Kodak has had a bad run of luck, or rather, a bad run of poorly made products. Their digital camera line is a disaster, full of clunky lemons that have disappointed countless consumers looking for cheap deals. That's why the Kodak Zx1 is such a surprise. Though it's not without its flaws, it's actually a rather refreshing take on the "Pocket Video Camcorder" that has so far been epitomized by Pure Digital's Flip Video camcorder line. Kodak has taken steps to address some drawbacks of the Flip's design and configuration, hoping to steal a little attention from the much hyped product.
To get a feel for how it's different, let's compare the specifications.
Advanages Over the Flip
Some of the differences between the Flip and the Zx1 are small, some are big, and in some unfortunate cases, they are similar. Here are the highlights:
1. Video Quality: This is a little tricky, so stay with me. The HD Flip Video camcorders record at high-definition resolutions of 1280 x 720 pixels, at 30 frames per second. This is immutable; HD models cannot shoot in lower resolution modes or at other frame rates. The Kodak Zx1 trumps the Flip with its versatility. It can also shoot video at 1280 x 720 pixels and 30 frames per second, but also includes two other options. Users can bump the frame rate up to 60 frames per second, for even greater detail, or lower the resolution to VGA (640 x 480) for scenes that don't require that much power. The three modes are denoted as HD30, HD60, and VGA. More on this later, when we talk about how the Zx1's videos actually look.
2. Memory: The Flip Video camcorders record to between four and eight gigabytes of internal, non-removable flash memory, which maxes out at 1 hour on the Flip MinoHD and 2 hours on the Flip UltraHD. In contrast, the Kodak Zx1 records to removable Secure Digital cards, and can handle 32GB SDHC cards, for up to ten hours of video capacity.
3. Still Photos: The Flip Video camcorders have no still camera capabilities. The Kodak Zx1 can take three megapixel still photos.
4. Durability: The Flip camcorders are well made and attractive, but are comprised entirely of plastic. They are not built to withstand much damage or abuse. The Zx1 has been designed to be resistant to rain, snow, sand, and dirt, and combines a rubberized body with a stainless steel back panel, blending strength and good looks.
5. Price: The Kodak Zx1 has a MSRP of only $149, far less than the Flip UltraHD's $199 and the Flip MinoHD's $226 price tags.
Where The Flip and Zx1 Disappoint: Image Stabilization
The Flip and Zx1 are similar in one disappointing way, however. Both lack any kind of image stabilization. With such small, lightweight cameras, even the smallest jostle or shake can spoil a video, especially one shot in high-definition. According to a Kodak representative, the addition of image stabilization would greatly increase the cost and size of a camera like the Zx1, robbing it of its most significant advantages, that is, its affordability and portability.
It's an argument I understand and sympathize with, but the fact of the matter is that HD pocket cams, across the board, do not take very good, stable videos, and it's extremely annoying to have to make sure your hand is perfectly still when taking a fun, candid clip. Perhaps future cameras will figure out how to cram some gyroscopes in these things without making them exorbitantly expensive. Most digital cameras have image stabilization and they're not absurdly costly.
Where The Flip Wins: Interface
The Flip has always prided itself on simplicity, and its low-key interface is absolutely idiot-proof. The Zx1's interface (which includes its buttons and on-screen menus) is not so easy. Inscrutable icons and confusing menu items make the Zx1 difficult to navigate without first consulting the manual. The Flip makes it so you never have to wonder what something does, but the Zx1 is not nearly as user-friendly right out of the box.
Performance: Where The Zx1's Versatility Comes Into Play
Although the high-definition mode of the Zx1 are its marquee feature, and surely the one getting the most attention, what I liked most about this camcorder was that I wasn't forced to shoot in HD all the time. With the HD Flip Video camcorders, being stuck in HD mode was rather irritating, especially considering the jittery results that came from shooting without image stabilization. The Zx1's ability to shoot in plain old VGA resolution, 640 x 480 pixels, was a refreshing change of pace.
First, I'll talk about the HD modes. HD30 (1280 x 720 pixels, 30fps) is the standard shooting mode, and matches the HD Flip models. The HD30 video clips taken with the Zx1 looked virtually identical to those taken with the Flip. There was no substantial difference in quality, whatsoever. The Zx1's HD30 videos were bright, vivid, highly detailed, and pretty shaky, just like the Flip's. HD60 (1280 x 720 pixels, 60fps) definitely demonstrated an improvement in detail and definition, but also enhanced the jitters. Both performed as well as can be expected from a camcorder of this type, which should be counted as a win for Kodak, considering the Zx1 is far, far cheaper than the average pocket video camcorder.
I was very impressed with the VGA (640 x 480, 30fps) mode. Yes, it's a lower resolution (and lower quality) but if you're just pushing video to YouTube, you really don't need HD clips. The VGA mode greatly reduced the jittering seen in the HD clips resulting from the lack of image stabilization. It wasn't as detailed or colorful, but it got the job done, and it's very good of Kodak to have included it on the Zx1. For quick and dirty video clips, VGA mode is the way to go.
The versatility, the ability to choose which mode best suits each scene, is the Zx1's biggest strength. If you need high-definition, you can pick the setting and hold it really really still. If you just want to take a candid, off-the-cuff video, let VGA handle it and go wild.
Still Photo Mode: Good Enough
The Kodak Zx1 also features a still photo mode, something that most of these pocket video cameras have avoided so far. It's not an essential feature by any means, but as these products are all about convenience, it seems silly not to let users take quick, low-resolution snapshots as well as video.
The Zx1's still photo mode can take three megapixel photos, and they're not great, but they're good enough. You can see some samples on the right hand side of this review. They're perfectly adequate, probably not on par with older 3-megapixel digital cameras but certainly on the level of the average cellular phone camera. That's enough for most people, and enough for a low-cost product like the Zx1.
Conclusions: Surprisingly Good
The Zx1 has done an admirable job of expanding the role of the pocket video camcorder by offering expanded features and versatile video settings. The advantages over the current Flip models are pronounced, and owing to its low price tag, it's strong competition for the current king of pocket video. It's nice to see Kodak do something good for a change.