of four different video modes and one digital still mode. Here they are in more detail:
This is the extent of control over the video, and everything else is pretty straightforward. You'll hit playback to review video, click on the shooting settings to change from different video resolutions and the camera, and use the trash button to delete images. If you've ever used a digital camera, you won't get left in the proverbial dust.
Slightly larger than the Zi6, the Zi8's LCD is a 2.5 inch diagonal playback window (Zi6's is 2.4 inches). You can control the level of brightness through the settings menu, which is good for varied light conditions. Most of the video I captured was in dull and dreary fall skies, so it wasn't an issue for me.
Playback on the LCD was quite nice. I was unable to find the exact resolution of the screen, but I will say video and images looked pretty good on the little monitor.
Since the Zi8 is a pocket camcorder, it seemed appropriate to record video in various lighting scenarios to see how it would hold up, especially in low-light conditions. It was nice to also see when taking it out into the field that the rechargeable battery gave it quite a bit of shooting time
The Zi8 test model stood up to cold conditions and howling winds, and was able to still get off some pretty decent footage. However, I do lament the fact that the video's white balance cannot be changed at all, making some of the video even on a well-lit day quite drab and noisy.
The Zi8 yielded some varied results in the field, mainly due to the little amount of control you have over this pocket camcorder. Size and features are a trade off when you are speaking in terms of cameras or camcorders. The Zi8 is a no-frills model with an eye-catching video resolution - full hi-def video - but not much else.
It has a slightly larger 1/2.5-type 5 megapixel CMOS sensor than its predecessor, making it prone to some of the inherent problems of smaller sensors like noise and degradation, especially in low light. In all the varied conditions I shot with the Zi8, I found some things I liked, as well as things I disliked. Those things included distortion on moving vertical images, excessive noise in gray skies, and poor low-light performance even in well-lit rooms. On the other hand, I liked its ease of use, faithful color reproduction, (very low) price and the ability to choose different frames rates and resolutions.
The Zi8 has a 6.3mm f/2.8 fixed focus lens with a 35mm equivalent of 61mm for 1080p, 46mm for 720p/60 fps, 720p/30 fps and WVGA, and 42mm for stills. Like the Zi6, the Zi8 has a macro function. It doesn't work quite as well in the 1080p mode mostly because you have to get very close to your desired object, making it a bit blurry no matter how hard you try to steady your hand. The Zi8 is best used for a subject a little off into the distance, about 10 feet or so, to get you in the right spot to capture enough of the 16:9 aspect ratio.
Since the Zi8 uses a fixed lens, it offers only a digital 4x zoom function. Unfortunately, it's so sluggish that it isn't really worth using. Using digital zoom is also less desirable since the video is interpolated to stretch out the effect of an optical zoom.
I also found the same rolling shutter problem that we spotted in our review of the Kodak Zx1. When using it to capture fast moving horizontal video, such as panning quickly left and right, vertical lines appear to wobble. As we noted in that review, CMOS sensors are prone to this type of distortion and they generally aren't apparent in most video.
The resolution of the video you can capture with the Zi8 is pretty much at the top of the heap as far as pocket camcorders go. However, you'll still find that videos captured under certain conditions are plagued with noise, artifacts and several distortions.
Also, it is hard to differentiate between 1080p and 720p at 30 fps, and even after very close inspection on an HD TV and my computer monitor, I found no real difference. The real champion here is the 720p/60 fps video setting, which has much more sharpness and fluidity compared to the 1080p/720p 30 fps modes, which are softer and somewhat more distorted, with more grain.
Although the 30 fps frame rates are more prone to issues like noise and distortion, it still creates decent HD video, especially at this price point. If you want the video to really pop, you need a bright lighting like a sunny day or a well-lit scene.
The Kodak Zi8 certainly doesn't produce the best HD video in the world. However, it does offer more flexibility than what most digital cameras can produce. It's not going to beat out your dedicated HD camcorder any time soon, though.
The 5.3 megapixel digital stills from the Zi8 were not amazing, but still surprised me. They are interpolated images, so they aren't a true 5-megapixel image. They were well exposed in good lighting, but noisy in low light.
The images are captured in the 16:9 aspect ratio, and there is no zoom power, so you'll have to position yourself accordingly. Also exposure is completely controlled by the camera, setting the white balance, exposure values, etc. This doesn't leave much room to really manipulate any shooting settings. The quality is slightly better than a cell phone, but it certainly won't take the place of even a low-end point and shoot.
Additional Sample Images
The Kodak Zi8 promises full HD video recording, but does this feature warrant a purchase? Well, it depends on what you're looking for. In this case, the video is decent but not exceptional, the image stabilization doesn't really cut down on the jitters, and there is some degradation to the video due to the size of the CMOS sensor.
The price alone, $179, is sure to appeal to consumers looking for a low-cost HD camcorder. For that price tag, the Zi8 will work best for the videographer who doesn't expect cinema quality video and doesn't expect it to match the output of a full HD camcorder. The Kodak Zi8 does offer some unique features like a monoaural microphone jack, full HD and other HD resolutions and frame rates, and digital image stabilization. So if you're looking for low-cost video, take a look at this little pocket camcorder.