Thursday, January 13, 2011
Reflections on the Kodak PlaySport Zx3 HD Waterproof Video Camera
I've been using the Kodak Playsport video camera for about a year, for recording my fun kayak fishing videos which nobody really watches but me :) Helps me re-live the thrilling moments of big hookups!
I give the Playsport one thumb up, and the other thumb sort of halfway up...like, imagine my thumb even with the horizon. It's durable, records fairly good quality video, has decent battery life, and is great value for the price ($119 at the time of writing). True to it's name, it actually is built for sports use. It does, however, have some small drawbacks which have frustrated me at times. But again, given the price, I shouldn't have a complaint in the world!
I really like the shape and layout of the device. The vertical orientation of the camera fits well in your hand and makes it easy to operate with one hand, which is important for action video. Oftentimes you don't have both hands free to fiddle with a device. This is an advantage over the compact horizontal layout of a traditional digital camera (somewhat competitive with this device because many now do video, and also, the PlaySport takes stills), which are really designed for two-hand usage. The sides and back of the PlaySport have a tacky rubber coating which helps with grip when the device is wet - nice when you're out on the water. This rubber coating also helps absorb shocks if the camera is dropped.
The PlaySport is very easy to operate. Just hit the power button on the side, and then the giant button in the middle to start/stop recording. The display is big and bright and has very impressive color and definition. There are just a few other simple, pretty self-explanatory buttons, "playback", "settings" and "delete". You can zoom in an out using the arrow buttons surrounding the main start/stop button. I applaud the simplicity!
One of the best things about this camera is its durability. I've had it in some rough situations, and have pretty much smacked the crap out of it. And it takes it like a champ! Saltwater is brutual, but I've had zero issues with the PlaySport and corrosion. Granted, I do give it a cursory rinse-off almost always after each use (it's very nice to be able to rinse off your camera and not worry about ruining it). But even when I haven't, it's just fine.
Video and Audio
Kodak says the PlaySport HD. I am not exactly sure what qualifies as "HD" (certain number of pixels maybe? widescreen?), but I will say that picture quality is surprisingly good for a small, cheap handheld device. It doesn't handle extremely contrast-y situations that well - for example, a frame with both sun and shade in it - but that's to be expected from a camera at this price point. Only thing you really have to watch out for is back-lit situations. When the sun is behind you, you're just a dark silhouette. But this is a general photography issue, not really an issue with the PlaySport itself. The camera does not do well in low-light situations. But around sunset, this can actually be an advantage. Those lower-light images are very rich and saturated. But at night (like around streetlights)...no way.
The audio is one of the camera's weaknesses. It's passable at best. It's WAY too wind noise-prone. Even the smallest breeze sounds like a hurricane in the recording. I've been meaning to see if I can affix a small windscreen over the mic to try to reduce this. Since I yakfish in windy places, I actually came up with another solution. I got a cheapo lapel mic with a foam windscreen at radio shack, plugged it into an mp3 recorder, and just let it roll the entire time (doesn't need a battery change). This creates a good-sounding, wind-free audio track. Now you can clearly hear me shout "FISH ON"! There's an extra layer of complexity having to sync the audio and video tracks in the editing software, but if you clap a few times when you start a new video clip (after, say, a battery change) it's relatively easy Just sync the external audio track to the on-camera audio track in the timeline, then mute the on-camera track.
In non-windy situations, the mic is fine. But even then the audio seems a little distant.
The PlaySport comes with 128MB internal memory - only enough for about 20 minutes of recording. Get a SD or SDHC card (preferably the latter). I got a cheap 32BG SDHC card and can get about 8h45m of recording time. More than enough for the average day on the water. One thing I noticed is that the PlaySport breaks up long video files into 3.67GB chunks, I am not sure if that's a limitation of the camera, the SDHC card or the .MOV format it records with. This is not a huge deal though, because the files end up getting chopped up during editing anyway.
The camera comes with one Kodak KLIC-7004 lithium ion battery. At full charge (assuming at least an 8GB SD card), the battery will last for approximately 1h40m. This is a pretty decent amount of time for users like me, who keep the camera rolling to capture action that could happen at any time. But to capture a full day of fishing I need several batteries. Problem! The manufacturer's KLIC-7004 batteries are about $30 a pop, which is darn pricey. So I ended up getting a whole bunch
of these aftermarket KLIC-7004 Li-ion batteries for cheap and they work just as well as the Kodak ones. And wow, the price sure is right. While you're there, pick up one of the KLIC-7004 wall chargers for virtually nothing, the PlaySport does not come with one (charges only with camera cord).
So I keep five or six fully-charged batteries in a small, watertight case near where the camera is mounted on my kayak. A nice feature of the PlaySport is that it makes an audible beep when the battery is about to die. When I hear that, I know to switch out the battery. VERY handy, because you want that camera rolling as much as possible. This has happened when I've had a fish on...but what can ya do. The PlaySport also has a small red light near the lens the blinks on and off when the camera is recording. It's good to check every now and then just to make sure you're rolling, because if you're in a noisy environment you may not hear the "low battery" beep.
