Even though Cisco killed the Flip cam last week, the pocket-cam bandwagon is still rolling. Kodak’s Playfull (full HD, get it?) offers up some surprisingly strong results in a tiny package, despite a very cheap-feeling build. For basic video needs, this bite-sized shooter will get the job done.
Starting off on the negative foot feels like the wrong way to go, but in the Playfull’s case, the bad part is the first thing you’ll notice. This thing is the size of a candy bar, and it looks and feels about as cheap as one. The “sleek” plastic shell, “stylish” color schemes, and faux-chrome accents on this camcorder will appeal to certain kinds of buyers on a store shelf, but the design seems like an attempt to make this pocket cam look like something way cooler and fancier than it actually is.
That’s not the worst part though: The fold-out USB arm on the Playfull is mounted on a flexible rubber strip. This flexibility is great for connecting the camera to a USB port, but every time I opened the arm compartment, I felt like I was going to rip the arm right off. The access panels for the SD/SDHC card slot, HDMI output, and charging port feel equally as flimsy. These complaints may seem picky, but the USB arm is kind of the business end of a pocket cam; if it fails, the camcorder loses almost all of its appeal.
Then there's a small matter of convenience. The SD/SDHC card slot is the only storage on the Playfull -- there's no recordable built-in memory. Memory cards are one more part to keep track of, and pocket camcorders are supposed to be incredibly simple gadgets. The Flip set the standard: this should have some built-in memory.
Finally, the 1.5-inch screen is really, really small, almost uncomfortably so, for reviewing video. It also makes videos look a little brighter (and greener) than they actually are, so if your shot is a little dark on the camera, it’s going to be very dark on your computer.
Now, with that out of the way we can move on to all the pleasant surprises the Playfull dishes up.
Ease of Use/Interface
The Playfull’s control panel is about as simple as it gets. On the back panel you’ll find the usual “big button in the middle” for recording, selecting, and navigating. The up and down directional selectors also control the 4x digital zoom. Around the center button there are clear icons for reviewing, deleting, accessing settings, and switching between video and still-image recording. These icons are all smooth, hidden buttons that encourage a little exploration. The Kodak Share button sits below the rest of the controls. It helps users tag certain videos for automatic upload to online accounts like YouTube or Facebook when the Playfull is connected to a computer. This feature actually works pretty well after the software (bundled with the camera) is installed, although most tagging and captioning will be have to be done post-upload. And if you don’t want to go straight to the Web, importing is easy on either Mac or PC; any video editor worth its keep will recognize the mp4 file type.
It's easy to access every feature in the Playfull without ever opening the user manual. While the review and delete buttons are pretty standard, the quick-and-easy switch between video and still shooting is much appreciated, while the simple jump to the settings menu is awesome. In the menu, the three most important settings are right at the top of the list: Effects, Video Resolution, and Microphone Gain. The audio gain levels are easy to adjust, and the audio readout is intuitive and responsive. Dropping resolution to 720p or wide-screen VGA can save space on SD cards, and might even be more convenient for users who plan to upload to social networking sites regularly.
The built-in effects are actually pretty cool too. The old standards -- Black and White, and Sepia -- are easy to access and always fun to have around. The real highlights, though, are the High Saturation and 70’s Film effects. The High Saturation gives you super-bright colors that look like over-bled film footage. The 70’s Film drops a greenish tint and a bit of a fade on everything and actually captures the old home-video feel pretty accurately.
For what this camcorder is, and its $150 price point (sure to plummet as time passes), the 1080p HD video looks very, very good. In bright light, the image is clear and crisp and even has some depth to it. Distant details are a touch fuzzy, and fast motion causes some bending and wobbling, but footage taken of a harbor during testing showed clear textured ripples in deep blue water. Colors are just a tiny bit faded, but all in all, things look surprisingly good.
The real surprise here was the low-light performance. While the Playfull doesn’t yield clear, beautiful, big-sensor night shots, it outperforms much more expensive camcorders in dim light. Outdoor night-shots lit with streetlights or dim, indoor settings still have clear detail and recognizable faces. Noise, while present, isn’t distracting or overpowering.
The digital image stabilizer seemed to do its job pretty well with minimal shaking during unsupported handheld use. The zoom controls have just one speed, and the zoom is entirely digital, but again, for $150, it’s nice just to have it there.
While pocket cams are cheap and simplistic, they can also be a lot of fun. The Kodak Playfull happens to be cheap, fun, and a surprisingly strong performer. Despite some build quality issues and a lack of built-in memory, the Playfull delivers some of the best-quality pocket cam footage out there. Ultimately performance and usability are more important than looks. If pocket cams keep looking this good, there may be hope for them yet.