The Kodak Zi6 is a pocket HD video camera that records 720p video at 60 frames per second. It's cheap as cheap can be for a camera with that capability, and its feature set is minimal, but at a current market price of approximately $150 you can't really ask for more. Its main competitors are the Flip Mino HD and the Creative Vado HD, both of which cost about 33% more.
With YouTube logos plastered all over the box and manual, it's clear that this camera is aimed at the same market share that's into taking videos on cell phones and, well uploading them to YouTube. The Zi6 does cell phone video one better and adds HD capability.
So, with that context in mind, let's see what the Zi6 can do.
Aesthetics, Design, and Controls:
The Zi6, especially with its batteries removed, feels very much like a toy. It has no heft whatsoever in the hand and feels like it's made entirely of plastic. The combination of matte rubberized, matte silver, and chromed plastics on the exterior looks tacky and cheap, and the buttons---especially the joystickfeel as though they're prone to breaking. While I'm tempted to chalk this up to the low price, I'm reminded of numerous cheap digital still cameras from Canon, Sony, and so on, feel far sturdier in the hand and boast superior looks.
The control scheme on the camera is extremely simple. Along the top edge is power on/off slider. It's not a toggle---you simply slide it to the right to turn it on, and slide it to the right again when you want to turn it off. On the right side is a toggle to choose between close-up and normal shooting modes, a SD/SDHC card slot, and the battery compartment. The doors for both the memory card and battery compartments are extremely flimsy, though they do a good job of sealing shut when closed. On the bottom are a plastic tripod mount and the hooks used to secure the wrist strap. On the left side you'll find the snap-out USB plug, as well as output jacks for SD and HD video. The back includes the lens, speaker, microphone, and the USB plug release (which also functions as a nearly entirely useless mirror for self-recording).
The front of the camera hosts the 2.4-inch LCD screen, which has a passable frame rate and resolution. Even though it's a HD video camera, the screen is in a 4:3 format to support the VGA (640 x 480 pixels) recording option. Below the screen are three controls. Central is a joystick that can be used for up/down and left/right controls, which have various functions in various contexts. To the right of the joystick is a button that toggles between recording and playback. To the left is a button that either stops recording, stops playback, or deletes the current video, depending on what mode you're currently in.
That's it. There's no menu, no settings to tweak, nothing. The joystick's left/right function can be used to select the recording type, allowing you to choose between HD60 (720p @ 60fps), HD (720p @ 30fps), VGA, and still image recording. Still image recording is sort of a tacked-on feature, since the camera's sensor is only 1.6 megapixels. The up/down joystick function controls zoom in recording mode (2x digital) and volume in playback mode.
As you've probably gathered from the above, there's not really much to the camera as far as options go. You can't set the shutter speed, you can't control the light sensitivity, and you can't change the white balance. You basically hit record and go. There's nothing much to see here. Let's move on.
Image and Audio Quality
There's no getting around it: in dim light, the Zi6 produces abysmal video quality, even at the highest HD setting. However, I have a feeling this is the case for cameras in this class, right across the board. In better lightsay, natural bright daylight, outsidethe quality is actually very good. The lens seems sharp, the colors are accurate, and the contrast is punchy. However, there are other issues that rear their head.
On a walk across town to work from my designated parking space, I decided to take the camera along and record the journey. This involved walking with the camera in one hand, arm extended and held as rigidly as possible to minimize camera shake, and two bags in the other. As you might imagine, the video was quite shaky, despite my best efforts. What was unexpected was the odd sort of distortion that occurred in the video as I walked. It was mostly unnoticeable when playing back the video on the camera's LCD, but when playing it later on my PC, I found something quite odd. Whether it's an effect of the frame rate plus the vertical shake, or a legitimate design problem in the lens itself, the video seems to distort when the camera is shaken---the image actually looks to squish vertically with every step, as if it's compressing from the shock of my footsteps.
When taken from a standing or seated position, outdoor video or video under bright fluorescent lights looks fine. Panning slowly largely prevents "tearing" or jerky looking video. However, in my opinion this severely limits the camera's usefulness. If you can only get decent results when standing still and when in bright sunlight, you've already ruled out more than half of the device's potential use. But maybe I'm just pickier than some when it comes to image quality.
Audio quality is fine across the board, though I did notice a high-pitched electronic noise when video was recorded at full zoom. It went away immediately when I zoomed out a little.
Software and Computer Interface
When the Zi6 is plugged into a PC, it immediately offers to install the bundled ArcSoft Connect and ArcSoft MediaImpression for Kodak software. While not the best software out there to handle HD video, it's certainly passable. Moreover, it's a good decision on Kodak's part to bundle self-installing software in this way, on a camera clearly intended for kids and novices. The software includes all the functionality necessary to import and subsequently upload videos to YouTube, with a simple file tree/YouTube login interface. The user never has to go to the YouTube site, beyond the initial setting up of their account.
Videos taken with the Zi6 are recorded in .mov format with the H.264 codec and can either be viewed via MediaImpression or through another player like Apple Quicktime or VLC Player. They can be imported with the included software or simply cut and pasted from the camera to the user's hard drive via Windows Explorer. Videos can also be viewed by using the included HD component and SD video cables, hooked directly up to a HDTV or standard definition television.
The camera only has 128mb of internal storage, most of which is taken up by the bundled software. This makes it essentially useless out of the box, since the 30mb of space left over is good for maybe 30 seconds of recording. This means that you need to tack another $10 to $30 onto the cost of the camera, when factoring in a 2 to 8GB SDHC card. (The camera supports up to 32GB SDHC cards.) On the other hand, the box includes a set of rechargeable NiMH AA batteries and a battery charger, which is something of a rarity in the camera world and will save you near the same amount.
One final complaint is the design of the USB jack. While it's indubitably cool to be able to plug the device directly into your computer without using a cable or putting the memory card into a card reader, the jack is on the flimsy side. Moreover, when you plug it into a USB port on a desktop tower, the weight of the camera causes it to dangle dangerously with only the tensile strength of the USB jack to support it. While I never had the camera fall out of my PC case's front USB ports, I never felt comfortable with it hanging there either.
At $150, the Zi6's price can't be beat, but its features certainly can. Unless you're entirely unwilling to save up an extra hundred or two hundred dollars, or unless you simply don't care that much about video quality as long as the contents are mostly, sorta visible, I can't recommend this camera.
In the end, those who want truly good image quality will spring for a true HD camcorder like those offered by Panasonic, Sony, and Canon. Kids and those largely unconcerned with prettiness over basic functionality will go for cameras like the Zi6.