For my money, the Kodak Zi8 belongs in the pocket camcorder hall of fame, and until I reviewed the Sony Bloggie Touch, I thought it was the best pocket camcorder around. So I'm heartened to see Kodak continue the line, first with the waterproof PlaySport, which I also gave high marks, and now with the Kodak PlayTouch, a slim touch-based successor to the Zi8.
Sony showed us how touch should be done in a pocket camcorder, can Kodak also teach us a few tricks? Read the Kodak PlayTouch review to find out.
BUILD AND DESIGN
The Kodak PlayTouch comes in just one model with 128MB of internal memory and an SD/SDHC card slot up to 32GB. It's available in orange, black, chrome, and teal. It's extremely lightweight and closely resembles a very thin point and shoot, with glossy plastic covering the front and back that I swore was aluminum at first, separated by a textured plastic trim along the edges.
A thin strip separates the lens area from the rest of the front panel. The 3.9mm lens sits between the on-board microphone and the LED record light. An IR sensor for an optional remote control rests under the LED light.
The large, 3.0-inch display takes up most of the real estate on the back, with the speaker, record button, battery-charge light underneath.
One side of the PlayTouch houses the power button and a small cover hiding the SD card slot. On the opposite side sits the AV out port and another cover that opens to reveal HDMI slot, USB slot, and USB dongle, which pops out at slightly less than forty-five degrees.
There is a tripod slot on the bottom of the PlayTouch next to the wrist-strap notch. There is an external mic/headphone jack on the PlayTouch top next to a focus switch that toggles between close-up and normal mode.
Finally, the bottom front panel slides off to reveal the lithium ion battery.
Of note regarding the design is that the lens area is slightly raised from the body, which is preferable to having it flush against the panel. This reduces the risk of lens scratches when laying the pocket camcorder down on a flat surface.
On the downside, the build quality is not up to the high standard Kodak set with previous pocket camcorders. The PlayTouch is light, but it also feels cheap and made of thin plastic. The flaps covering the SD and USB slots are secured by a slight strip, which I felt could snap with repeated use.
The same complaint applies for the USB dongle. I can't tell if Kodak intended it to be flexible, but it's also so slight that it seems like it will easily break off. Add to that the fact that it barely extends forty-five degrees out from the device, which could present issues slotting into some USB ports, especially alongside other peripherals.
Ergonomics and Controls
Kodak pocket camcorders are often a step above the "stupid simple" standard set by competing devices. The PlayTouch is no exception, as it offers a bit more than others and presents a handful of menu and picture filters – but no picture controls like white balance and exposure. All of which are accessible through the touchscreen, except the focus switch.
Still, a press of the record button is all that's needed to record videos and shoot movies, and that couldn't be easier. At first, I was a bit perplexed by the focus switch placement at the top of the device, but I'm guessing that's because the switch requires a physical change to the lens. Also, when the camera is set to "close up" a very salient red flower icon appears on the display, so there's little risk of accidentally leaving it on.
Speaking of the display, the capacitive touch navigation is extremely responsive. Navigating through the menus is intuitive with taps, swipes, and drags, and anyone who has used a smartphone or seen an iPhone commercial should have no issues with the touch controls.
Menus and Modes
From the main display, users can toggle between stills and video, playback footage, apply effects (filters) and access settings. The menu options apply both for stills and video. The effects include:
The settings menu includes:
When the LCD glare shield filter is turned on, users can choose between black and white, high contrast, and normal filters on the display monitor before recording. The filter does not apply to the footage, just the display.
On playback, users can cycle through both stills and video, which are all lumped together, and also sort clips by grid or date, zoom in on stills, trim footage in camera, and trash clips.
The 3.0-inch display has about 230,000 dots, which seems like a lot, but is actually significantly less than the 288,000 found on the Bloggie Touch, which also has a 3.0-inch display. Unfortunately, that's not the biggest issue facing the PlayTouch.
Unlike the Bloggie Touch, which uses the entire display as a monitor, the PlayTouch limits the action to about a third of the screen, with the other two thirds displaying black space peppered with icons and shooting info like recording time, battery monitor, and digital zoom option.
For me, shooting with the small window for more than a few minutes caused eyestrain, and it's extremely tough to see if a subject is in focus. Even though the autofocus does a fine job of keeping the blur out, I hate not being able to verify for myself while shooting.
On the plus side, the LCD brightness adjustments are a nice addition and do well to cut through the glare at the highest setting. I didn't find much use for the glare shield however, and it's impossible to tell what you are looking at through the severe black-and-white setting.
Like any decent pocket camcorder, the PlayTouch is extremely easy to use… just press record. Curiously, the video resolution is set to 720/30p out of the box, and not the maximum 1080p. There is only one setting for stills, and that is five megapixels, which is fine by me, as I've never thought a camcorder needed to offer more reduced resolutions. Switching between the two modes is intuitive as well, with only a press of the camcorder or camera icon on the display required to toggle.
