If you ever have to review two very similar tech products--any kind of gadgets, even supercomputers--I highly recommend dragooning a pair of 11-year-olds. That's what I did on a recent Saturday when a couple of inexpensive, pocket-size HD camcorders arrived at the Quittner household.
"Want to make a movie?" I asked my daughter Clementine, giving her the sleek Flip MinoHD ($230). I tossed the slightly larger Kodak Zi6 ($180) to her best pal, Katie. "Let me know how it goes, kids." They tootled off excitedly to make a caper film, and I turned my attention to online poker. Sometimes this job is so easy, I feel like Tom Sawyer.
But as my all-in, 10-high club flush got hammered by a jack-high club flush, I fretted about how my reviewers would parse the subtle differences between the cameras. These bitty viddies aspire to be utterly simple, without the array of buttons and settings that come on higher-end models. Both produce high-definition video. Both have USB plugs that pop up at the touch of a button, switchblade-style, so you don't need a separate cord to connect them to your computer. Both have super-easy-to-use editing software (Kodak's is PC-only) that lets you snip together movies and auto-upload them to YouTube. The biggest downside: neither comes with image stabilization. At least not yet. (See the 50 best inventions of 2008.)
But the cameras are different in a few fundamental ways. The Mino has 4 GB of built-in memory--enough for about an hour of video--but it's not expandable via external memory cards. By contrast, Kodak expects you to bring your own memory card to the Zi6. (It costs about $30 for 4 GB, closing the price gap with the Mino.) To recharge the Mino's built-in battery, which lasts about two hours, you can plug the camcorder into your computer via the USB port. The Zi6 uses rechargeable AA batteries or, in a pinch, nonrechargeable ones, if they're easier to procure when you're on the road.
Although my testers were partial to the Zi6's 2.4-in. LCD screen (they deemed the Mino's 1.5-incher "small" even for 11-year-old eyes), they felt the Kodak unit was too confusing overall. They didn't understand the "extra buttons"--a teensy joystick and two buttons that allow you to record, play back and delete, as well as zoom or switch to lower, less-memory-consuming video quality. They abandoned the Kodak after half an hour or so.
After playing with both cameras myself, I concur. Neither gadget is going to shoot gorgeous cinematography, but then again, the point of these tiny camcorders is take-them-everywhere convenience. And the Mino is simpler and sleeker. If only I could play poker on it too.