Earlier this year, DigitalCameraReview tried out the Kodak EasyShare Sport C123, a ruggedized digital camera that fell well below expectations. This time around we’ve gotten our hands on the EasyShare Sport's camcorder counterpart, the Kodak PlaySport Zx5.
Upon first receiving the device, our sights were set low by how similar it seemed to the EasyShare Sport. The names are similar, the displays are similar, and Kodak's entire marketing campaign for the PlaySport seemed directly copied from the EasyShare Sport (right down to the dirt-covered, partially submerged PlaySport featured on the camcorder's official product page).
None of these features boded well. However there was a glimmer of pre-review hope for the PlaySport: digging through the DCR archives turns up a review for the last iteration of the product line, the first-generation Kodak PlaySport, which we found to be a four-star product.
Would the Zx5, with its humble specifications and ability to take a beating, follow in the footsteps of the respectable Zx3 that came before it, or the mediocre EasyShare Sport C123 that seems cut from the same rugged cloth? What follows is our adventure with the PlaySport as we find out what it's made of.
BUILD AND DESIGN
The PlaySport Zx5 is more portable and significantly better designed than the EasyShare Sport thanks to its built-in battery, which allows it to be, if not slender, at least in fighting shape.
The PlaySport is not much larger than a last generation cell phone, measuring 4.4 x 2.3 x .7 inches and weighing 4.4 ounces. While you can definitely feel it in your pocket, it's more along the lines of a comforting presence than cumbersome burden. Our review model was solid black on the backside, with a dotted pattern and Kodak logo featured on the front. Kodak also offers the PlaySport in red or aqua color options.
Every button featured on the PlaySport, with the exception of the power button, can be found on the back of the device under the 2.0-inch LCD display. The power button is on top of the device. The Zx5's various ports can be found on the sides of the device, the left side featuring the HDMI and USB ports, while the right side has an SD/SDHC card slot, which supports cards up to 36GB. All of these ports are hidden under two plastic flaps that hinge up when an unlock button is slid. The PlaySport looks charmingly silly when both flaps are open at the same time, but, like everything else on the PlaySport, they feel sturdy and durable.
The PlaySport Zx5's onboard microphone is located at the very bottom of the device.
Ergonomics and Controls
The PlaySport seems to have been designed with one-handed use in mind, and it accomplishes this goal beautifully. The record/shutter button is the furthest to the right, and is exceptionally easy to press with the hand holding the device (assuming the user is a righty). It is surrounded by the navigation buttons, which are used to scroll through menus and saved photos, and also control the PlaySport's digital zoom. Unfortunately these keys, which are some of the most frequently used buttons on the device, are difficult and unsatisfying to press. It's hard to push them down and to feel when a press has been registered.
Luckily the remaining buttons on the PlaySport are significantly more responsive. The power button on top of the device might actually be a bit too press-able, and it seems like the PlaySport could accidentally be powered on in a purse or pocket. However this was not a major issue by any means.
Aside from the buttons already mentioned, the remaining commands on the PlaySport are arranged in a semicircle that curves around the record button/nav keys. These include the camera/camcorder setting toggle (switch from video recording to image capture), the review photos button, a delete key, the settings button, and the proprietary Kodak Share button. Some of the keys at the far side of the semicircle are a bit hard to press using only one hand, but they are less frequently used. It would probably never become an issue unless someone were dangling off of a cliff and had been recording video but really wanted to switch to camera mode and only had one spare hand (a predicament I did not encounter over the review period).
Menus and Modes
The PlaySport's few menus are well laid out and easy to navigate. Also, it's worth noting up front that there is a dearth of options on the PlaySport, so there's really not that much to navigate through. The menus and modes listed on the PlaySport Zx5 are as follows:
That's it for options on the PlaySport, but it really doesn't need much else, and its lack of settings adds nicely to its simplicity. Also, its macro capabilities are much appreciated (albeit still limited), especially after dealing with the EasyShare C123 and its seeming inability to focus on things closer than five feet from the lens.
The PlaySport Zx5's display was unfortunately reminiscent of the EasyShare Sport, although it did not offend quite so greatly. Kodak seems to have a running tendency of not utilizing the spare real estate on its devices and leaving its screens unnecessarily small. Measuring two inches diagonally, the LCD viewfinder on the PlaySport just felt cramped.
The screen renders images quickly, and did not seem to lag at all (a surprising and annoying feature in the EasyShare Sport). And while it may leave you squinting and cursing its smallness at times, it ultimately did not pose too much of an issue.
The Kodak PlaySport's performance, while by no means excellent, was admirable given what it is. It did not particularly excel in any avenue, producing average video, average stills, and average audio, but average across the board translates to success for a $180 rugged pocket camcorder. Plus, the PlaySport Zx5 manages to perform underwater and in other harsh conditions, and can be thrown around considerably more than many other devices in its class.
