Kodak pocket HD camcorders don't receive the recognition they deserve. The Zi8 is arguably the best pocket HD camcorder of the last generation, and the only to feature an external mic jack, but it lacks the brand recognition of the rival Flip.
Still, Kodak persists, and they have done something impressive with the new Kodak PlaySport. That is, produce a waterproof 1080p pocket camcorder for an MSRP of $150.
Does it meet the high standard set by the Zi8? Or is the waterproof PlaySport simply all wet?
BUILD AND DESIGN
The PlaySport is a follow up to the weather resistant Zx1, but more closely resembles a walkie-talkie than it does that pocket camcorder. It has rounded edges, rubberized grips and textured plastics to give it a solid feel. The front side sports all the controls including a two-inch LCD screen, four-way dial, record/photo button as well as buttons to toggle live view and the LCD glare shield, play clips, trash footage and access camera settings. Found on the opposite side is a fixed-focus lens in the upper portion and an on-board mic. A tripod slot and wrist-strap notch are located on the bottom of the device.
On either side are watertight ports with locking covers. One contains a mini-HDMI port, USB out and AV jack just below the power button. The other houses the SD/SDHC slot and the removable lithium ion rechargeable digital camera battery.
The PlaySport measures 4.4 x 2.3 x 0.8 inches and weighs 5.1 ounces with both the battery and an SD card, making it perfectly pocketable and light to boot. It comes in purple, blue or black, all with a white control side.
Ergonomics and Controls
The PlaySport is both comfortable to hold and easy to use. The textured plastic and rubberized edges make it easy to grip even when wet, and the wrist strap keeps the device secure. The buttons and dial are appropriately labeled and require a hearty press, most likely the result of being waterproof.
Everything is laid out logically and I had no trouble operating the camera with one hand. After a couple uses, I could record and snap stills without even looking at the device.
Like most other pocket HD camcorders, the PlaySport lens is almost flush with the unit and has no cover, making it vulnerable to fingerprints or worse. Also, it's extremely easy for the odd finger to make its way across the lens during shooting, something I encountered more than once.
Menus and Modes
The PlaySport offers four recording modes of 1080p/30fps, 720p/60fps, 720p/30fps and WVGA, and one 5 megapixel still option, all rendered through a 1/2.5-inch CMOS sensor. Curiously, you have to switch between the recording modes using the four-way dial. It's simple, but takes some getting used to as it's not labeled on the device and most other camcorder include a dedicated button or menu option for switching between stills and video.
The PlaySport doesn't offer much in its menu, sans a few features and camera settings. These include:
Each menu item is represented by an icon. They are a bit cryptic at first glance and I had to consult the manual to figure out what each represents and does.
Especially confusing is the underwater mode, represented by the symbol "H2O." The manual instructs users to "turn on to take pictures/videos underwater." However, it merely adjusts the picture for underwater shooting, as the device is waterproof regardless if the mode is activated.
At only two-inches, the PlaySport LCD is on the small side of displays and works well within the confines of the device. There aren't many icons cluttering up the space and it's not a touchscreen. It's just large enough the monitor the action and play it back.
Kodak included two controls to fight off the sunlight glare that plagues LCD screens: a glare shield and brightness setting. While neither eliminate the issue, they both work well enough, and the glare shield is easily available as one of the PlaySport's five dedicated buttons. The glare shield alters the display by rendering it in black and white or with high saturation. The footage is not affected.
The PlaySport Zx3 is waterproof in up to 3 meters (9.8 feet) of water, but Kodak is quick to remind users it doesn't float. So keep the wrist strap secured when diving with it and resist the temptation to toss it overboard. It's also not shockproof, despite its tough exterior. Even though I accidentally dropped it a few times without breaking anything, I wouldn't recommend casually tossing it around, if only for the sake of the display screen and lens.
In addition to being an underwater HD camcorder, the PlaySport is also a decent pocket camcorder. Everything is automatic, including the focus, exposure and white balance. All do an admirable job of rendering accurate colors and keeping up with any camera movements. The up and down buttons on the four-way dial control a 4x digital zoom, which predictably lessens picture quality, but not enough to render the function useless.
The focus range begins at about 40 inches, meaning you'll have to keep the object at least that far from the lens to retain focus. That length increases to 52 inches for underwater shooting.
