Mostly known for cheap, easy-to-use, automatic pocket cameras, Kodak has made their first newsworthy camera in several years with the Max Z990 superzoom. With so many premium superzooms to choose from this year (from bigger brands, mostly), the Z990 usually flies under the radar in most consumer guides and photo-nerd discussions. But this bridge shooter comes with an impressive 30x zoom lens and a backside-illuminated CMOS sensor, a relatively new component for compact cameras. These new chips have boosted performance speed and low-light picture quality in many new cameras. The Z990 has some obvious shortcomings, but we were pleasantly surprised at how well it fared overall.
Body & Design
The Z990 is a bit bulky and boxy even for a superzoom. It’s still smaller than a dSLR, but at 4 inches deep, about 3.5 inches tall, and nearly 5 inches wide, it occupies much more space than zoomers like the Nikon P500 or Canon SX30 IS. The Z990 has a healthy heft, though it’s still fairly light, and covered in a rubbery grip material, so it’s easy to hand-hold. It ships with a neck strap, which is probably the best way to carry it, though it will also fit into a big purse.
The back panel looks more like a point-and-shoot than we’re used to seeing on premium superzoom cameras. The 3-inch, 460,000-pixel fixed LCD is fine, though a bit underwhelming since most of its chief competitors have tilting or articulating screens. There’s also an electronic viewfinder (EVF) above the LCD, which comes in handy out in direct sunlight, or just for folks who prefer to compose their shots at eye-level. The EVF is decent -- neither the highest nor lowest resolution we’ve seen, though it would benefit from a diopter adjustment, an eye-level sensor, and some rubber padding
A column of buttons sits to the right of the LCD. It looks sort of like the layout that might be on a higher-end superzoom or even dSLR, though these buttons control common functions like menu access, flash settings, and deleting shots, rather than more advanced settings. The rest of the back panel is pretty sparse, featuring a four-way pad, a playback access key, and Kodak’s famous red Share button in the bottom right corner. The empty space above the four-way pad is a good spot to rest a thumb during shooting. The back also sports an EVF/LCD toggle, a dedicated video-record button, and a tiny jog dial.
Up top, the shutter-and-zoom-tilter combo is angled comfortably down and away from the user. The power lever sits behind the shutter, and hotkeys for burst settings, focal mode, and the timer are behind that. The big and comfy mode dial sits nestled against the crest where the EVF and flip-up flash are located. There’s no physical release for the flash, so users have to force the flash with the dedicated hotkey to raise it.
The front panel is, predictably, dominated by the beefy 28-840mm (30x zoom) lens. Powered up, the lens barely extends from its casing. Even at the telephoto setting, it only juts about an extra inch and a half from the main barrel. There’s a small LED lamp tucked up near the mode dial, and of course a large right-hand grip, formed by the battery cavity.
For a trained superzoom aficionado, the Z990’s body gives off a half-finished vibe, like it was designed in a hurry just to get a big-zooming camera on the market to compete with other companies’ flagships. All the pieces are in place, but the total package lacks the refinement that most of its competitors exude.
Performance & User Experience
The Z990’s bourgeois appearance suggests plodding performance, but it’s what inside that counts. Like most of the flagship, big-zooming cameras out there this year, the Z990 is built around a backside-illuminated CMOS sensor. These new chips increase performance speed compared to their predecessors (and boost low-light picture quality too, which we’ll cover in the next section). The Z990 is on the slow side for a premium superzoom, but it’s fast enough that most users shouldn't feel hindered by its limitations.
Startup takes a beat longer than it should -- over two seconds -- but from there, it’s fairly smooth shooting. Autofocus in good lighting conditions usually took a shade under a half-second, which is solid, though the speed decreased a bit as the light dimmed and zoom extended, as we’d expect. (It’s also worth noting that it often had a difficult time figuring out when it should switch to macro mode. Close-up objects confuse the Z990.) The zoom moves throughout its range very quickly, too. Shot-to-shot times are a non-issue, cranking out more than a shot per second even in single shot mode.