Regarding the PlaySport's toughness, Kodak claims it is dust proof, water proof to 10 feet, and can sustain five foot drops (onto plywood). We verified the latter two of these claims, dropping the PlaySport a number of times and letting it go for a swim (though nowhere near a 10-foot depth).
The PlaySport, based on its shooting performance, would not be ideal for the burgeoning amateur director. It would, however, be more than acceptable for an outdoor enthusiast looking to capture his/her adventures, or could be a nice device for kids (especially considering its fortitude).
The entire shooting experience on the Zx5 is easy to master. Turn it on, hit record, and there's not much more to it. The biggest performance drawback would have to be the way the camcorder handles zooming (it has a 4x digital zoom). It just did not do a very good job, with images becoming distorted and stabilization becoming completely lost. The entire zooming experience was less than smooth.
The macro option, which seems to be a new addition since the Zx3, performed well capturing both stills and video. Like many aspects of the PlaySport there, there were no frills, but rather it just worked and straightforwardly did what it was supposed to. As for underwater recording, the PlaySport did a fine job, but worked best with good lighting and clear water. However, even in the dirty turtle tank, the PlaySport still did an OK job recording video (seen below, with the macro setting also on).
Good lighting is the PlaySport's best friend and a necessity for quality video. In low-light settings videos became grainy and details were lost.
In daylight settings, however, the PlaySport generally performed well, and managed to capture clear and crisp videos. The other notable, primary video deficiency of the PlaySport is its digital image stabilization. The Zx3 had an option to turn this feature on or off, while the Zx5 has it permanently enabled. Ultimately, things could still easily get bumpy with the Zx5.
While either walking or driving the picture would often bounce around and the PlaySport did not manage smooth recording. However things never got so bad as to be unbearable, and its stabilization is ultimately less a flaw, and more an attribute that could definitely be improved upon.
The PlaySport features a five-megapixel lens, which matches up to the same caliber used in many of today's smartphones.
Some of the qualms about video quality transfer over to stills as well. With no flash or external light source, the PlaySport struggles in low-light settings. Colors are dulled and clarity is lost. However the adulations transfer over as well and in bright light pictures are rich and clear. And, as with video recording, the PlaySport's macro function is a welcome addition to still image capture as well.
The PlaySport's effects are limited, but they did what they were supposed to. Consider the images below, which feature the normal image on the left and an image taken using the 70s Film effect on the right.
Of course, the dominate feature of the next-generation PlaySport is its ability to shoot video underwater. That, coupled with the macro feature, make for some interesting video.
The PlaySport Zx5 does not offer an external microphone input (a complaint we also had with the Zx3), though I don't think it's necessary at all, especially considering the Zx5's targeted user base and the quality of the onboard mic.
The gain on the built-in mic can be adjusted from the settings screen with a slide bar, allowing users to customize its sensitivity. I generally lived in the mid-ranges and had no problem throughout the review period. Sounds are not crystal clear, and the Zx5 would probably not do too well at a concert, but it did a fine job clearly picking up voices and general ambient sound. Also, the microphone is obviously rendered useless (or essentially useless) when the camcorder is underwater.
Operation and Extras
Unlike the Zx3, the Zx5 does not ship with an included HDMI cable, unfortunately leaving the box nearly as barebones as the camcorder itself. The Zx5 ships with a microUSB cord, a wall-adapter for this cord, a wrist-strap, and an abbreviated user's manual. Any other imaginable perks or accessories are lacking, but such is the case with many budget devices (and with many gadgets in general, regardless of price).
The PlaySport only features 128MB of internal memory, and an SD or SDHC card (up to 32GB) will be required if a user wants to have any real type of storage on the device. On its website, Kodak promises a one-year warranty on the PlaySport, but does not provide specific details on the extent of this coverage.
One attribute of the PlaySport that Kodak has heavily advertised is its proprietary Share button (a feature also present on the EasyShare Sport). It allows users to designate specific websites to publish pictures and videos to, and supports Facebook, Flickr, the Kodak Gallery, YouTube, Twitter, Orkut, Yandex, as well as email and the Kodak Pulse Digital Frame. Ultimately, there's nothing wrong with the Share button, however I personally find it to be a tad unnecessary, and it is generally easier to just open a file manager and slough through the media. However some users could find the service useful.
The PlaySport will probably not be used to make any award winning documentaries (or even a serviceable student film). But for its price it can't be beat as an adventure camcorder, and is more than acceptable as a pocket cam for less demanding users. Its video and image quality is on par with the rest of its class, and its superior build puts it above its competitors.
I cannot recommend it unequivocally, but for users with the right needs (affordability, endurance) it is quite possibly the best camcorder around.