Review: The Kodak Zi8 HD Video Camera

Super-Meta: digital image of a digital image of a digital image

I recently jumped into the shallow-end of the video camera market, picking up a Kodak Zi8 pocket-sized video camera. The Zi8 is similar to the flip cameras that journos were raving about a short time ago, except the Zi8 can record in full HD quality, has both macro and landscape settings, and has an external microphone jack – which is a major advantage for journalists using such a small piece of gear.

There are several reviews online that rave about the Zi8; however, my own experience with the camera has been mixed, and I’ve yet to see a review that mentions the issues I’ve come across.

For me, the biggest negative is that the Zi8 camera shoots in H264 (read: Quicktime’s .MOV format), which works seamlessly with Apple’s iMovie editing suite, but causes a complete horror show for most Windows users.

I have used Vegas Video on my PC for awhile now, but the raw files from the Zi8 wouldn’t work with Vegas unless they were format-converted first (to MP4 or AVI), and more often than not, this conversion would then cause Vegas to crash. I have heard this same story repeated online by many other Windows / Vegas users, and each has a ten-step workaround to just get the footage from their camera to work with Windows. Yikes.

This frustrating conversion-then-crash loop went on for a few weeks for me as well, but I recently switched from Sony’s Vegas to Avid’s Pinnacle software suite, and am happy to report that Pinnacle recognizes the raw files and works with .MOV files much like iMovie does – very simply and cleanly – just drag, drop and start editing.

This H264 compatibility issue is an important one for Windows users to know before they buy the Zi8: their usual editing software may not play nice with the Zi8, and they may have to deal with techno headaches to simply edit their videos.

The other important point to note is that the Zi8 ships with out-of-date firmware, and requires an upgrade to resolve tracking issues, low-light streaking, and a subtle (but bothersome) high-frequency sound in the audio recording. The firmware update is simple, but can not be done by just plugging the Zi8 into your PC – it requires a card reader (odd, given that the Zi8 has USB ports). So if your laptop does not have a built-in card reader, you’ll have to buy one to do the critical firmware upgrade and get the most out of your Zi8.

Having switched editing software, and upgraded the firmware, I was finally able to test the Zi8′s capabilities.

The footage is pretty impressive for a pocket-camera (and a budget one, at that). From the recommended distances, the image quality is sharp and the audio from the built-in mic is passable for web broadcast. The Zi8 only offers a 4x digital zoom, and the quality drops off noticeably with each interval. Also, like all pocket video-cameras, the low-light functionality is a little grainy.

One disadvantage of the Zi8, is that while there is an external microphone jack, there is no accompanying headphone jack on the unit. This means that audio levels have to be monitored via a little bar-chart indicator, or upon playback through the Zi8′s tiny speaker. Neither is ideal for checking levels, especially given that the Zi8′s microphone input is particularly “hot” and requires external mics to be carefully adjusted to find a balance between frequency response and outright digital clipping. So that’s a challenge for journos and media junkies alike, but with trial and error, good results can be captured.

Here are two videos I did to show the “macro” and “landscape” settings on the Zi8:

Macro Setting:

Kodak Zi8 Test: Macro Setting from scott w. gray on Vimeo.

Landscape Setting:

Kodak Zi8 Test: Landscape Setting from scott w. gray on Vimeo.

The Zi8 is pretty inexpensive – about $200 Canadian – and can shoot in full HD (720p, 720p/60 fps, and 1080p), and offers both a “macro” setting for close-up and arty filming, and a “landscape” setting that uses its fixed-focus lens. Coupled with the external mic jack and the high-quality footage, in the right hands it can be an attractive prosumer-level device.

I think as more people experiment with the unit, and work out DIY microphone rigs or DIY lens conversions, the results will improve and we’ll begin seeing some very cool multimedia pieces created with the Zi8. The price point and feature set is perfect for most citizen / freelance journos and cash-strapped media outlets to test drive the unit and see how it performs in a variety of settings.

PROS:
Inexpensive, small footprint, two lens settings, HD-quality, external microphone jack, image stabilization, face-recognition, pretty slick technology.

CONS:
H264 format problematic for Windows users, no headphone jack, firmware updates require card reader, less-than-ideal zoom & low-light features.

