Carting a camcorder with you has become a whole lot easier, thanks to pocket-sized digital camcorders such as Pure Digital Technologies' Flip Ultra and Flip Mino. These inexpensive cameras are not only drop-dead easy to use--push a button to record and another to play--but produce video acceptable for posting to sites such as YouTube and MySpace. Recently, Kodak entered this market with its diminutive pocket camcorder, the
In doing so, it's given Flip and consumers interested in pocket video something to think about. Not only is it the same price as the Flip Mino ($180), but unlike the Flip camcorders, it shoots in HD, offering 720p at either 60 or 30 frames per second. It also takes still shots at 3 megapixels (interpolated), stores data on SD cards (up to 32GB), and runs off two rechargeable AA batteries.
Like the Flip camcorders, the Zi6 includes a built-in USB connector. Just press a button on the front of the camera and out pops the connector. Its 2x zoom lens lets you zoom like you can with a Flip, but the Zi6 also includes a Macro switch that, when engaged, allows you to get within an inch of your subject without blurring. It features a 2.4-inch LCD that's not tremendously bright but can be seen outdoors in all but the sunniest conditions; a mono microphone on the front; a built-in speaker; and AV (composite) and HD (component) output ports on the side.
The Zi6 is available in black or pink, and includes composite and component cables, two rechargeable NiMH batteries, a battery charger, wrist strap, camera pouch, user guide, and Arcsoft's Media Impression software. The software is completely useless to Mac users as it's Windows-only. And the Zi6 doesn't come with a SD memory card.
The Zi6 is bigger than the Flip Mino--think iPod classic versus iPod mini. But that larger size allows for the bigger LCD. Much of the camera's operation is controlled through a joystick on the back. Turn the camera on, choose how you want to capture the image by cycling through the options with the joystick (HD video at 60 or 30 frames per second, standard definition video, or still), press the center of the joystick in to begin the capture, push the joystick up or down to zoom in or out respectively, then press the joystick again to stop. I wasn't completely thrilled with the joystick, as I occasionally bumped it when I didn't mean to, but I found it no less troublesome than the Flip Mino's touch-sensitive buttons, which I also occasionally press by mistake.
To play your video, press the Record/Play button to the right of the joystick to choose Play. Press the joystick to the right or left to cycle through movies or stills you've captured and press the joystick to start playback. To remove movies or stills, just select them while in Play mode and press the Trash button to the left of the joystick.
To copy your captured content to the Mac, flip out the USB connector, switch on the camera, and jack it into a free USB 2.0 port. If you have the latest version of iPhoto, it launches and offers to import the separate video and image files. If you don't have the most recent version of iPhoto, you're welcome to import files into iMovie '08 with the File: Import Movie command, or into iMovie HD via the File: Import command. Each command produces an Import navigation window, where you can locate the movies on the attached camera (within the DCIM folder).
The Zi6's movies are encoded in the H.264 format; as a result, there's no need to install another codec to use them as you would for movies recorded with the Flip cameras, because H.264 is natively supported by QuickTime (and therefore iMovie and Final Cut Pro). Audio is recorded in the AAC format at 48 Kbps.
Under the proper shooting conditions, the Zi6's output looks nice--with its 1,280 by 720 resolution, it fills up my widescreen TV nicely. And by proper shooting conditions, I mean that movies should be shot in reasonable light and the camera held with a steady hand. The Zi6's low-light shooting is unimpressive, but no worse than the Flip Mino's. If your subject is inside at night and anywhere but near a strong lamp, you'll see some graininess. Shooting at twilight outside will produce the same kind of results. Otherwise, daytime outdoor and indoor-near-a-window shots look good--not $600-and-over-camcorder good, but for such a small device, good.
As with the Flip cameras, camera shake is a concern with the Zi6. The camera has no image stabilization, so if it's operated by an over-caffeinated person, you're likely to see the image bounce around. The camera does carry a plastic tripod mount on the bottom should you need to hold it rock-steady.
Audio is about what you'd expect from a small microphone embedded in a camera. Its reach is enough to record audio from across the room, but the resulting sound won't thrill you.
Macworld's buying advice
With the introduction of the Kodak Zi6, the pocket-sized camcorder market got a lot more interesting. At $180, it's priced the same as the Flip Mino but is--with its potentially greater storage, removable battery, larger LCD, and HD capabilities--the better camera. If you're in the market for an inexpensive camcorder and can deal with camera shake and unimpressive low-light shooting, this is the camera to have--today. Things are clearly heating up in this market and it will be interesting to see Pure Digital Technologies' response.