Hot on the waterproof heels of the recently released PlaySport comes Kodak's latest pocket video camera, the PlayTouch. No prizes for guessing what the device's defining feature is, but we'll give you a hint: the clue's not in the 'Play' bit.
Like many similar devices, the PlayTouch is a small, upright camcorder that offers simple operation and HD video-recording as well as still photo capture. It's one of the few cameras of its type to include touchscreen control. But at nearly £200, it's significantly less easy on the pocket compared to its peers.
Death in the family
They may have finally killed off Kodachrome film, but so far we've been enjoying Kodak's foray into the world of digital video cameras. Both the PlaySport and the Zi8 scored well with us for their ease of use and generally high standard of image quality compared to many other models in the same area of the budget spectrum. Despite our morbid phobia of poorly implemented touchscreen control systems, we had high hopes for the PlayTouch.
We were encouraged by the abundance of accessories that greeted us when we first opened the box. UK and European power adaptors are both included, as is a standard AV cable and -- lo and behold -- an HDMI cable. We're not suggesting you rush out and buy a PlayTouch based purely on the fact that it comes with an HD-ready cable, but we do commend Kodak for providing one when most manufacturers still stubbornly refuse.
The camera itself is nothing if not bland to look at. A plain metallic frontage and an equally plain black backing aren't particularly distasteful, but they don't exactly scream 'quality', either. Not even garish colours (our review unit came in orange -- teal blue, chrome and black are also available) can cheer up the device's uninspired design. At least all the connectors -- including a built-in USB terminal -- are tucked away neatly under rubber covers.
Your next disappointment is likely to greet you as soon as you switch the unit on. Sadly, the large 3-inch display on the unit's rear doesn't display a full preview during filming. This is because most of the screen is permanently taken up by touch-sensitive function buttons -- te preview of what you're filming only fills a narrow strip in the middle. The touch buttons are certainly large and easy to use, but surely it would have been better to somehow integrate the controls into a larger preview.
Facts and figures
In terms of raw numbers, the PlayTouch can record video in four modes: 1080p at 30 frames per second (fps), 720p at 60fps, 720p at 30fps and 480p (standard definition) at 30fps. Video files are saved in a non-AVCHD MPEG-4 format to SD/SDHC cards. The PlayTouch has 128MB of its own on-board memory, but most of that is reserved for its internal software. There's no optical zoom, just a fixed-focus lens with 4x digital magnification and an electronic image stabiliser. Still photos can be snapped at resolutions of up to 5 megapixels.
To get the best results from the PlayTouch, you'll definitely need to set it to 1080p. We've often found with pocket video cameras that it's worth giving the 720p mode a go if it's available. Here, for instance, one of the two available 720p modes offers an increased frame rate of 60fps -- ideal, potentially, for fast-moving shots, such as sporting events. Switch to either 720p setting, however, and we guarantee you'll never want to use it again. Image quality takes quite a drastic nose dive. In our 720p test shots, colours looked sadly depleted, with a strange crystalline shimmer around the edges of contrasting objects. Not only that, but motion also has a horrid twitchy quality to it, while compression artefacts are clearly visible throughout.
At the top video setting, things are much improved, with truer colour reproduction, higher detail and sharper edges. In saying that, the 1080p mode introduces its own picture issues. For example, we experienced some quite drastic skew and wobble, often associated with the rolling shutter phenomenon that's known to plague many digital video devices. There are also some quite severe motion issues to contend with. These are more noticeable in some types of situation than others. One of our test shots involved panning relatively slowly across a wooded area. The upright vertical lines of the tree trunks seemed to play merry havoc with the PlayTouch, with the footage coming out as one big greenish-brown blur when we watched it back.
If these were the PlayTouch's only failings, we might have been willing to offset them against the device's low-ish price and ease of use. Unfortunately, the PlayTouch gets further black marks next to its name for its audio quality. The camera's microphone only records monaural sound, which means audio is not much better than that you'd get from a digital still camera's video mode.
On the plus side, photo quality is fairly good. The aspect ratio is locked to widescreen, and there's not much you can do in terms of experimenting, but for casual snaps, still picture quality is fine. Additionally, the touchscreen control system is extremely easy to use. At least it is most of the time. On at least two occasions during our tests, we found the touch sensitivity locked up and required a reboot. Perhaps this fault was specific to our review unit, but it doesn't exactly fill us with confidence. The PlayTouch comes with some useful built-in editing and sharing software, and there are some fun effects that can be applied to your footage as you film, but these are hardly reason to buy the device.
All in all, we find it very hard to justify the Kodak PlayTouch's extra cost compared to the company's own PlaySport. Okay, so touch-sensitive controls are all the rage, but £85 is a helluva lot to pay for the privilege, especially when video quality isn't as good.
Edited by Emma Bayly