The Kodak Zi6: A Flip Killer?

I purchased a Flip Ultra in April of 2008, about 6 months ago. It’s great.

You can see the Flip Ultra’s specifications here.

I’ve used it primarily to make short videos of my little boy, now almost 10 months old, as he grows and explores his world. The Flip is perfect for this kind of thing, creating quick little videos, slice-of-life moments captured for posterity. Easy to hold, fitting in a pocket, lightweight, and mostly durable (if not a little hollow-feeling), the Flip Ultra is a perfect compliment to a digital SLR camera, or even a point-and-shoot camera that can record video of its own (more on that later).

Operating a Flip is easy because there are really only two things you need to know to work the thing: slide the power switch to turn it on, and press the red button to start and stop recording. Sure, you can replay and delete saved videos, zoom in and out, that kind of thing, but you don’t need to think about those things most of the time. You can just point it at something and record without worrying about any details. It’s just a super-simple solution for making videos whenever you feel like it.

The Flip Ultra can record up to 60 minutes at 640×480 resolution. This is hardly the quality you’d expect from a traditional camcorder, like the Panasonic PV-GS 300 I’d purchased when the boy was born. But more frequently over the past months, I’d found myself reaching less and less for the camcorder and grabbing the Flip instead. It’s easier to take places, more simple to operate, and getting the video where I usually want it – on my Flickr account – is a one-step process, unlike the slow importing of tape into iMovie, editing down, exporting, etc. Worse, with the camcorder, I had to actually manage the tapes both on the Mac Pro, as well as in the real world, labeling them, filing them away, keeping track of which ones were ready to use, which were half full, considering how to group them (by month? year? topic?). The Flip just made things so easy.

Because of the Flip Ultra’s seemingly durable construction and inexpensive price tag (it only costs around $100), I’m confident enough to bring it with me just about anywhere I go, even handing it to the boy on occasion without too much concern. Much like an iPod Shuffle, it’s almost disposable … if something terrible did happen to it in the line of duty, the loss would be tolerable.

Another thing that’s great about the Flip is the way it records audio. Gruber and I have talked about this on The Talk Show, but to summarize, the Flip seems to somehow be specially tuned in to the human vocal range. Dialog seems to pop out over background noise in a pleasing way, and there’s virtually no bleed-through of environmental noise such as wind or water.

The video quality is decent. It’s great for getting a point across visually: “Hey look family members, the boy can pull himself up and cruise along the sofa!” It looks fine in a window on your computer. It uploads and plays perfectly on Flickr. It looks great on an old TV, if you can find one. But on a high definition television, even to somebody like me who isn’t that particular about TV resolution (I think upscaled DVD’s look awesome in HD), it’s far from ideal.

And the Flip Ultra takes batteries. Regular AA batteries you can find anywhere. They last forever, too. And did I mention that people with absolutely no technological expertise, say, the grandparents, can operate it on their first try?

The Flip Ultra vs. a Point-and-Shoot Camera

If you already have a point-and-shoot with video capabilities that you’re happy with, you probably don’t need to get a Flip (or a Zi6). But if you have a dSLR (besides the new Nikon D90 or the Canon 5D Mark II which both take video), you probably need one.

That said, the Flip Ultra seems to create better video than the point-and-shoot camera’s I’ve tried. Maybe it’s the tuned audio, the low-light capabilities, the simplicity of use, the form factor, or just the low cost (and inherent disposability) that makes me like it better.

I bought a white Flip Ultra, by the way. They’re all pretty good, but the white makes me think about Apple or Nintendo, while the black one looks just like every other handheld device.

Enter the Zi6

On paper, the Kodak Zi6 looks awesome. It records in high definition, 720p at 60 fps. It uses SD cards (which many of us already have available) and you can swap them out when you need some room – no more of the 60 minute limit like the Flip Ultra. Anybody who’s been following Kodak over recent years knows they’ve been pushing hard to get their mojo back by creating cool photography and consumer electronics products.

You can see the Kodak Zi6’s specifications here.

