The gadget: A direct followup to the excellent Zi6 HD pocket cam, the Zi8 adds a 1080p 30fps mode, a lithium ion battery, image stabilization, HDMI-out and a mic jack. It's restyled too, and less pudgy.
The price: $180
The verdict: Kodak's first foray into pocket camcorders set them ahead of the pack, at least for a while—a trick they've pulled off again with the Zi8. They've stolen back the top spot not with video quality—though it is impressive—but with a few obvious features that, until now, hadn't trickled down to this price point.
First though, the core improvements: This Zi's undergone a full hardware redesign which, once you peel the ugly, feature-touting sticker off the front, feels more modern, more solid, and more, well, designed than its lumpy predecessor. The screen is way, way sharper, which makes the whole camera, despite its similar interface and button layout, truly feel like a new piece of hardware. HDMI output works instantly and smoothly, and the microphone-in jack pulls concerts and noisy environments into the Things The Zi8 Can Do list. The hard, flip-out USB plug has been replaced with a rubberized flexible one, which makes life easier for situations where you don't have much clearance on a USB port. Oh, and the battery—a Li-Ion slab replaces the old model's rechargeable AAs.
The Zi8's ballyhooed feature is its 30fps 1080p video recording, which, along with a new 5-megapixel photo option, joins the 720p (30fps and 60fps) and WVGA video modes of the Zi6. The added resolution is technically impressive, sure, but it's also sort of excessive, and mostly unnoticeable. People have a hard enough time distinguishing between 1080p and 720p video when it's professionally produced and displayed on a high-end screen; the Zi8 is still very much a pocket camera, meaning that the video isn't quite crisp or vivid enough to gain much from the added pixels. Cameras like this are meant for uploading quality-sapping video sites—something the Windows-only software makes dead-simple—not Blu-ray discs.
That's not to say the raw video quality is bad—far from it. It's noticeably better than the Zi6, and a new, larger sensor boosts quality at all resolutions, especially in low light. Again, this is still a pocket camcorder, so expect some noise in dimmer situations. That said, the noise is subtle and tolerable, and a far sight less crappy than most of its direct competitors.
The reason the Zi8's video really stands out is image stabilization. This is a much bigger deal than it might sound, because it accomplishes something that might not be immediately obvious: it cuts down on shimmering—that queasy rippling effect you get whenever you move a cheap camcorder too quickly. It's still there, but with less microtwitches and jitters, it's way less apparent. In addition, the Zi6's macro mode makes a reappearance on the Zi8, but it' a lot more usable, since its field of focus has grown since the Zi6, which only gave you an inch or so of leeway before things got fuzzy. On top of it all, the Zi8's lens is wider. Some people might miss the extra optical zoom a little bit, but I found the wider angle much easier to film with.
The photo mode is acceptable, but not at the level of even a entry-level point-and-shoot, and prone to blurry shots, since the record button is a little stiff, and you're usually not holding the camera in an especially stable way. But in fitting with the ethos of this whole genre of device, it'll usually do just fine.
The takeaway here is that the Zi8, though still firmly a budget camcorder in terms of both price and image quality, is a device you'll be comfortable relying on in more situations than the old model, or for that matter, any other pocket cam on the market today. You'll worry less about how well-lit your subjects are; about just how macro you want to go; about keeping your hand steady enough to make your footage not look like frantic cellphone clip from a disaster scene; about how loud your surroundings will be. It's not going to replace a real camcorder in all situations, nor is meant to—but for a lot of people, it'll be more than good enough. At $180, that's nothing to smirk at. [Kodak]
Sharp, clean video in bright lighting, respectable video in low light
More versatile USB Plug
No internal storage
Software is convenient, but not that powerful