The evolution of pocket camcorders is moving swiftly, and the Kodak Zi8 is the current king of low-cost, high-definition video. Though it's not without its flaws and limitations, the Kodak Zi8 is a strong follow up to the models that preceded it, the mostly-good HD Zx1 and the mediocre standard-definition Zi6. It presents a real, significant challenge to the dominance of Pure Digital's Flip camcorders and could revitalize Kodak's fortunes.
The Zi8 is the first pocket camcorder to offer full 1080p high-definition resolution. It's soon to be followed by the 1080p Samsung U10. Previous high-definition pocket camcorders, like the Zx1 or the Flip UltraHD and MinoHD could only record in 720p. It's also the first pocket camcorder to offer some form of image stabilization. The Zi8 utilizes "electronic image stabilization," which is really just extra image processing aimed at minimizing the effect of shakes on the final video. It is not as powerful as the "optical" image stabilization found on most traditional camcorders and digital cameras.
Instead of trying to copy the Flip camcorders, Kodak has very smartly tried to fill the gaps where the Flip camcorders are insufficient. The Flip camcorders are, by design, very simple and conservative, and resist adding features that don't directly relate or might otherwise complicate to shooting video. Most manual modifications are forbidden. It's been a successful strategy so far, but many of the limitations of the Flip models are frustrating and, frankly, arbitrary. The Zi8 manages to retain a simple, easy-to-use interface and experience while allowing for greater control and versatility.
Here are some of the ways in which the Zi8 surpasses the Flip camcorders:
1.Different Resolutions: The current Flip models are locked into their native shooting resolution. The Flip UltraHD, for example, can only shoot in 720p. It cannot be adjusted to shoot in standard definition. The Zi8 can shoot in 1080p, 720p at 30fps, 720p at 60fps, and WVGA (widescreen, standard definition) modes, giving the user the option to switch resolutions for different environments and scenarios.
2.Electronic Image Stabilization: It's not much, but at least Kodak is making an effort to reduce shakes and jitters, the biggest problem with this type of camcorder.
3.Still Photography: The Zi8 has a 5-megapixel still photo mode, while Flip continues to ignore the possibility that someone might want to snap a quick photo with these devices.
4.External Microphone Jack: If you want to get real fancy with your audio, Kodak has provided an external jack for connecting a better, more capable microphone than the one integrated into the camcorder.
5.Flexible USB Connector: The rigid USB connector on the Flip cameras makes it difficult to fit into crowded USB hubs; the Zi8 has a flexible USB connector that presents no such difficulty.
The Zi8 lacks optical zoom, like all pocket camcorders, and does have digital zoom up to 10x. At 1080p and 720p/60fps, it can record about 10 minutes per gigabyte. At 720p/30fps, it can record 15 minutes per gigabyte, and in WVGA mode, it can record 25 minutes per gigabyte.
Design: Slim and Wide
The Kodak Zi8 is a very thin device, truly a pocket camcorder intended for slipping into pants or shirt pockets. It's also very wide, primarily to accommodate the large, 2.5-inch LCD display. The wideness isn't a downside; it's worth it for the screen and actually provides a little extra stability in the hand. The back panel of the Zi8 consists of four buttons: menu, delete, video mode, and playback/preview. The center, four-way joystick doubles as the record button, as well. The joystick is a little rubber nub that barely sticks out of the camcorder, and its small size can make navigating difficult at first, but wasn't too bad after a few minutes of practice. On top of the camcorder, you'll find the focus switch, which toggles between macro and landscape focuses.
The sides of the camcorder are a little busier. On one side, you'll find the power button, the SD/SDHC card slot, and the flexing flip-out USB connector. The other side is host to the microphone jack, HDMI output, and DC power connector. The front panel of the Zi8 is a removable cover, which contains the lithium-ion battery. The menus and icons are also much clearer and easier to grasp than those on previous Kodak pocket camcorders.
Performance: Better, Not Perfect
The video quality of the Kodak Zi8 is great, definitely superior to the lower-quality HD found on previous pocket camcorders. The 1080p resolution provides excellent detail, vibrant colors, and videos with real punch. Unfortunately, hand shakes and jitters remain a problem, even with the electronic image stabilization. While it does mitigate some of the shakes and blurs, it simply cannot catch them all, or even most of them, the way optical image stabilization would. Kodak has avoided optical image stabilization because it would add both heft to the body of the camcorder and increase the price, so pocket camcorders require a trade off from consumers. You get affordability and portability, at the cost of stability.
We've taken a series of test videos in the various resolutions to give you a sense of how the Zi8 performs. In them, you should be able to see the camcorder's capabilities for detailed, high-resolution imagery and its difficulty with motion and panning. It must be said, however, that this problem is far less severe than it is in pocket camcorders without electronic image stabilization and that EIS is a good, if incomplete, step in the right direction.
Still image quality is surprisingly good considering that Kodak makes such terrible digital cameras. The 5-megapixel shots are clear, crisp, and definitely high-quality. Since focus is determined by the toggle switch, it can be hard to get photos just right, but after a little trial and error it's easy to get the hang of it. For quick snaps and candid shots, the Zi8 performs quite well.
It should be noted that the Zi8 gets very hot to the touch when it use for an extended period of time. The camcorder is doing a lot of work and generates a lot of heat, which can become uncomfortable but won't burn or injure users. It's a common problem with smaller gadgets with less body to shield the hand from the inner workings of the device.
Conclusion: The Best So Far
The Kodak Zi8 is the best pocket camcorder I've seen so far. It hits all the bases and hits them well. While there's still a lot of room for improvement for image stabilization, Kodak has at least tried something, instead of just pretending like it's not a problem, with relatively reasonable results. The Zi8 is not only the best and most versatile pocket camcorder, it's also one of the most affordable, a remarkable paradox that consumers should be thankful for.