HD Streaming for the Masses

HD online video for the masses has arrived. The release of a new crop of inexpensive pocket HD camcorders at this year’s CES, combined with YouTube’s recent launch of 720p HD video, is about to open the floodgates of ubiquitous HD streaming.

The keys to success in this new category of camcorders are size, image quality, ease of use, and especially, price. Differentiators also include display size, storage, recording format, optics, connections, and additional features. Most of these new devices are not much bigger than a smartphone, deliver high-quality video at 720p or better, and are easier to use than a cell phone. Most significantly, competition among manufacturers has driven prices under $200.

Kodak Zi6 ($180) and Zx1 ($150)
Released in July 2008 in response to the success of Pure Digital Technologies’ $150 point-and-shoot Flip camcorder (the SD Flip hit the streets in 2007 and captured 13% of the camcorder market in its first year), the Kodak Zi6 was the first to offer affordable HD quality in a pocket-sized device. The Zi6 records H.264 MOV video at 720p (60fps for sports and other fast-motion events, 30fps to minimize file size and upload times) and in VGA. Aspect ratios are 16:9 for 720p and 4:3 for VGA.

The Zi6 sports a relatively large 2.4" LCD display, 1/4.5" 1.6 MP CMOS sensor, 4.1mm, f/2.8 lens and a 2x digital zoom. Stills are recorded at 3 MP, interpolated up from the 1.6 MP sensor. The Zi6 features a macro mode, which enables close focusing from 2" away, and slo-mo playback at ½, ¼, 1/8 and 1/16 speeds.

The Zi6 comes with 128 MB of internal memory, enough to run software and store less than a minute of the highest quality video. The good news is that an expansion slot accepts a 32GB SD card, allowing for 10 hours of 720/30p recording. The bad news is that the SD card is essentially required, and adds to the cost of the device.

Connections include a flip-out USB plug for uploading files to a PC or Mac, composite A/V out (cable included) and component HD out (cable included). The Zi6 is powered by two rechargeable AA batteries (included along with a charger), and includes Windows-only software.

Kodak’s follow-up to the Zi6, the Zx1, will be released in April 2009. The new model is 30% smaller than the Zi6 (3.2 oz without batteries compared to 3.8 oz for the Zi6), and incorporates a rugged, IP43-certified weather-resistant design. Other than adding an HDMI connector for direct connection to HDTVs (cable included), the Zx1 will offer the same sensor, optics and recording specs as the Zi6. To accommodate the smaller form factor, the Zx1’s display shrinks to a 2" LCD. More importantly, the price shrinks by $30 to compete with new entries in the field.

Flip MINO HD ($230)
Pure Digital rose to Kodak’s challenge with the release of its Flip MINO HD in November 2008. The MINO HD records H.264 MP4 video at 720/30p with a 1/4.5" CMOS sensor. With 4GB of internal memory and no expansion slot, the Mino HD is limited to recording 60 minutes of video.

The 3.3 oz MINO HD sports an f/2.4 lens with 2x digital zoom, and a 1.5" display. The Flip has no snapshot mode, but still frames can be captured from the video using the included Windows and OS X-compatible software. A flip-out USB plug and NTSC composite video connection (with cable) are included. A rechargeable internal lithium-ion battery provides two hours of use between charges. Charge time is three hours via USB and two hours via optional power adapter.

Sony MHS-CM1 ($200) and MHS-PM1 ($170) "Webbie" Cams
Having failed six months ago in its bid to purchase Pure Digital, Sony entered the fray at last week’s CES with the introduction of two new "Webbie" HD camcorders. Both models, the MHS-CM1 and the MHS-PM1, record H.264 MP4 video at 1080/30p, 720/30p or VGA, and stills at 5MP resolution.

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