By Josh Fate
Kodak's Zi8 is the big brother to the ZX1 that we reviewed earlier in the year, and has been equipped to compete with the new Flip Ultra HD. This pocket sized HD video camera allows for the capture of video at resolutions of 1920x1080 @ 30fps, 1280x720 @ 30 and 60fps, and 848x480 @ 30fps. It also has the ability to capture 5-Megapixel still images with the same aspect ratio as the HD videos instead of the standard 3:2 aspect ratio of most digicams. Videos and stills are recorded using the f2.8 fixed lens, allowing for good low light exposures. Your movies are then either stored on the internal 128MB of memory or on an SD/SDHC card of up to 32GB. The camera also features an audio input for better sound recording, as well as an standard composite A/V and HDMI output so you can watch and share your videos on any TV. Finally the built-in USB arm allows you to upload your videos to a computer anywhere, no cables necessary.
Designed for one-handed operation, the Zi8 is incredibly similar to shooting with a Blackberry or most other camera phones. The camera is very similar is size, held the same way, and the shutter release on the back is in the same place that you would find the ball mouse on a Blackberry. There are only five buttons on the back, which are distinctly labeled and 4 of the 5 only serve one function each. Only the shutter release/4-way controller button has more than one use. The power button and focus mode switch are located on the sides and top respectively.
Viewing and framing your images is done with the 2.5-inch LCD screen, that looks more like a 3-inch screen on the back of this camera. It is fairly easy to see in most lighting conditions, however, the shiny coating that covers the entire back of the camera will cause you to see reflections. The screen adjusts quickly (gains up) when going from bright to lower light conditions.
Performance from the Zi8 is OK when compared to most consumer digicams, but right in line with other pocket video cameras. It takes the camera 3 seconds to power up and capture its first image or start recording video. Shutter lag is approx. ½ second every time, since the lens is fixed and there is no additional time for an AF system to work. Switching to playback mode takes approx. 1 second for the camera to allow you to watch your videos, but only about ½ second when leaving playback mode and entering record mode. Our tests were completed using a Sandisk Ultra II, 1GB SD memory card.
Still image quality from the primarily video-oriented camera is decent. The 5-Megapixel images show good exposure and colors. Our sample images lack fine details, allowing colors to run together, giving them a watercolor look when viewing the images at 100%. Considering that the ability to capture images with this camera is a bonus, a feature not available on the Flip Ultra HD, it will produce decent results if a snapshot is necessary. If you are counting on high-quality still images, you will want to look into purchasing a compact digicam or bring one along with you.
The video quality in our samples show good exposure and colors with very little noise, even in slightly less than perfect lighting. However, if the lighting gets to low, noise will increase. The auto white balance did have a little difficulty with the tricky pool lighting as the tones change between videos, but this common with AWB on most cameras under these lighting conditions. The camera also struggled when recording things that moved quickly past the camera, which can be seen in the Civil War Reenactment sample. All three video resolutions shot at 30fps show a choppy playback, especially the 1920x1080 (1080p) sample. These videos were tested on a computer as well as a 1080p HDTV running directly through the camera with the included HDMI cable. The only smooth video playback came from the 1280x720 (720p), 60fps shooting mode. If you plan on playing these videos on a HDTV, then I would recommend shooting with this mode over the 1080p mode. Capturing the audio for your movies is a small mono mic that is built into the front of the camera. This mic is very sensitive and picks up all sounds around the camera, even some background sounds that you don't notice while recording. All of our pool samples demonstrate this with the air handler in the background. Kodak has added a stereo microphone jack, which allows you to really control the sound coming into the camera, if you have the equipment.
Powering the Zi8 is a 3.7v, 1000mAh Li-Ion rechargeable battery. This battery is charged right in the camera by plugging in the AC adapter. This battery provided more than enough power to complete all of our tests including capturing 75 videos (most 1 min. or less) and several still images. This is excellent battery life, so having just one battery should suffice most users. While it's always a good idea to have a second "backup" battery charged and on hand at all times, it will be a little harder with the Zi8 since the battery is charged in the camera.
Bottom Line - Kodak's Zi8 is a tough competitor in the quickly growing pocket HD video camera market. The overall quality from the camera is only decent, due to the slightly choppy playback from all record settings except for the 720p @ 60fps option, which did run smoothly. It is incredibly easy to use, and with the addition of a microphone input, it allows for high quality audio, even stereo if you have the equipment. Playback is easy and can be done on any type of TV or HDTV via the built-in A/V and HDMI outputs. It can also be hooked up to any computer at any time thanks to the built-in USB arm. With a MSRP of US$ 179.95, this is a definite contender in a quickly growing market. You can also check out the Flip Ultra HD for another good option for a HD pocket video camera.
Visitors of Steves can visit the stores below for real-time pricing and availability. You can also find hot, soon to expire online offers on a variety of cameras and accessories at our very own Camera Deals page.