First Look: Kodak Zx1 and Flip UltraHD

High-definition pocket camcorders are becoming increasingly popular items to shove in a pocket or purse thanks to their relatively low cost, portability, and ability to move video quickly from camera, to computer, to Web. Two of the major players in the pocket camcorder business have recently released new models. Pure Digital today announced and released two new Flip Ultra camcorders--the $149 Flip UltraSD and the $200 Flip UltraHD. Kodak, makers of the popular Zi6 ( Macworld rated 4 out of 5 mice ), has recently released the $150 high-definition Zx1 pocket camcorder. I've been fortunate enough to have the Flip UltraHD and Zx1 in my possession for the last few days. These are my first impressions.

Same and different

The Kodak Zx1 and Flip UltraHD offer the kind of capabilities the two brands are known for. For example, like the Zi6, Kodak's Zx1 includes an SD card slot for the bulk of the camera's storage (the camera carries just 128MB of internal memory), lets you shoot stills, 30fps and 60fps HD video (720p), and 640 by 480 standard definition video; and is powered by two AA batteries. The Zx1 in 30fps HD mode shoots at a data rate just over 11Mbps. It comes in blue, pink, yellow, red, or black.

The Flip UltraHD is clearly descended from the original Flip Ultra. It's larger than the Flip MinoHD ([ Macworld rated 3.5 out of 5 mice ]. a smidge larger than the original Ultra too), includes 8GB of non-removable storage, is powered by two AA batteries (a rechargeable battery pack is included), and bears a USB connector that flips out from the side of the camera. It shoots at a data rate of around 10Mbps. It's offered in white or black and has chrome sides.

The cameras aren't carbon copies of their predecessors, however. They each have some important differences.

The Zx1 is a smaller camera than the Zi6 and that's forced some change in the design. For example, the display is smaller at 2-inches versus the Zi6's 2.4-inch display (both measured diagonally). Unlike the Zi6, the Zx1 includes no built-in USB connector. Instead the camera bears a micro USB connector which does double-duty--both transferring data from the camera to your computer and acting as an AV interface for composite video connections to a TV or other video device. And the Zx1 also sports a mini HDMI connector for plugging the camera into an HDTV or receiver. Compatible cables--USB data, USB composite video, mini-HDMI-to-HDMI video--are included in the box.

While the Flip UltraHD looks very much like the original Ultra, it has a larger display--2-inches versus the 1.5-inch display found on the earlier Ultra and on today's Flip MinoHD camcorders. It too has a mini-HDMI output (though no cable is included in the box). It records in stereo instead of the original Ultra's mono, and it's the first Flip camera that records over an hour's-worth of video (this camera and the UltraSD can shoot up to 2 hours of video). It's also the first Flip camcorder that lets you turn off the red recording light. (Useful for super-secret spy stuff where the red light might give away the camera's location and your intentions.) And, using the included Flip battery pack, you can charge the UltraHD via the USB connector. (You can use other rechargeable AA batteries in this camcorder, but they won't charge over USB. They must be removed and charged with a standard battery charger.)

Performance impressions

I've shot and viewed a little video with each camera and have formed some general notions of how they perform.

The larger display on the UltraHD is welcome. It's nice and bright, can be easily viewed in direct sunlight, and doesn't cause the kind of squinting that can occur when trying to discern objects on the Minos' smaller display. Its lens shoots at a wider angle than the Flip MinoHD or Kodak Zx1, letting you put more in the frame from the same distance. Shooting outside under sunlight it produces rich colors (maybe a little over-saturated but not terribly so) and while, like other pocket camcorders, it can blow out light colors set against a dark background, it handles other typical outdoor lighting conditions well.

(Image Caption: The Kodak Zx1 (left) gets blown out by bright color on darker background. Click to see full-sized image samples.)

Indoors during the day it shoots a little warmer (yellower) than the Flip MinoHD, and that's not a bad thing. Skin tones are more natural than with the MinoHD. The stereo microphone makes a difference too. The sound is more expansive and richer than the MinoHD's.

(Image Caption: Kodak Zx1 (left) provides less detail indoors than Flip UltraHD (right). Click to see full-sized image samples.)

The Zx1's display, like its video, tends to be a little washed out. Generally, this Kodak camera doesn't handle extremes as well as the UltraHD. Light objects have a greater tendency to get blown out and dark objects lose detail. Skin tones indoors with a sunlit room are cool and a little flat--too blue compared to the more natural looking tones captured by the UltraHD. Under low light the Zx1's video is grainier than the UltraHD's as well.

(Image Caption: The two cameras (Zx1 on left, UltraHD on right) under low light. Click to see full-sized image samples.)

Both cameras offer a 2x digital zoom and neither one produces great looking video when zoomed. However, the UltraHD zooms smoothly. The Zx1 stutters as you zoom in and out.

More to come

As I've hinted, I've looked at the specs of these cameras and shot a little video. I'll be spending far more quality time with them in the coming days in anticipation of reviewing each one separately.

[Senior editor Christopher Breen is the author of iPhone Pocket Guide, third edition (2008, Peachpit Press).]

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