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Flip a flop compared to Kodak’s new Zi8

By Hiawatha Bray
Globe Staff / August 13, 2009

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When entrepreneur George Eastman needed a name for his camera company, he came up with something short, crisp, and memorable: Kodak. When Kodak needed a name for its new pocket video camera, its marketing geniuses came up with something dreadful: the Zi8.

Happily, the name’s the only thing about it that’s lame. Flip cameras from Pure Digital taught us the joys of pocket videocams, and the company followed up with the stylish Flip MinoHD, a $180 device that shoots high-definition video. But on Sept. 1, when the Zi8 goes on sale, a lot of pocket video buffs could flip their allegiance to Kodak’s decisively superior camera.

The Flip MinoHD and its recent successor, the UltraHD, both deliver video at 720 lines of resolution, or 720p, the entry-level standard for high-def video. Kodak’s camera offers four different video modes, with a maximum resolution of 1080p, the high end of high definition. The Zi8 also features two 720p modes. One shoots video at the standard rate of 30 frames per second, while the other delivers 60 frames per second. The faster frame rate is supposed to produce sharper images of fast-moving objects.

Standard-definition video is good enough for YouTube. So the Zi8 has a standard mode, which lets you stuff a lot more video into its memory. And unlike Flip’s camcorders, the Zi8 also works as a snapshot camera, with 5-megapixel resolution.

The Zi8’s got a big, bright, LCD viewscreen, but that’s no way to view high-def video. You can easily transfer images to a computer through a pop-out USB connector which seems a little more flimsy than the switchblade-like attachment that made the Flip famous. Connecting the Zi8 to a Windows or Mac computer installs software to handle the transfer, and helps to upload videos to sites like YouTube and Facebook.

I wanted to see the results on the flat-panel TV in my living room. Kodak made it easy by giving the Zi8 an HDMI jack, which delivers a true digital signal to the set. Spread across 46 inches of Samsung, the Kodak’s images aren’t quite as good as you’d expect from a full-fledged camcorder, but they were still crisp and sharp. The frame rate gimmick works, too. I shot the bustling traffic on Tremont Street in Boston at both 30 and 60 frames per second, and the faster frame rate definitely produced better video. It looked almost as good as a similar scene shot in 1080p mode.

The Zi8 has image stabilization, like you find on bigger camcorders. It wasn’t much use when I moved around a lot, but delivered very steady images when I stood reasonably still. The camera’s software detects a face in close-up, and automatically modifies its settings to ensure the face is lighted properly. Its lens doesn’t offer true optical zoom, alas, but it has a special setting for close-up photography. The Flip offers 2X digital zoom, effectively doubling the size of images on the screen, but Kodak gives you a 4X zoom. Of course, digital zoom always degrades image quality, but at the Zi8’s highest resolution of 1080p, the damage isn’t too bad.

Pocket video gadgets have generally treated sound quality as an afterthought. Certainly the Zi8’s built-in microphone is nothing to phone home about. It delivered decent enough sound, but you could do a lot better with a good external mic. Score another point for Kodak; unlike the Flip cameras, the Zi8 has an external jack which will accept stereo microphones.

The Zi8 will go on sale next month at abut $180 at Amazon.com, roughly the same price as the Flip UltraHD. Actually, the Kodak is a bit more expensive because you have to buy your own memory. The Flip comes with eight gigabytes of built-in flash memory. With the Zi8, you’re expected to purchase SD memory cards and plug them in as needed.

Two gigabytes, enough for 20 minutes of HD shooting, costs about $5 at Amazon, while a 32-gig card, for five hours of video, sells for about $80. Yes, it’s extra cash. But you can’t add more memory to the Flip. With the Zi8, you can plug in more whenever you like; a big advantage when you’re shooting in HD.

Flip makes very good products. And now that it’s been acquired by networking giant Cisco Systems Inc., we can expect to see much better Flip cameras soon. But right now, it’s no contest. Kodak may not know how to name a video camera, but they sure know how to build one.

Hiawatha Bray can be reached at bray@globe.com.