Final Analysis:
Ultimately, I would recommend the Kodak Zi8 for guerrilla multimedia journalists and / or digital storytellers because of its ease of use and image quality. There are a few hurdles to jump through to get your footage to an upload-ready state, but avoiding the format-conversion carousel and testing out the unit’s limitations can help you capture the events you want, cleanly and easily.

Recommended by Fauna Corporation!

12 comments

  1. steve garfield

    Excellent review. Did you try the included Windows editing software? I used ot for a simple assemble edit, adding clips together on the timeline, and it worked fine. As a Mac user I haven’t had any issues using iMovie 09 with videos from the Zi8.

    I agree with you that on the next version I’d love to get a headphone jack on there.

  2. admin

    Thanks Steve, I did use the ArcSoft app that comes with the camera, but found it a little limited for editing. And weirdly, its conversion process made some files unreadable by Vegas and Premiere. So I didn’t want to mess around with it too much for fear of what it may do!

    I appreciate your comment, and your excellent vids on this product. Thanks!

  3. greg

    thank you for this review… i bookmarked this!
    (and this is the first time i have ever replied / commented on a blog… did this message come through?

    Best

    Greg

  4. sillysillytom

    This is a fantastic article. I am experiencing all this first hand and will now likely look into a new video editing app. About ready to toss in the towel despite the fact that this is a really cool video camera. Thanks for this post. sst from vloggerheads.com

  5. Alan Smith

    I own the ZI8 and would agree that the .MOV files are a hassle. I would however disagree with your firmware remarks. The upgrade happens just fine by plugging the camera into the USB port on your computer. No flash card reader required.

    All in all, the camera is leaps and bounds better than the flip camera if you can edit the video.

  6. admin

    Thanks for the comment, Alan.

    For the firmware update, I used the Kodak online references to find out how to do the update.

    It may be possible to do it with just the USB port (which is awesome) but, if nothing else, that should be clearer to consumers. The info I used was here:

    http://tinyurl.com/ydh6akp

    Still – good to know that other people can get around this by using the USB port.

    Thanks again.

  7. i ate a bee

    Thanks for the terrific write-up.

    I bought a Kodak Zi8 this week, and am having a hell of a time trying to find video editing software that can handle the .mov files. Your article inspired me to try out Pinnacle Studio 12 Ultimate, which looks like a brilliant program… if only I could get it working. Unfortunately, I’m not finding it as simple as you describe – Pinnacle won’t accept the .mov file, no matter whether I drag and drop from the desktop, from a card reader, or try to import directly from the Zi8. I wonder what I’m missing? If you had any advice I would be hugely grateful!

  8. admin

    Hey there, thanks for the comment.

    I can’t really say why Pinnacle wouldn’t be working for you – it was by far the best / easiest option for me.
    You say you’ve tried importing from the Zi8, does that mean you have tried using the ArcSoft application to transfer the file from the camera to your computer? If not, I recommend that. Are you using the H264 file, or have you converted it to a .MOV?
    Failing that working, if I were you, I would just try out demos of different software until you find one that worked. As I wrote, I could not get Vegas working, but tried out a few others until Pinnacle worked for me.
    Good luck.

  9. Michele

    Very useful review, expecially for the firmware update. It’s not as simply as i thought, infact my card reader can’t manage with sdhc cards. Fortunately i found an old sd card and it worked.
    By the way i totally agree that the video editing for a window-user is so hard! The ArcSoft’s software is terrible and the others works good for the video editing but there’s always a problem when exporting…let’s try a demo of this Pinnacle…

  10. Nicolas

    I just got my Zi8 and it seems that the firmware update has already been incorporated in the new version. The sound is perfectly acceptable, if not great. Apparently, they solved that problem, too! I am a musician and recorded myself playing my fiddle. To my great surprise, the sound is free of hums, buzzes and other artifices previous owners had complained about. The zoom is a little iffy. Halfway toward tele, the light level suddenly drops and an annoying orange pixel begins to fly at random around the screen. As soon as I can find video editing software, I will post a sound and image (duh) test.

  11. admin

    Nicolas – great stuff. I’ve never heard dulcimer played with a bow before – very haunting. Reminds me a little of an Erhu. Thx for sharing.

    Regarding the firmware update, sounds like Kodak decided to update the next round of units for the consumer, but not bother fixing the zoom issues. Too bad.

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