We reviewed the Kodak EasyShare Max Z990's close relation, the Z981, in August 2010 and criticised it for its oversaturated images and 'plastic brick' design and build. What's changed with this hefty 30x superzoom since then? Not a lot on those two fronts, where we're sad to say that it's pretty much business as usual.
Elsewhere, though, Kodak has made some subtle but important changes to its spec. To see how this has affected its overall performance, we headed off to the woods for a day's shooting.
Let's start with the good news: the price. At £220, this is a bargain. There's no other way to describe a 30x superzoom at this price, with a 12-megapixel sensor capable of shooting 1080p video at 30fps. A lens of this specification alone, equivalent to 28-840mm, would cost 10 times the price of this whole camera if you were ever able to buy it for your dSLR.
Eagle-eyed readers will spot that at 12 megapixels the Z990 has a lower resolution than the Z981, but don't let this put you off. You won't miss those two megapixels at this level, and besides, it only brings down the maximum photo size from 4,288x3216 pixels to 4,000x3,000.
Despite this, the sensor size remains unchanged at 1/2.33 inch, allowing Kodak to enlarge each photosite, or at least position them slightly further apart, thus reducing the chance of interference and theoretically improving its low-light performance.
This slight trimming of its top resolution is compensated for by the more powerful zoom, which extends its range from 26x in the Z981 to the 30x we see here. That represents a lot of glass, but the Z990 makes short work of shifting it, going from wide angle to full telephoto and vice versa in 4 seconds, albeit while making a fair amount of noise.
Design and build quality
These good points aside, there's no getting away from the fact that where looks are concerned this camera left us somewhat cold.
There's plenty of spare plastic between the various buttons and rockers. Rounding off the handgrip would have helped, and we'd like to see some of the empty space on the back of the body, where your thumb naturally falls while shooting, used to mount an extra button giving direct access to the menus. As things stand, you get there by way of the thumb wheel and on-screen icons, which are replicated on the grainy in-eyepiece monitor.
The menus are very well thought-out and when you switch to one of the semi-manual modes, such as aperture or shutter priority, the thumbwheel both moves you through the various options, and once you're pressed it to select the one you want, scrolls through the scale for each one. It's simple and easy to use.
The Z990 is powered by four AA batteries. Kodak supplies four rechargeable cells, along with the charger to power them.
One major improvement over the Z981 became evident as soon as we started to shoot: the Z990 is much faster. We criticised the Z981 for its shot-to-shot lag, which we put at 5 seconds when saving maximum resolution JPEGs to a media card. Using a Class 10 card in these tests, which can write data at 10MB per second, we experienced shot-to-shot times on the Z990 of just 1 second when shooting in auto mode and far faster in aperture priority mode.
Kodak claims speeds of 5 or 10 frames per second in aperture or shutter priority, program or full manual modes for a maximum of five frames, but even using our Class 10 card -- the fastest you can buy -- it only managed to write four frames before filling its buffer.
Where it's not so fast is in focusing, however, and we genuinely lost what could have been the best shots of our expedition while it shuffled about with the lens. This will limit its performance for wildlife photography, which is a shame, as with such a powerful lens the Z990 ought to appeal directly to animal snappers.
Still photograph test
So, long-zoom squirrels aside, what can you expect to find once you get your pictures back home?
We performed most of our tests with the Z990 set to automatic. We also left the 'Film Effects' selection to its default, Kodacolor (other options include Ektachrome, Kodachrome, Sepia and two monochrome options: T-Max and Tri-X). As we noted in our review of the Z981, though, the results we achieved were quite saturated -- often unnaturally so. In scenes where it had to balance strongly contrasting light and shade, many of our skies were rendered close to turquoise when in reality they had been a light blue.
In the image below, the Z990 had difficulty deciding how to expose the sky, which was partially obscured by the pine foliage while the rest of the scene was more muted. The result was a bleaching of the areas of open sky and an unattractive blue tinge to the branches. This was particularly disappointing as the sky was, in fact, a clear blue, which is lost here.
Switching from automatic to the Z990's HDR mode recovered much of the colour in the sky and solved the problem of the aqua fringing as the contrast was evened out, but still the results weren't entirely realistic towards the top of the frame.
The warmer end of the spectrum -- browns, amber, yellow and red -- were very accurately reproduced, however, and the Z990 really made the most of the autumnal scenes in the forest where we did our shooting. In the image below, it has done a great job of accurately capturing the hot pink tones of these small leaves growing from the stump of a felled tree.
This was shot with a self-selected focal length of 4.9mm, roughly equivalent to 20mm on a 35mm frame. There was an excellent fall off in the focus directly behind the leaves, and a very high level of detail on their surfaces picking out not only the veins but also the texture of the flesh between them.
We noted some evidence of chromatic aberration in these tones, with the upper edge of the white cap on this mushroom, for example, demonstrating a pink and green glow.
In scenes with more even lighting, such as the reflected trees in the shot below, the results were far more balanced, with accurate light blue skies.
It performed very well in our macro tests, courtesy of its bright maximum aperture of f/2.8 allowing for a shallow depth of field and a rapid fall off in the focus drawing the eye to the subject of the shot. In the picture below, the level of detail on the teasel head can't be faulted, with both its spines and the old foliage caught within them particularly clear.
Coming indoors, we set the Z990 our usual challenge of shooting a still life scene under studio lighting and ambient light, and a third time when using the onboard flash. In every instance it pegged its sensitivity at ISO 125 and changed only the aperture and exposure time to compensate: 1/200 second at f/4 under studio lighting; 1/50 second at f/2.8 under ambient lighting and when using the flash.
Naturally this changed the depth of field when we switched off the studio lights, with the studio-lit shot showing more consistent focus from the front to the back of the frame while the ambient and flash-lit frames focused more closely on items closer to the lens -- in particular the printed text in our book.
The Z990 really came into its own in this test. In each instance, although there was some varition in the warmth of the colours produced, the shot was balanced and close to the original, with mimimal noise thanks to the conservative sensitivity.
The Z990's native video resolution is 1,920x1080 pixels, at 30 frames per second. As with our stills, colours were sometimes a little more saturated than we had expected, but the biggest problem was the very obvious noise of the zoom on the soundtrack. This was unfortunate, as it means you really need to set your zoom when you start shooting and leave it where it is until you've finished.
Apart from that, video performance was good. Colours were bright and it compensated quickly and smoothly for changes in the level of light in the scene. It also managed to quickly regain focus when we moved from wide angle to telephoto and vice versa.
It made excellent use of grey, overcast conditions to maintain bright images for a fair video performance overall.
The EasyShare Max Z990 left us feeling a little disappointed. There's much potential in these specs, but it's not fully exploited in this case. We remain concerned about the level of colour saturation at the cooler end of the spectrum and of the uneasy balance it struck between bright and dark areas in frames comprising striking contrasts. Warmer tones, however, were handled with aplomb.
Sadly, then, we can't award the Z990 a higher mark than we did the Z981: three out of five. This camera is very inexpensive -- a point that counts in its favour -- but that price is reflected in its performance in our tests, the plain body and the grainy eyepiece monitor.