The battery lasted a disappointing 90 minutes of continuous shooting at the highest resolution. Other pocket camcorders can go upwards of two hours between charges.
One feature worth noting is the PlaySport EIS. Pocket camcorder stabilization typically produces jittery and warped video, making it worse than the shaky alternative. Not the PlaySport EIS. While the video does warp and bend a bit due to the processing, the EIS ultimately works as intended and proves itself useful.
Here's a bumpy stretch of bike trail recorded with the EIS on:
Here is the same stretch with the EIS off:
Operation and Extras
The Kodak PlaySport shoots H.264 video wrapped up as .MOV files and JPG stills. Extracting them both is a simple drag-and-drop operation. The unit also comes preloaded with Windows-only Arcsoft Media Impressions software (Mac users will have to stick with iMovie). Here, users can organize and access photos and videos, trim footage, correct colors, apply video effects and upload to sharing sites. There is even a simple movie-making feature to splice together clips with transitions and add narration and music. This user-friendly and useful program is on par with the Flipshare software I praised in the SlideHD review.
In addition to a battery, charging adapter, USB cable and AV cable, the PlaySport comes packaged with a mini-HDMI cable. I've seen $1,000 flagship HD camcorders packaged without an HDMI cable, so kudos to Kodak for providing one in their $150 pocket device. Unfortunately, it doesn't come with a cloth bag or carrying case to help protect the lens and screen. Of course, Kodak sells a carrying case separately on their site.
The PlaySport has 128MB of on-board memory, but the Media Impressions software takes up about 100MB of that. So you'll need to spring for an SD or SDHC card (up to 32GB).
The HD video quality is impressive and compares favorably against other pocket camcorders. Examining the maximum resolution footage reveals the PlaySport to have a sharp picture with smooth colors and minimum digital artifacts.
Here's a sample in continuous overhead light:
The PlaySport struggles in low light, which is expected for a pocket camcorder. Digital artifacts litter the clip and the colors are way off. Notice the artifacts near the skunk's tail:
The rolling shutter effect is an issue with any pocket HD camcorder featuring a small CMOS sensor, and the PlaySport is not immune. Any moderate to fast panning or camera movement will result in a skewing of the video.
Switch down to the PlaySport's 720p/60fps resolution and the footage loses some sharpness in favor of 30 additional frames per second, which also lessens the skewing. This mode is ideal for shooting active clips like a kids' soccer game or a dog running around the yard.
Skunks and skewing aside, the PlaySport is built for recording underwater, and we dunked it in every pool, puddle, cup, lake, and river we could find. I even sent TechnologyGuide Editorial Assistant Kevin Bierfeldt out in the rain to test it against the elements.
The PlaySport Zx3 performed admirably on all fronts, never once taking in a drop. The only drawback is that lacking an external light and requiring at least four feet of space to focus, the PlaySport can't capture much of anything in murky water, like in Boston's famed Charles River ("Love that dirty water"):
In something clearer, like the fountain outside the TechTarget home office, the clips are crisp and objects easy to discern:
Did I see a quarter in the lower right hand corner of the clip?
The 5 megapixel stills are mediocre and close to cell-phone level quality. The colors look nice, but the images are soft on the edges. I won't complain too loudly. The Flip doesn't even offer a stills option.
The Zi8 is the only mainstream pocket camcorder with an external mic jack, so I had faint hopes Kodak would include one on the PlaySport. Alas, there is only an on-board mono mic. I suppose underwater audio is all gargles and bubbles anyway, but an external mic option would have been nice for everyday use.
You can set the mic gain in the settings menu, and it gets very sensitive at the highest level. However, the audio quality is no better than that captured by other pocket camcorders, which is far from great.
The waterproof Kodak PlaySport Zx3 is a fine device for capturing a day at the beach, in the pool or out among the elements. It's waterproof as advertised and feels much more rugged and solid than other pocket camcorders. The PlaySport also stands out with impressive HD video for its size, an effective electronic image stabilization feature and a low MSRP of $150.
However, I think the Zi8 is better as an all-around device, owing mainly to the external mic jack. Still, with their low prices, I can find room in my pocket for both the Zi8 and PlaySport Zx3.