Though I typically pan digital zooms because they degrade picture quality, I actually used the 4x digital zoom on the PlayTouch, but not as Kodak probably intended. I needed it to double check what I was shooting thanks to the small display window.
The camera only dedicates about 20MB of internal storage to photos and videos with the rest going to software and the operating system, which is good for about 7 seconds of 1080p footage. An 8GB card will net about an hour's worth of 1080p video or a little more than 4,000 five-megapixel stills. Battery life tops out at roughly two hours of constant shooting moderate action.
Just about everything is automated on the PlayTouch, including the focus, white balance, and exposure. All are capable of keeping up with the shooting situation, which is as it should be with a pocket camcorder. Every so often though, the white balance would take its sweet time, often readjusting ten or so seconds into a shoot. The focus switch and "close up" mode are great additions, and enable the PlayTouch to focus on items as close as approximately three to four inches away.
I had a hard time finding use for the face brackets and digital image stabilization, as neither is effective. I typically avoid DIS on pocket camcorders because the way it often warps the picture is more distracting than the slight shake or bounce it is supposed to combat; while the face brackets seem to do little more than frame faces in a yellow box.
Face recognition features generally identify a human face in the shot and prioritize it in terms of focus and other picture elements. If the PlayTouch face brackets actually do that, it must be extremely subtle, because I couldn't tell the difference between having them on or off when I reviewed the test footage.
Video and Stills Quality
Evaluating pocket camcorder video quality is akin to judging a hot dog tasting contest. All devices generally output the same quality of HD -- which is typically on the low end of the scale -- with only small differences between models, just like all hot dogs basically taste the same and are far from filet mignon.
That said, the PlayTouch output is no Nathan's Famous, to draw a comparison with the more expensive frank at the supermarket. The colors are flat, the details lacking with much too much image grain for high definition video. Try shooting in low light and fidelity takes a major hit, with digital artifacts making unwanted cameos. In fact, looking back at my PlaySport footage from last summer, the Kodak's waterproof model shot better quality video than the PlayTouch.
Here's a quick sample of video shot under constant light. Don't forget to maximize the clip and enable HD for an accurate example of video quality.
The five-megapixel stills are acceptable for a pocket camcorder, if not a step above the expected. I only ask a camcorder offer better-than-cell-phone-level quality, and the PlayTouch delivers on that front.
The main reason I loved the Zi8 is because it had an external mic jack, a feature that should be mandatory on all video capture devices. Think about watching a YouTube video. You are probably more likely to forgive pixilated video so long as you can hear what's going on. But lousy audio will absolutely ruin any clip, no matter how good it looks.
Thankfully, the PlayTouch has an external mic jack that doubles as the headphone jack. Plug a device in and an on-screen prompt asks if you just inserted headphones or a microphone. It's simple and it works, and I implore the Flip and Bloggie product managers to copy this feature on the next-generation pocket camcorders.
For the external mic-less, the onboard mic is predictably average at best, and audio sounds close to bad AM radio with the gain ratcheted up as it raises the noise floor considerably, eliminating any benefit in picking up faint or distance voices.
Operation and Extras
The PlayTouch ships with a USB cable, charging adapter, HDMI cable, AV cable, wrist strap, and camera pouch. The HDMI cable is a very nice addition, thank you Kodak. ArcSoft MediaImpression software comes loaded on the device, and installs when you insert the USB dongle. Interestingly, the USB cable doesn't do much of anything when connected to a laptop or PC. It doesn't charge the PlayTouch, and footage can only be transfered via the pop-out dongle.
I'm no fan of packaged software in general, and MediaImpression does nothing to sway my opinion. The PlayTouch shoots MP4 video and JPG stills, which can be dragged and dropped from the device, so users can avoid the program all together. In addition, the users can perform simple trim edits to clips within the PlayTouch, which makes use of the entire 3.0-inch display during playback. I also found that preferable to using MediaImpression for the same task.
Finally, the Kodak PlayTouch has a "share" feature in which users can tag videos and stills in the camera for automatic uploads to popular sharing sites like YouTube, Flickr and Facebook. Users can also set up an email address for the camera to send content too as well. Setting it all up is a bit of a hassle, and the feature requires extra software be installed on the PC. But it's effective, and I found the automatic emails especially useful.
The Kodak PlayTouch would be a great pocket camcorder if not for two major issues: the video quality and the limits imposed on the display. I'll give Kodak a pass for the thin-plastic build as it is probably a tradeoff for the PlayTouch's light weight.
It's a shame too, because the external mic input is enough to make me do flips, and overall, the PlayTouch has an attractive design, very responsive touchscreen and offers great shooting features, including in-camera editing. I also give Kodak high marks for including the HDMI cable and carrying pouch.
Overall however, I have to say the PlayTouch is a misfire for Kodak, but one that could easily be fixed with a tweak to the display function and a return to PlaySport video quality.