14.0MP | 26-676mm (26X) ZOOM | $250/£250
The Kodak Z981 is the latest model in a long line of Kodak superzooms and the successor to the Z980. The new model has, as usual, a slightly higher megapixel count (14 vs 12 MP) and an increased zoom range (26x vs 24x) but has also lost the Z980's flash hotshoe. The Kodak is one of the bulkier cameras in this comparison but from a specification point of view, it doesn't offer anything out of the ordinary. However, with its additional vertical shutter button and attachable vertical hand grip it comes with two design details that are unique to a camera in this class.
- 14.0 effective Megapixels
- 26-676mm equiv lens with 26x optical zoom and 4x digital zoom
- 3.0 inch LCD with 230,000 dots resolution
- Electronic Viewfinder with 100% field of view
- 720p HD video recording
- Optical Image Stabilizer
- ISO sensitivity up to 6400 (ISO 3200 and 6400 at reduced resolution)
- 12 shooting modes, 11 Scene Modes
- Program, Shutter-Priority, Aperture-Priority and Manual Exposure Mode
- Vertical shutter button and attachable hand grip
- RAW format
The Kodak Z981 is, compared to the competition, a fairly large and heavy camera. Its bulk means that (at least from a distance) it appears more DSLR-like than some of its rivals, especially when the vertical hand grip is attached. Upon closer inspection the plastic surfaces look and feel a little cheap though. The Z981 is the only camera in this class to come with an attachable vertical grip, but it provides no additional batteries or controls, and as handgrips go it's not even very hand-shaped. You also have to remove it to change batteries and/or the memory card, so we'd classify it as an inconvenience, rather than an addition to the camera's functionality. The vertical shutter button is another unique feature, but made less useful than it could be by the fact that you have to flick a switch on the top of the camera to activate it.
The Kodak's user interface is simple but fairly efficient. In PASM modes the Info-menu allows you to change essential settings such as shutter speed, aperture, exposure compensation and ISO with the help of the very useful click-dial (turn it to move between settings, then click it to select a parameter and turn again to change it). Having said that, the dial is poorly positioned towards the back of the top plate and can be a little fiddly to operate. We also noticed that it's very easy to unintentionally turn the mode dial when switching the camera on and off, so it's worth double-checking what mode you're in before starting to use the camera. In addition to the on-screen menu you've got direct access to flash, macro and drive mode settings through buttons on the camera top.
The slightly dated looking Capture and Setup menus can be accessed through the menu button on the back of the camera but fortunately you won't need to dive in there too frequently. Just be aware that they change the content with the mode you're in (RAW mode is only available in PASM modes for instance).
Like the Fujifilm S2500HD the Kodak offers 720p video recording with monaural sound and no manual controls (no exposure compensation). However, its movies use the more advanced H.264 codec which results in much smaller file sizes without any visible loss of image quality.
Image quality and performance
The Kodak Z981 is one of the slower cameras in this group test. At 2.7 sec it takes its time to power on and while image browsing and magnification are well within acceptable limits the shot-to-shot time of 3.6 sec is the slowest of all cameras in our comparison. This is partly due to Kodak's large 14MP image files, and partly because of the camera's tendency to refocus after each shutter actuation even when the camera or subject have not moved between shots. Shot-to-shot times with flash are only marginally slower, but on the plus side the zoom is very responsive at 1.6 sec from wide-angle to full-tele (precise zooming is difficult though as the 'zoom steps' are pretty large). Browsing in review mode is quick enough but it should be mentioned that the quality of the review image is quite bad with strongly jagged diagonals and other artifacts.
At wide angle and in good light the Kodak's AF is one of the slower systems amongst our competitors at 0.5 sec. However, focusing slows down only marginally at the long end of the lens and in low light. The AF only starts to struggle once you combine very low light with very long focal lengths.
The Kodak Z981 features the nominally highest resolution in our test group but, as we've seen many times before, this does not necessarily translate into any additional image detail. In fact, the Kodak output can look a little unpleasant up close. At default settings it applies a lot of sharpening which results in some sharpening artifacts and a lot of grain, even at base sensitivity. Sharpness is generally good across the frame with only a hint of softness towards the edges at more extreme focal lengths. We did not have any problems with exposure either. The Kodak's color response is generally very pleasant as well, although we found the greens in many shots a little too strong for our taste.
At higher ISOs the Kodak is one of the poorer performers in our group test with a lot of detail blurring and subsequent sharpening. The result is in some parts so smeared and blurred that the differences between the output of the Z981 and the best in class are visible even at normal print sizes. Flash exposures are usually spot on though, and flash and ambient light are balanced nicely. We did find, however, that there's a bit more yellow in skin tones compared to the more pinkish response of most other cameras in this group test.
In its video mode the Kodak records smooth motion but the image shows relatively strong compression artifacts and also some grain, even in good light.
At currently $250 the Kodak Z981 looks like something of a bargain, giving you a nice zoom range and lots of megapixels for your money. However, a second glance at the camera (and the spec sheet) reveals that the Z981 has been designed with cost in the back of the engineers' minds. The plastic materials on the body look and feel a little cheap, the predecessor's hot shoe has been removed, there is no HDMI output (for connecting it to a HD television set) or custom white balance setting to be found on the camera and the 720p video mode does not offer any manual controls at all. Having said that the Kodak does come with a vertical shutter button and an attachable hand grip - both very unusual features in this class of camera. However, to be honest, they're as good as useless on a camera like the Z981 and the money would have been better spent on other, more essential features.
Having said that, if you simply want a lot of zoom without spending too much money and can live with the camera's feature set the Kodak might be an option. It's a little slow in operation and focusing, and its pixel-level image quality isn't very good, but it usually gets the exposure right and the base ISO image output is fine for anything but very large prints. Its user interface might not be ideal if you tend to change settings a lot but for Auto-mode shooters it'll do the job.
If the Kodak is on your shortlist you might want to have a look at the Pentax X90 as well. It's about $50 more expensive but also offers a 26x zoom and comes in a more compact package that includes HDMI, custom white balance and a slightly more flexible movie mode (including, for example exposure compensation). It doesn't have a RAW mode though. The Pentax also generally operates a little faster but image quality wise there is not a lot between these two cameras.
- We like: reliable metering, good flash exposure, big zoom range, RAW format, price
- We don't like: Slowish operation and focus, basic video mode (but H.264), inefficient image stabilization, no HDMI output, low quality review image, no custom white balance, cheap looking body materials