RCA Small Wonder EZ201
For 2007, both companies are shipping new models. Pure Digital is serving up the Flip and RCA has the Small Wonder EZ201. The two share much in common, but RCA has gone out of its way to differentiate its Small Wonder, giving it a white case, a more flexible and sharper LCD monitor, and an expansion slot for SD/MMC cards, allowing you to shoot and store much more video if you buy an optional memory card (out of the box, the cameras stores as much as 30 minutes of VGA-quality video (the manual calls it HQ or "best") on 512MB of internal flash memory. You can also opt to toggle down the video setting to LP or "good" quality and store as much as 60 minutes in the internal memory.
Like the earlier EZ101, the EZ201 is very lightweight (5 ounces) and compact enough to fit in a pocket. The 1.5-inch LCD screen flips completely out, making it easy to shoot yourself while watching yourself in the small screen. You can delete any undesirable clips right away, and the EZ201 has a video output, so you can view clips on any TV with a composite-video input (cable included). The unit is powered by two AA batteries and comes with a protective felt carrying case.
Currently, there are several inexpensive cameras on the market with the sole purpose of capturing MPEG-4 video, which is more compressed--and, thus, lower in quality--than the MPEG-2 video recorded by MiniDV camcorders. Video quality is steadily improving with these types of cameras, but it's really designed to be viewed in small windows (read: not at full screen) or on portable devices with small screens. Though the video is generally smooth, it's usually a little grainy and sometimes pixilated. In other words, it's a step up from the video quality of a camera phone, but it's on a par with what you'd record on a basic digital camera's Movie mode.
What sets this model apart from its competitors is the camera's internal software. Extend the USB connector and plug it into the USB port on your Windows PC (Windows 2000/XP or newer)--a viewer automatically pops up. The EZ101 worked with Macs (you had to manually install the software the first time you used it), but alas, this model does not ship with Mac software, which is disappointing. That said, if you do have a Windows PC, RCA's Memory Manager software is more robust than the software that shipped with last year's model. You can do basic edits to your clips, setting start and end points, and string several clips together to make a "movie." The EZ Grab option even lets you make a still image out of one of the frames from a video.
If you decide to e-mail a clip, the program automatically compresses the video to reduce the file size. Even short clips (from 20 to 30 seconds) result in nearly 1MB e-mail attachments, but the beauty of the software is that you can shoot a video and send it off in less than 5 minutes by pressing just a few buttons. Recipients simply click on the attachment and play it back using Windows Media Player.
New this year for RCA is its partnership with Box.net, the video-sharing service. Instead of sending your video files as e-mail attachments, which tend to clog up in-boxes when they're bigger than 2MB, you can easily upload a file to Box.net--signing up for a free account with a username and password takes less than a minute--and send out an e-mail notification to a host of recipients. As part of the upload process, your video file is compressed even further, compared to the file created for an e-mail attachment, so the quality isn't quite as good--but for most folks viewing a streamed file in a YouTube-like viewing box is more convenient than opening an e-mail attachment. That said, users do have the option of downloading and saving the video to their PCs or Macs (yes, Mac users can view the streamed video).
If you're really lazy--or truly technophobic--you still have the option of bringing the camera to any CVS, Rite Aid, or Ritz/Wolf Camera store that processes Pure Digital's $30 single-use digital camcorder. The folks there will make a DVD of your footage for $10. RCA also will be releasing an optional DVD docking and recording system for the EZ201 called the RCA Memory Maker, eliminating the need for a PC to burn your videos to DVD.
Last year, we noted that the RCA's earlier EZ101 offered only so-so video and had a few shortcomings. The biggest problem was an audible clicking sound whenever you pressed the button to zoom in or out (it's a 2x digital zoom). RCA has fixed this problem, but just be warned that the built-in mic is pretty sensitive and will pick up any extraneous noises you make when handling the camera. Ultimately, it's also probably a good idea to avoid using the zoom altogether. Since it's a digital zoom rather than optical, the picture degrades slightly when you zoom. You're better off "manually" zooming by physically moving closer or further away from your subject.
While the Small Wonder's image quality is far from stellar, for most folks it's going to be good enough--and the simplicity of the product is certainly very appealing. Throw in the memory expansion slot and a sub-$100 price, and we have no problem recommending this camcorder to anybody looking for a quick and easy way to share video.