I've been looking for a new, inexpensive, high-quality point-and-shoot for several years -- in fact, since I found out that my Kodak Z950 had too many problems. In auto mode, it took the most colorful, highest quality pictures of any camera I own -- including my Canon Rebel DSLR -- but had a number of fatal bugs, which are discussed on my 2010 review. After a blog reader (Ralph in Connecticut) was so kind as to lend me his Kodak Z990, I decided to pick one up when Woot had them for $150 (Amazon routinely sells them for ~$160 to $180).
The camera came in a nice-enough box, and the device itself is nicely put-together. In the box was also a strap, 4 rechargeable AA batteries and a battery recharger. I got burned with my Kodak Z650 which took AA batteries, because they got expensive quick, and rechargeables didn't last very long. I'm hoping my experience with the Z990 (lithium rechargeables) is better. One of the problems is that I want to use the Z990 as a video camera too, which will mean constant recording for 10-60 minutes -- a battery drainer.
The device itself is a large-form-factor compared to the other recent Kodaks I've reviewed -- not much smaller than a DSLR, but providing 30X optical zoom by extending its lens a few inches (three times the zoom on my Z950 and practically unheard of among point-and-shoots). To get that kind of zoom on my DSLR, I'd have to lug around a huge lens, so this was important to me. It also has the SCHNEIDER-KREUZNACH lens, which I was hoping would mean I would get the sharp colors like my Z950 (turns out that wasn't the case, see quality discussion below).
The Z990 is "only" a 12 megapixel camera, but resolution doesn't matter a lot if you're not printing enormous photos, and with the 30X zoom, you get a better, higher resolution picture anyway. I decided to pit the Z990 against my other Kodaks, the Z650 and the Z583. I bought the latter recently for $80 because it was slimmer and still had 6x zoom, but I was unsatisfied with its poor quality. It wasn't as easy as I thought it would be to shoot the same exact photos with the three cameras (I used Auto mode because that's usually what I shoot in), but here's what I found.
The first thing that was obvious (and one of the reasons I got the Z990) was that the Z950 stands alone without a non-wide-angle lens. It must have been one of the last digital cameras to be produced without it. This is easy to see in the comparison below (look at the porch).
Next up is the zoom -- the Z990's 30x optical zoom wins this one hands down compared to the Z950's 10x or Z583's 6x. If you want to get up close (without dragging around a huge DSLR lens), the Z990 is the way to go.
Exposure in the Auto setting was interesting amongst the tested cameras. The Z950 always does a fairly good job of this, perhaps a little too dark or too blue, but HDR software can help that a lot. The Z990 has a tendency to overexpose cloud shots, which you can't fix, so that's an issue. To be fair, the Z583 probably did the best job of exposure, but it's not worth the overall bad quality (see comments below).
And finally, it's worth asking: What's the quality / amount of noise at the same zoom setting? One of the Z950's big advantages (to me) was that it didn't have the typical pixelated digital noise pattern that you see on digital point-and-shoots. It has instead a softer, more random effect. The only problem with that is that it can mute detail. The Z990, although noisy, clearly brings out much more detail (see the bricks at the bottom) and the Z583 is just terrible.
One of the reasons I wanted the Z990 was that it does full-HD video (1920x1080 resolution) in a more efficient format (MP4) than the Z950. To be able to get a high-quality point-and-shoot that does HD video for under $200 is pretty much unheard of. I was never satisfied with the Z950's 720 HD videos, and the Z990's videos are better quality, but neither approach the quality of my old Z650's videos (albeit at a mere 640x480). An example video is shown below. Watch in full quality (1080) on YouTube, or download the file.
Using the zoom in the HD videos is fun and shows a good demonstration of the 30x. Ironically, the 1920x1080 videos from the Z990 are so memory-intensive that I can't process them with Camtasia Studio on my new i7 laptop, but I think that's mostly a software issue.
I don't have a color comparison handy, but from my experience using the Z950 and the Z990, I can say that the colors are not as bright in the newer model, which means that I may never find that clarity again in a point-and-shoot. I'll try to do a comparison soon and add it here.
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