Mounting and Usage
I mount the PlaySport on my kayak with an XShot telescoping mount with kayak adapter. This allows me to set the camera to record, extend the mount out as far as it can go, and then push it down towards the front of the boat (pointing back at me...what can I say, I'm a narcissist). This way, I get video of the fish fight and (hopefully) the landing. I also generally use video stills as pictures rather than stopping the recording and taking a still shot with the remote. It's nice to just be able to "set it and forget it", concentrate on fishing, and be confident that your fight to the death with a massive lunker will be caught on video.
This isn't a review of the XShot mount, but I'll throw my 2 cents in about it...it's a very nice idea, but not great quality, and definitely not good value. The cost of the XShot with the kayak adapter is about $56 which is WAY too high. There's alot of metal so it's prone to saltwater corrosion and the telescoping part gets gummed up pretty easily. You have to take extra special care of it after each use, which is a pain. The mount itself (part that joins to the camera) is the standard screw-in type, and it almost immediately stripped out the threads on the PlaySport (I am not sure if this is a Kodak quality issue or an XShot, but I am guessing the latter). So I've had to zip-tie the camera to the mount. It works, I just can't use the mount for any other camera - or use the camera without the mount - without having to cut the zip-ties. And the whole setup is less portable with the camera always attached to it. Lame, but it gets the job done. If anyone out there has a better boat camera mount solution than the XShot, let me know!
When I hear the "low battery" beep, I lean forward, loosen the kayak ball-mount at the base of the XShot (just a little), swing the telecoping arm around towards me (while still attached to the ball so it doesn't drop in the water), switch out the battery, hit record, swing it back, and tighten the mount. Takes about 30 seconds.
There is an optional remote control available for the PlaySport. I do use this from time to time. It allows you to start and stop the recording without having to handle the camera. But even better, you can use it to snap the shutter for still pictures. For a fisherman, this is by far it's biggest advantage. There is one huge disadvantage though...you cannot use the remote to control the power. The camera will power off after a few minutes of inactivity (recording is considered activity). But you can't use the remote to power it back on! You actually have to stop what you're doing, and power it up on the device itself. A real pain if the camera is on a mount far from you. I really, really wish they could fix this. If you can power up a TV with a remote, the technology obviously exists!
I do have some small beefs with the camera. One is that the display doesn't auto-dim after x number of minutes when recording. Think how much longer the battery would last! Perhaps 3 hours or more. Obviously this camera lends itself to use during sports (thus the name), so many people, like me, want to keep the video rolling for hours. I DO NOT NEED the display on all the time, especially if there's a way to "wake" it with a button click. Seems like it'd be easy to do, perhaps even in a firmware update. Make screen-dimming after x minutes or "never" an option in the configuration!
Also, sometimes when the battery is about to run out it doesn't leave enough juice to complete the writing of the current .MOV file, and the file gets corrupted. Same with when it runs out of memory -- it doesn't leave just a smidgeon of space to complete the writing of the file. Goodbye awesome fish video! Again it seems that a simple firmware fix could remedy this. What I've learned to do is to stop the camera after catching a big fish, and then start it again - bit of a pain, but this way I am sure my big fish video file gets saved. It is possible that using a faster SDHC card could fix the problem (particularly the low battery problem), but we're talking about bucks for those things. I'm less affected by the out-of-memory issue since I got the 32GB SDHC card. Though I keep an 8GB one handy just in case.
Couple other small things. It would be good if the camera mount threads were metal rather than plastic. It would be harder to strip out metal. Also, a small flash would be nice. Then you would be able to use it as an all-in-one picture and video device. It pretty much is already, except you can't take pictures in low-light situations. And again, it would be nice to be able to power the camera on with the remote.
Finally, after using it for several months I did notice a problem with the camera shutting off when it was bumped. After hours of frustration, I finally figured it out. It turned out that the spring-loaded contacts inside the battery compartment were losing their springy-ness. So the battery wasn't sitting solidly inside the compartment. When the camera was bumped, the battery would come off the contacts and the camera would lose power. I fixed this by rolling up a small piece of duct tape and cutting it to the length of the edge of the battery. I then stuck it to the inside of the battery door. It has the effect of keeping the battery sitting snugly inside the compartment and always on the contacts. When I open the compartment, the duct tape sticks to the inside of the door so I don't have to replace it every time I replace the battery.
There is actually nothing quite like the Kodak PlaySport (waterproof, shockproof video camera) at this price point. The Fuji XP10 (Z33WP) and the Panasonic Lumix DSC-TM2 both do video, but are geared toward still photos. JVC and GE both have sports video cameras that are shaped similarly to the PlaySport, but the battery is molded into the case. How stupid is that! There's also the GoPro, which appears to be a very good camera, but costs more. In sum, the PlaySport is a very good camera for the price...foibles and all.
Since I'm usually out there on the water alone, having this camera has allowed me to share my fishing experiences with friends and fellow kayak fisherman, as well as for me to re-live the adrenaline-coursing thrills of reeling in big fish! I certainly enjoy watching other people's fishing videos, and wish my yakfishing friends would make more. Maybe they will after reading this!