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.
We're pretty impressed with the Zi8's video quality. As with all these pocket camcorders, it significantly boosts the quality if the unit stays as still as possible while shooting (sticking it on a tripod will offer the best results), but this model is the first we've seen to include electronic image stabilization. We can't say it makes a huge difference, but for reducing small hand jitters when shooting, it does help. The downside to engaging it is that it drains the battery faster, so if you do mount the Zi8 on a tripod, turn it off.
We shot mainly in 1080p mode; the clips were sharp (for an HD pocket camcorder) and the colors vibrant and relatively accurate. Though it's not superfast, the Zi8 does adjust exposure fairly quickly when panning from brightly lit to darker scenes, and it compensates appropriately for backlit subjects. Using the face-detection feature (you can choose to turn it on or off), you can lock in on a subject and the camcorder will adjust its exposure if, say, the face you locked on is too shadowed. However, it's worth mentioning that in making the adjustment, the Zi8 does tend to soften that portion of the image as it boosts the gain.
The still photos aren't great, but they're a step up from what a typical camera phone produces and overall pretty usable. Lowlight performance was also good and Kodak appears to have made some nice improvements in this department. The Zi6 did well enough in low light, but the Zi8's image quality is better, with less visible noise. Unfortunately, when you press the joystick, which doubles as the shutter button, it jerks the camcorder, making it hard to get good shots.
It's also worth pointing out that the Zi8 has a macro mode that allows you to focus on subjects at close range. One of the issues with pocket camcorders, including those made by Flip Video, has been their inability to focus on subjects that are a foot or two away from the camcorder. But toggle the little switch on top of the Zi8 to the macro mode and you'll be able to come in tight and focus in on objects or people.
The Zi8 defaults to 720p recording, predominantly because most computers probably won't be able to smoothly play the 1080p video, which is encoded at a relatively high bit rate of around 20Mbps. We played our videos on a Samsung 50-inch LCD HDTV via HDMI, and the video looks quite decent blown up. Kodak and ArcSoft optimized the included MediaImpression software--it's in the camcorder's memory and automatically installs on Windows machines when you plug the Zi8's USB connector into your desktop or laptop PC--for high-bit-rate playback. With it, we had no problems. This limitation may pose issues for some users, though, especially software-unsupported OS X users. You can still edit the 1080p video in third-party software, however.
The ArcSoft MediaImpression software includes the usual shortcut upload to YouTube, as well as some editing features that allow you to trim your clips, adjust contrast, color, and brightness, and splice you clips into a cohesive "movie," complete with customized background music and titles. As we said, this software is Windows only. If you own a Mac, you can copy your video and still images to your computer by dragging and dropping the files from the camcorder as you would with any USB storage device (and upload them to YouTube easily enough) and then edit your videos using iMovie.
In the final analysis, while we have a few nitpicks for the Zi8, we have to say it's the best pocket camcorder we've reviewed to date, with superior image quality and the best features. Today, we'd have to recommend it over the Flip Video models, though we can't say what the future holds--for instance, we've yet to see Samsung's contender--as Flip and other manufacturers will undoubtedly offer their own new pocket camcorders with these types of appealing new features and 1080p video capture.