While this 14-megapixel camera with a 26x zoom may be physically more imposing and marginally less portable than direct competitors such as the Pentax X90, Nikon Coolpix P100, Olympus SP-800UZ and Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ100, it's still dwarfed by the mighty Fujifilm FinePix HS10. Unfortunately for Kodak, we mean dwarfed in most senses.
Just a couple of months back, Kodak was asking what seemed like an unreasonable £400 for the camera. That meant it was competing not just against the 30x zoom HS10, one of the best cameras in its class, but also an entry-level digital SLR. Fortunately, its price tag has fallen to a more realistic £240 at the time of writing. So we can't criticise it in terms of price.
This reduced outlay also partly excuses the plasticky build quality, and the fact that the lens resembles a narrow and unsettlingly vulnerable piece of guttering when extended 64mm out from the body at the maximum zoom setting. It also feels slightly loose, and rattles around in its housing.
The camera's overall dimensions are a large but manageable 124 by 85 by 105mm. If there's one positive to be taken from the chunkier-than-average controls and grip, it's that the Z981 will appeal to the sausage-fingered.
Ease of use is one of the Z981's biggest selling points, besides its zoom. It's part of the EasyShare family, so a 'share' button for earmarking specific images for emailing or direct printing is prominently featured. We'd have preferred a dedicated video-record button in its place -- something it's easy to mistake the red button for at first glance.
Instead, recording of 720p high-definition movies commences and ends with presses of the shutter-release button. The built-in mono microphone is overly sensitive, recording operational adjustment, but we were pleased that the optical zoom remains accessible in movie mode, with the focus continually readjusting if you leave the camera on the default continuous-autofocus setting.
The Z981 feels light in the hand, in spite of a body-only weight of 520g. Added heft is provided by the four handily pre-charged NiMH AA batteries that the Z981 requires for power, inserted into the base of the handgrip. We were less than enamoured with the sliding compartment door that keeps them in place, however. It was so stiff on our sample that we had to wrestle it open and shut.
The focal range is a not insubstantial 26-676mm in 35mm terms, so, in theory, the Z981 should be equally adept at taking in panoramas as it is at pulling far-away subjects closer. We experienced the obvious effect of camera shake -- softened images -- when shooting handheld in daylight at maximum zoom, however.
Pictures are framed and viewed via a 76mm (3-inch), 230,000-dot LCD display, or an identical-resolution electronic viewfinder immediately above. A button on the back allows you to swap between them in an instant.
In the program, aperture priority, shutter priority and manual shooting modes, a toolbar of key functions appears along the bottom of the screen, including exposure and ISO settings of between 64 and 1,600. Other selections are made with a downward press of a small jog dial peeping out of the Z981's top plate. Although it's thoughtful of Kodak to provide users with this shortcut, being able to make the same choices with the larger thumb-operated control pad to the right of the display would have been more comfortable.
The camera is slower than we'd have liked when processing images. A maximum-resolution JPEG takes 5 seconds to write to an SD or SDHC memory card.
Digital SLR features
Unusually, there's a second shutter-release button at the base of the handgrip, so you can avoid stretching your fingers when turning the camera on its side to shoot portrait fashion. This is the sort of feature normally only found on higher-end professional dSLRs, which are even bulkier than the Z981. You have to flick a switch on the Z981's top plate to activate the button first, however, and, really, it's a tad unnecessary. More useful, and again dSLR-like, is the ability to shoot raw and JPEG files.
There's no dSLR-style hotshoe for attaching an external flash, however, as offered by Panasonic's FZ100 and Fujifilm's HS10. There's just a pop-up alternative, which, in fairness, is perfectly adequate for amateur snapping.
Users also have a choice of two colour modes. There's 'natural' or 'high colour', for additional visual punch. Since the former delivers images that other cameras produce when set to 'vivid', the latter results in unappealingly lurid colours that you'll immediately want to tone down in your editing software.
Just a few weeks ago, the Kodak EasyShare Z981 seemed like an over-priced lump. But, with a price drop bringing it more into line with point-and-shoot compact cameras than starter dSLRs, the Z981 now appears to offer exceptional value for money. It has to be said, though, that, if picture quality is your chief concern, it's worth spending more on any of the superzoom rivals we mentioned at the outset of this review.
Edited by Charles Kloet