Burst mode is a bit disappointing, however. In continuous drive (known here as Endless Burst), it squeezed out about 1.5 shots per second, despite Kodak's claims of quicker performance. In the actual burst mode, which is advertised to shoot 5.6 frames per second for 6 frames, we could only ever squeeze out four shots at a time. There are 10fps and 60fps modes, though the trade-off is significantly lower resolution. These are solid numbers for a digital camera, especially compared to models from just a year or two ago, but the Z990 doesn’t quite stack up to the current genre leaders.
While speed and autofocus performance lean toward the positive end of the spectrum, the overall user experience is a mixed bag, mostly due to the clunky interface and button layout. It’s fine for completely automatic operation -- just set it and forget it. But any kind of hands-on tinkering is a hassle due to the muddled on-screen text and brainless interface design choices. A few examples:
- When Quick Menu options are split between pages (usually when there are too many options to fit on one screen), users have to scroll to the “next” button and then press OK. That’s clunky, not "Quick." Pretty much any other camera just lets users scroll freely among all the options, even when they don't all fit.
- There’s no dedicated menu button. Users have to navigate through the quick menu, and select the “settings” option to access the non-shooting camera adjustments.
- The OK button doubles as a playback toggle, rather than a Quick Menu toggle, as it is on most other cameras.
- In scene mode, if a user decides that he wants to switch from, say, Panorama Assist to Night Shot, he has to switch the mode dial out of SCN, then back to SCN, where he’ll then see a prompt.
- This one is particularly irritating for manual shooters: If a user selects a shutter speed, for example, then decides it’s too fast or slow, he’ll have to first navigate to the shutter speed option in the quick menu, then scroll through the entire range of shutter speeds again, starting from the end. First of all, the jog dial should just be tied to the shutter speed in this case -- no extra OK button presses needed. Second, it makes absolutely no sense to force the user to start from the beginning of the range.
The interface is chock full of small, irritating oversights like these. Taken as a whole, it makes for a subpar user experience. In short, the Z990 does work as a manual camera, just not very well.
It's a shame, because the range of built-in manual control is great. It has the expected PASM modes, as well as in-camera color, contrast, and sharpness adjustments, plus RAW capture mode. Very impressive, as some of its competitors don't allow these adjustments. RAW capture is too slow to be useful for just shooting around, but it is available for users who have lots of patience, or just want to brag about their camera's specs.
The Z990 also comes with a few classic Kodak film-effect filters (with their own dedicated hot key) and some trendy shooting modes, including sweep panorama and in-camera HDR (high dynamic range) stacking. The sweep panorama is a simple press-and-rotate system, though it doesn’t work as well as the systems we’ve seen in Sony, Nikon, and Casio cameras. HDR mode takes three or more shots in rapid succession, each exposed slightly differently, and combines them into a well-balanced shot. But unlike every other camera with an HDR mode, it won’t save the shots that it deems too blurry (mostly likely because of shaky hands between exposures). It does help to keep the bad images off your memory card, but it also let the user have any input about what’s acceptable or not, so it’s all in the hands of the Z990 (shooting on a tripod is a sure-fire way to get a clear shot every time).
The Z990 ships with four rechargeable AA NiMH batteries, which is a great compromise. Cameras that run on AA batteries usually get criticized for shifting the cost of batteries to the user, while cameras with lithium-ion packs get railed because users will have to stop by an outlet every few hundred pictures. Kodak’s system is the best of both worlds. The downside is that the included batteries take a long time to charge. We let them juice up overnight on the first cycle, and they charged completely, but on the second charge, they still weren’t full after seven hours in the outlet. Inconvenient, though workable.
Image & Video Quality
The Kodak Z990 takes some nice shots, all things considered. It churned out clear, vibrant, well-exposed pictures with almost no fuss and in a variety of settings. We had modest expectations before we began testing, based on our experience with previous Kodak long-zoomers. But in this case, we’re happy to eat some crow and admit that our predictions were off the mark. The Z990's pictures aren’t the best we’ve seen from a superzoom this year, but they are competitive.
