Kodak PlaySport Zx3 camcorder review

3.5 out of 5
£129.99

For

Cool design, lightweight and compact, HDMI connectivity offered alongside AV and USB out, Memory expandable via (optional) SD or SDHC cards

Against

Mono microphone and speaker – picks up wind noise, no convenient flip out USB arm offered as on direct competitors, tiny lens means this is better for outdoor use

Digital camcorders recording to solid-state media, which has enabled them to shrink to a size similar to your phone handset, may be all the rage, but this one is a little different.

Pitched at extreme sports enthusiasts, but more likely to be used by those who enjoy a bit of splashing about by the pool, Kodak's PlaySport Zx3 resembles the offspring of the ridiculously pimped-up Wasp T12 phone from Chris Morris and Charlie Brooker's coruscating sitcom Nathan Barley. The dimensions are mostly typical, approximately weighing 128g, and measuring 58 x 112 x 20mm.

The Zx3's control buttons, splayed out like fingers from a central directional control pad - or "palm" - plus droplet-displaying cover sticker couldn't proclaim their "yoof" orientation more loudly than if they'd donned multi-coloured leggings and auditioned for the latest series of Skins.

This adolescent baiting is continued through the manufacturer's description of the three different colour faceplate choices as Abyss (black), Wave Crash (Blue) and Adrenaline Rush (Purple). It also, of course, looks a little bit like an iPod, by law a blueprint for every designer of palm-sized video devices. So by osmosis the PlaySport comes across as a pretty cool piece of kit from the outset. It also feels reassuringly robust and solid when gripped despite the largely plastic construction and cheap-ish asking price.

By virtue of its function buttons being illustrated with cartoon-ish icons, which extends to the on-screen settings menu, the Zx3 also suggests itself as easy to use. The device powers up in a couple of seconds with a press of the small power button at its top right edge, the adequate sized 2-inch screen fading up from black.

Video recording - up to a full high definition 1080p at a smooth 30 frames per second, yet with mono sound - is a one-touch operation. Press the large (yet perversely unmarked) white button at the centre of the directional control pad to commence recording. The fact that the device fits so snugly inside an adult palm - with lightly rubberised surface at the front and ridged edges at each side further aiding grip - ensures it won't go flying through the air unintentionally should you want to take it on a black run, cycling or skateboarding.

In terms of connectivity, a USB 2.0 port and HDMI output are hidden behind a catch-protected flap at the side, moving footage or 5-megapixel stills recorded in matching 16:9 widescreen ratio onto SD or SDHC card, a 32GB variety promising 10 hours of storage - albeit if filming at lower 720p resolution. We found that on our sample when we opened this compartment to retrieve the SD card inevitably the battery would come loose too, even though supposedly held in place with its own catch. A minor irritation to be sure, but we were forever pressing the battery back into position whilst at the same time trying to take the card out.

Unusually, and very welcome, at this relatively inexpensive price point (a manufacturer's suggested £129.99) is the fact that the necessary HDMI cable comes generously bundled in the box along with standard AV and USB leads. It usually has to be bought at an additional cost with competing devices. The USB cable can also used for charging the device. Users have a choice of mains power, with Kodak providing an adapter plug for the USB lead, or the ability to hook the camera directly up to a laptop and piggyback that device's battery for charging on-the-go.

Wireless transfer would be further beneficial in making the Zx3 even more portable, so we'd like to see this incorporated on a next generation or premium Zx series model. At the same time, some form of pop-up description as the user tabs through the PlaySport's nameless (and at times not immediately identifiable) icons - presented when the settings menu button is pressed - would also extend its ease of use.

Furthermore the tiny fixed lens isn't protected by a sliding cover when not in use, meaning that it's exposed to the elements, plus, because of the location dead centre towards the top, stray fingertips can both wander into shot and leave prints on the glass. But again this is a common issue for the latest upright-design palm camcorders.

Likewise, as one might expect, while there's no optical zoom provided there is one of the 4x digital variety. Zooming in or out is controlled by pressing up or down on the four way directional pad. With practice it's possible to do this smoothly.

Since this PlaySport is designed for use as you're hurtling down a ski slope or kayaking through the rapids, some form of image stabilisation is a must. But here it's of the digital rather than mechanical variety, commonplace among budget products.

Glare might also be a problem for composing footage on the slopes or at the beach, so Kodak has thoughtfully incorporated an LCD glare shield mode to aid visibility, not that we noticed a great deal of difference. This effect doesn't transfer to the footage itself.

While the Zx3 may be fun and relatively easy to use, being a fully automatic press and record, plug and play device, maximum resolution image quality isn't all that marvellous and it would benefit from a physically larger lens. There's also the option to step down to 720p at 60fps, which puts less of a strain on the lens' resolving power. For comparison's sake we've posted samples at top resolution and this lower setting. And yes, overall there's a reasonable level of detail displayed given the budget pricing, which of course looks more impressive played back on the Zx3's small screen than it does your larger desktop monitor.

Quality unsurprisingly softens at maximum digital zoom, plus we found wind noise very audible when shooting outdoors, so some sort of directional or zoom microphone would have been beneficial. For the price though the above feels like nitpicking.

Five megapixel still photos are additionally offered, captured like video clips in letterbox format. Taking snaps is a rather crude affair, similar to taking a photo with a camera phone. Unlike dedicated stills cameras there's no way of pressing the shutter release button down halfway to determine focus and exposure off your intended subject (or point of interest) and then re-framing the shot. Here you press the record button and hear a recording of a shutter firing. It's a case of point and shoot and get what you get.

The 16:9 ratio also means that inevitably landscape images work better, rather than turning the Zx3 on its side for odd-looking letterbox portraits. The depth of field also isn't great - foreground subjects in focus but then sharpness rapidly dropping off after that. We've included the best of a bunch of our test shots to show you what the stills quality is like alongside the video. However nobody would be buying the PlaySport as a camera pure and simple so such shortcomings can equally be forgiven.

Verdict

This affordable and portable palm camcorder from Kodak strikes the right notes, but there is already fierce competition out there from other pocket offerings in the Creative Vado HD, Flip MinoHD et al. However in Kodak's favour the build quality feels better than both these competitors, and further optional accessories for going that extra mile with the inexpensive and fun Zx3 come in the shape of handlebar and helmet mounts. Don't expect too much and you won't be disappointed. Indeed the Zx3 transcended what we expected to find for its very fair price - and you can take it out in the rain too.