As much as I liked the Flip Ultra, the idea of recording in high definition and being able to expand storage would be a big win. And c’mon, just look at the Zi6’s awesome screen.

I ordered one direct from Kodak on the day they became available (this was much earlier than they became available from Amazon). Kodak shipped it the next morning, along with a commemorative Olympic pin which I didn’t want or ask for.

I received the Zi6 a day later and unpacked it. The Zi6 is an incredibly well built, solid hunk of technology. It’s noticeably heavier than a Flip, and you can really feel the weight in your pocket. In every way that the Flip almost feels cheap, the Zi6 almost feels expensive. It has a grippy, rubberized body, compared with the Flip’s smooth plastic shell. It has a little toggle-style stick for interacting with the menus, the kind you used to find on cell-phones before the iPhone came around. There are menus to interact with, and settings to select. There are a few buttons on the right and left of the little toggle-style stick which allow you to control things like playback.

I charged it up and popped in an 8GB SDHC card, and started experimenting. To start and stop recording, you press down on the little toggle-style stick to record. Doing this feels clumsy and sometimes you wind up pushing the toggle-style stick in a direction you didn’t intend to. But that’s all OK, because the view screen is so fantastic. It’s big and bright, but despite that, the Zi6 has a pretty solid battery life. Nothing like the Flip Ultra’s battery performance, but not bad.

You connect the Zi6 to your computer the same way you connect a Flip to your computer: a little arm with a USB port on the end of it pops open and swings out. Whereas the Flip’s USB-arm really pops out as if it were spring loaded (it probably is), the Zi6’s arm operates a bit more smoothly. Once connected, just like a Flip, you can browse the device’s media files and copy them to your computer for storage, review, and editing.

This is when I watched the videos I’d recorded.

This is also when I repackaged the Zi6 and sent it back to Kodak.

I sent the commemorative pin back, too.

Gone Daddy Gone

After I tweeted that I’d sent the Zi6 back, a nice woman from Kodak, Jennifer, emailed to ask me why. Another few points scored for Kodak … they get Twitter. Even so, there were a number of reasons as to why the Zi6 wasn’t right for me – at least not yet.

In perfect conditions, the Zi6 is capable of capturing great quality video. But there were just too many situations where getting good, or even acceptable video was impossible.

  1. The Zi6’s low light performance wasn’t great. OK, to be honest, it was piss-poor. The quality took a nose dive unless you had really bright lighting – like outside at noon. Indoors, even in our sunlit family room, the end result would be dark, dim, almost pixellated.
  2. Video stability was another big issue. If your hands shake a little, say you’ve had a cup of coffee earlier in the week, that will translate to the video. Unless done very slowly, if you pan the camera left or right, the video will blur and pixellate (there’s probably a fancy term for this, let me know in the comments if you can).
  3. Audio quality, especially outdoors, wasn’t so good. The Zi6 seems to pick up a much wider range of audio than the Flip. You might think that this is a good thing, but when making videos of people, it’s not. With any kind of background or environmental noise, people’s voices seem drowned out, the ambient noise overpowering the dialog. If there was even a little bit of wind, it would be picked up and obscure the dialog, too. If you’ve ever talked with somebody on a cell phone in the wind, you know exactly the kind of thing I’m talking about.

I’m sorry that I didn’t post any of the video from the Zi6 because to be honest, I really just wasn’t that happy with what I’d taken. At the time, I wasn’t planning to write this review, but looking back, I wish I’d taken some side-by-side video with the Flip and the Zi6 just for this purpose.

Final Thoughts

At the end of the day, better video under perfect conditions wasn’t as valuable to me as being able to get decent video under any conditions. Maybe if I’d never tried a Flip Ultra, I’d have fallen in love with the Zi6.

That said, I’d certainly be interested in trying out the next version (or refresh) of the Zi6. I still think it has the potential to be a great product and unless Flip continues to innovate (beyond the minor tweaks in the Flip Mino), Kodak might just learn a few things and push the envelope beyond the Flip’s current reach.

More articles in the Archive →