Daylight pictures are generally very good. Colors lean toward the saturated side of the scale, especially reds, which can be so over-saturated that detail gets lost (on the plus side, the fire-engine shade is quite striking). Sometimes the brightest areas in a shot look blown-out and over-exposed, but that’s a problem with any compact camera, and is only a problem when there are a fair amount of shadows in the frame. We noticed very little green and purple fringing even in high-contrast areas (tree branches or edges of buildings), which is great.
Indoor and night-time shows are of course more challenging, but still decent. The Z990 tends to over-expose indoor shots. It ramps up the ISO to a medium-high setting -- in the ballpark of 800 -- and holds the shutter open for longer than other cameras might. The results are a bit fuzzy from camera shake and a bit noisy from the boosted ISO setting, but pleasing to the average casual photographer. The downside is that despite the relatively quick shot-to-shot times, the Z990 isn’t great for indoor action shots, like kids being kids or athletes playing in a rink or gymnasium, for example. It’ll capture some nice shots here and there, but most will have at least some sort of blur.
Results are pretty consistent throughout the zoom range, though the going gets kind of tough at the longer end. We noticed almost no distortion at the wide angle or telephoto settings, which is a good thing. The image stabilization did show its limits as the focal distance increased, however. More shots came out blurry and out-of-focus. Autofocus was very problematic at the absolute telephoto setting, always focusing on the background. (Indoor telephoto action shots are especially inconsistent, on that note.)
The Z990’s sensor isn’t the best we’ve seen this year, but it does offer the high-ISO performance boost we've seen from other BSI CMOS-backed cameras. Shots at ISO 125 and 200 look great, if maybe a teensy, tiny bit soft. ISO 400 starts to show a little bit of grainy noise, and that increases at ISO 800. ISO 1600 shows a noticeable drop-off, especially in the shadowy parts of the frame. Colors also desaturate a little bit. Shots are usable in a pinch, viewed on a screen or at medium or smaller prints. ISO 3200 gets mushier, and ISO 6400 is pretty worthless, smearing away all details and sucking the life out of colors.
So the Z990 has some image quality problems, but it’s nothing out of the ordinary for a camera in this class. Overall, it’s competitive with some of the much more expensive CMOS-based superzooms in the class, so we’re pretty pleased with the results, and most potential buyers probably will be, too.
Video mode is respectable. It shoots full 1080p HD video at 30fps in h.264 MPEG format. The results look very good for simple shooting -- at a wide angle on a fixed or moderately slow-moving subject. Long-zoom videos are not wise without a tripod, since the optical zoom is only marginally effective at that range. Nobody's hands are steady enough to keep a telephoto video looking smooth. The Z990 supports optical zoom during shooting, and then lens does extend and retract faster than on most cameras in video mode. Autofocus slows to a crawl in video mode, but just bear in mind that this is a still camera that happens to shoot high-res video.
It’s tempting to call the Z990 the most expensive budget superzoom out there, but that’s inaccurate. It's really the most affordable premium superzoom, and that's a good thing. The CMOS sensor (and resulting performance and image-quality boost) bump it up into the higher tier. It doesn’t quite measure up to any of its competitors -- the Nikon P500, Panasonic FZ100, Sony HX100V, Fujifilm HS20EXR, or Canon SX30 IS -- but it comes close enough, and costs a heck of a lot less than any of them.
We’ve read a ton of positive user reviews for this camera. Those reviews tend to praise the Z990 for characteristics that we take for granted on any other superzoom: It has an electronic viewfinder for when it’s sunny out! It has automatic AND manual control! The zoom stretches so far! Yes, but those are characteristics of any premium superzoom. Knowing what the competition is capable of, we can’t rate this one as high. The body is unrefined, the user experience is hampered by an interface too stripped down to work well, and...well, other than that, it’s pretty good. It’s still tough for us to recommend it over our genre favorites, but if you really want to save a few bucks, or you’re just a Kodak loyalist with your heart set on this model (it’s made in China, not the USA...just sayin’) then it’s a pretty good choice.