Over the last few years, as the pocket camcorder market has taken off, pioneer Flip Video has narrowly hung onto the lead it built by offering models with arguably superior designs and slightly better video quality. A few companies, including Creative, Sony, and RCA, have been nipping at its heels for a while, but none has been able to overtake Flip's offerings. Until now. While Kodak's Zi8 may not be perfect, it has a lot of the little extras we've been asking for--including electronic image stabilization and external mic support--and delivers very respectable video for a mini camcorder well under $200.
For starters, Kodak improved upon the design of last year's Zi6 and this year's ruggedized Zx1, both of which we thought decent, but not great. The Zi8 looks slicker than the Zi6, and while it's far from the smallest or lightest pocket camcorder we've tested, it is fairly compact, measuring 2.4 inches by 4.5 inches by 0.9 inch and weighing 4.8 ounces.
This model comes in three colors Kodak dubs black, aqua, and raspberry, and it has a sharp and generously sized 2.5-inch LCD on the back. The only noteworthy drawback is that all three models are fingerprint magnets and you'll find yourself constantly wiping down the camcorder. The plastic finish is also susceptible to scratches, so you'll probably want to keep the unit in a protective cover, particularly if you've got keys in your pocket. Unfortunately, Kodak doesn't ship the Zi8 with any sort of case, though it does sell one, as well as a remote control.
To trim down the chassis, Kodak has gone with a slimmer lithium ion rechargeable battery instead of the AA NiMH rechargeables that ship with the Zi6. That's a good move, but you don't have the luxury of swapping in a standard pair of alkaline batteries should you run out of juice on the road. Like most competitors, you can charge the Zi8 directly from your computer via the flip-out cable, but the camcorder also ships with an AC adapter to connect it to a wall outlet.
As we say about all these pocket camcorders: while they may be billed as HD models, they really can't be compared with true HD camcorders that cost hundreds of dollars more and have superior lenses and sensors. However, the image quality is getting better and the Zi8 is the first pocket camcorder on the market to boast 1080p 30fps video capture and 5-megapixel still-image capture, thanks to its integration of a 1/2.5-inch 5-megapixel CMOS sensor. Like the Zi6, this model also records video in 720p resolution at up to 60fps, which Kodak says is "best for sports and action," as well as 720p/30fps ("best for sharing on YouTube or Facebook") and WVGA ("best for conserving memory card space").
Like the Zi6 and Zx1, this model comes with a trivial amount of internal memory and Kodak doesn't include an SD card in the box. We still wish Kodak would throw in a 1GB SD card, but the margins on these products are tight, so we can understand that Kodak needs to cut some corners to hit an attractive price point. Anyway, the long and short of it is, you have to supply your own SD card (the Zi8 accepts SDHC cards up to 32GB, so it can store a ton of video and still images). We calculated that when you record video at the highest level (1080p), you eat up anywhere from around 110 to 150MB per minute, depending upon video content, or about 14 to 18 minutes of video on a typical 2GB card. (Kodak quotes 20 minutes per gigabyte, but that's for 720p.) Similar to most competitors, videos are encoded as generally compatible QuickTime MPEG-4 MOV files, using H.264 compression.
As with all these mini camcorders, the Zi8 is designed to be easy to use. Kodak has made some improvements to the interface, and the inclusion of a four-way rocker control makes navigating the device's menus that much simpler. That said, it's a good idea to consult the manual to figure out exactly what the icons stand for in the settings menu and to make sure you have everything set correctly.
We like its four speeds of fast-forwarding and rewinding, and you can advance or rewind your footage frame by frame, if you want. The 2.5-inch LCD looks sharp and the sound plays back loud enough through the Zi8's little speaker as long as you crank up the volume. The mic seems sensitive enough as long as the subject is only a few feet away. But if you want to improve your recordings, you should opt for an external stereo mic, which will do a better job at picking up sound. (External mics range in price from about $16 to well over $100). For the moment, anyway, the external mic option is one of the Zi8's key differentiating features and will appeal to everyone from journalists to amateur documentarians.